Is Miguel Sano Baseball’s Next Young Star?

Miguel Sano had an incredible half-season in 2015. Can he replicate it in 2016 and beyond?

There is a glut of young talent in the big leagues right now between guys like Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa, and Manny Machado, so it’s understandable that Miguel Sano, who didn't debut in the Majors until July, would be overlooked.

However, based on what he did in half a season last year, he shouldn’t be.

Sano made his big league debut for the Minnesota Twins on July 2nd after playing 66 games in Double-A, the highest level he reached in the minors. He went on to slash .269/.385/.530 with 18 home runs, 52 runs batted in, and 46 runs scored in 335 plate appearances in 80 games.

Those are impressive totals, but let’s see how his non-traditional stats hold up.

Sano's Advanced Stats

A great stat for determining a player’s offensive contribution is Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA). Sano’s wOBA in 2015 was .392, better than guys like Chris Davis, Jose Bautista, and Andrew McCutchen. There were only eight hitters who posted a wOBA of .392 or better last season, granted most of them had double or more the amount of plate appearances as Sano. While being a useful stat, wOBA fails to take league and park adjustments into account, so let’s check out Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) for that.

The league average for wRC+ is 100, and Harper led baseball with a 197 wRC+. This means that offensively, he was 97 percentage points better than the league average hitter. Sano posted a 151 wRC+, which despite being 46 points lower than Harper’s, still would have been the eighth best total this past season.

Looking back at Sano’s numbers in the minors, he recorded a wRC+ of greater than 151 four times across seven stints at various levels, so his production, based on wRC+, doesn’t appear to be fluky.

Rookies tend to struggle with their plate discipline once they break into the Majors. Even a prolific walker like Joey Votto saw his walk percentage drop once he was called-up, but it steadily rose as his MLB career went on. However, Sano’s walk percentage actually increased with the Twins from what it was in the minors, although it was consistently high throughout. His 15.8 percent mark this past season would have been sixth best among qualified hitters, and it was the third highest total for any rookie since 2000, putting him in rare company.

Conversely, his strikeout percentage of 35.5 percent would have easily led baseball. So while he seems to be disciplined, he does swing and miss at a high rate.

Sano's Plate Discipline

Despite swinging at just 25.8 percent of the pitches outside of the strike zone this season -- which would been the 24th lowest -- Sano did swing and miss frequently. His Swinging Strike Percentage of 15.7 would have been the sixth highest.

In other words, Sano didn’t chase bad pitches, but when he did choose to swing, he often missed completely. This helps explain his incredibly high Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP).

Sano posted a .396 BABIP, which would have been the highest total in the league this season. A high BABIP isn’t necessarily a bad thing -- the top-10 in 2015 included guys like Harper, Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, and Kris Bryant -- but it needs to be looked at in a larger context.

The league average BABIP is generally around .300, but good hitters are able to create their own “luck” by doing things like consistently making good contact. One way we can measure this is by the amount of line drives a batter hits. Sano’s line drive percentage was 24.7 percent, which would have tied for 16th highest. This means a high percentage of the contact he makes is “good” contact, leading to a higher BABIP. However, it’s important to remember that a high line drive rate doesn’t automatically mean a high BABIP.

While a regression from Sano’s .396 BABIP to closer to .300 can be expected, it doesn’t mean it has to fall all the way to league average. Sano recorded 1,892 plate appearances in the minors, and his career BABIP was .332 and only fell below .307 once. This data suggests that since he’s had a high BABIP throughout his career, it could continue to carry over to the big leagues as well.

How Does Sano Compare to Similar Players?

In order to put Sano’s season in context, we need to compare it to guys who play the same position.

Sano spent the vast majority of his time with the Twins as their designated hitter, and below is a chart comparing him to 2015’s four best designated hitters based on their wRC+.

Miguel Sano 335 .269 .385 .530 15.8 35.5 .396 .392 151
Nelson Cruz 655 .302 .369 .566 9.0 25.0 .350 .396 158
Edwin Encarnacion 624 .277 .372 .557 12.3 15.7 .267 .392 150
David Ortiz 614 .273 .360 .553 12.5 15.5 .264 .379 138
Kendrys Morales 639 .290 .362 .485 9.1 16.1 .319 .364 131

Only Nelson Cruz had a higher wRC+ and wOBA, while Sano’s walk rate, BABIP, and on-base percentage were all the highest. He not only stacked up to his competition but was actually better in certain instances.

However, the Twins are planning on using Sano in right field next season, so there’s a different pool of players to compare him to. The aforementioned Harper and Cruz both top Sano’s numbers, but beyond them, Sano’s numbers rank within the top five of baseball’s best right fielders.

Steamer projects Sano to hit 31 home runs and post a .362 wOBA and a 130 wRC+ in 2016. These numbers aren’t as eye-popping as his rookie stats, but they would easily place him among baseball’s top 10 right fielders, as well as within baseball’s top 30 overall hitters.

It’s difficult to base future production on just 335 plate appearances, but it’s a large enough sample size to consider the trends, and Sano has some positive signs going for him. 

Steamer is projecting a regression, but that would still make Sano one of baseball’s top hitters. It’s impossible to predict how playing the field everyday will affect his production at the plate, but I’m optimistic Sano will be able to build off his impressive rookie year. Cautiously optimistic.