Why Miguel Sano Is MLB's Next Great Superstar Third Baseman

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Why Miguel Sano Is MLB's Next Great Superstar Third Baseman
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Giancarlo Stanton possesses the most raw power of any player in the game. However, he may have some competition at this time next season.

Already on the fast track to the major leagues, Miguel Sano is racing through the Minnesota Twins’ system and putting up big numbers along the way.

Sano opened the season by batting .330/.424/.655 with 16 home runs for High-A Fort Myers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League and was rewarded with a promotion to Double-A New Britain in early June. Although the 20-year-old’s batting average dropped off at the more advanced level, his power has translated as hoped, with a .915 OPS and 19 home runs through 67 games.

Ranked as our No. 6 overall prospect in July, Sano’s overall game lacks polish and will need refinement before he's declared ready for the major leagues. However, after my firsthand look at him last week, I fully believe that he has the potential to become baseball’s next great third baseman.

 

The Calling Card: 80-Grade Power

Scouts are hesitant to throw an 80-grade (on the 20-80 scouting scale) on anything other than a triple-digit fastball or sub-four second home-to-first time. So the fact that Sano has received a consensus 80 for his power speaks to how truly special of a tool it is.

In 2011, Sano put himself on the map as one of the game’s best young sluggers when he hit 20 home runs in 66 games as an 18-year-old in the rookie-level Appalachian League. He’s since improved in every subsequent season.

Last year, his full-season debut, Sano led the Low-A Midwest League with 28 home runs in 129 games. He’s shown even more thump against better pitching this season, with 35 home runs in 123 games between High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain.

When the 20-year-old has struggled with his approach and making consistent contact—which we’ll get to in a minute—the power has always been there. And now, as he’s started to noticeably evolve as a hitter, its frequency is improving in the face of better competition.

 

The Question Mark 

There was legitimate concern about Sano’s hit tool heading into the 2013 season, as he’s always been a player more likely to jump the yard or strike out than make consistent contact. In his full-season debut last year, the then-19-year-old batted only .258 with 144 strikeouts in 129 games (26 percent strikeout rate). However, Sano also demonstrated the foundation of a solid overall approach through his ability to coax walks at a 14.5 percent rate.

With a swing capable of producing prodigious blasts, it’s a reality that Sano will likely always strike out more than desired. Trying to alter his swing to make him a more contact-oriented hitter is pointless and could potentially hurt his overall development, so the hope was that Sano would continue to sharpen his plate discipline and simply become a more selective hitter.

That’s certainly been the case so far this season. Through 123 games across two levels, Sano owns a career-best .382 on-base percentage thanks to a 12.6 percent walk rate against advanced pitching. While he still struggles with both his swing mechanics and approach at times, Sano's improved pitch recognition this season has made him a more consistent and selective hitter overall.

 

Recent Scouting Notes and Video

I travelled to New Jersey on back-to-back nights last week to get my final look at Sano for the season—I last saw him at the Futures Game, which had a very controlled format—with Double-A New Britain in town for a series against Trenton (Yankees).

After a two-homer game on August 25 against Bowie, Sano went 0-for-6 with three strikeouts and two walks in the first two games of the series against Trenton. So when I saw him play the next night, I wasn’t surprised to see more of the same from him at the plate.

In what turned out to be a 13-inning affair—I admittedly left after the 11th with a two-hour drive back to New York ahead of me—Sano went 0-for-4 with three walks and two strikeouts. While nothing he did that night will catch eyes on paper, I left the park thoroughly impressed with the 20-year-old. 

As you can see in the above video, Sano has a consistent approach seemingly based on an understanding that opposing pitchers are going to attack him with soft stuff off the plate. As a result, he worked deep counts all night, demonstrating an advanced feel for the strike zone without caving into each pitcher’s game plan. There were a few times when Sano was too anxious and took an out-of-control hack at a breaking ball in the dirt. However, that’s bound to happen if he’s being fed a steady diet of junk.

 

In general, Sano’s timing was noticeably off at the dish that night—which also can be partially attributed to the pitch sequencing. He was a bit tardy on the few fastballs he saw over the course of the long, rain-soaked game, fouling them straight back or to the first-base side of the plate. And when he did put the ball in play, it was hit weakly on the ground to the left side.

Upon reviewing my video the next morning, it looked as though Sano was cutting himself off at the plate. By that, I mean that he wasn’t allowing his hands to get through the zone and create a favorable point of contact. One thing you’ll notice about Sano is that he doesn’t hold the bat in his fingertips as hitters are taught to do. Instead, he has the bat deep in his hands and grips it tightly, almost like a club, with his top (right) hand.

Courtesy of MLBFarm.com

While such a positioning allows him to drive through the baseball and generate exceptional backspin carry, it also prevents him from snapping his wrists through the zone. As you can see in Sano’s spray chart (above), it’s an issue that has been present all season, as most of his batted outs stem from ground balls to the left side of the infield.

Therefore, I made an effort to get to the park early the next day to catch Sano’s batting practice and see what he was working on specifically. During his first two rounds, he worked on driving the ball the other way and keeping it out of the air, and he even fouled the first several pitches off the right side of the cage. As he loosened up and settled in, Sano began working the ball up the middle with a controlled swing. But what impressed me was that he never tried to lift the ball or swing for the fences; there was a purpose to every swing. Though Sano never turned it loose, the right-handed hitter still showcased ridiculous bat speed during batting practice. In fact, the hardest balls he hit came from a simple flick of the wrists.

Unfortunately, Sano was held out of the lineup that night, so I didn’t get a chance to see whether his work during batting practice carried over into the game. Luckily it didn’t matter, as the 20-year-old had already showed me everything I needed to see within the previous 24 hours.

For what it's worth, Sano went 3-for-4 with a double and two more home runs in his return to the lineup the following night.  

 

The Defense: Better Than You Think 

At 6’3” and roughly 230 pounds, Sano is a big dude with broad shoulders and a thick lower half. But due to the lack of physical projection associated with his frame, there’s always been a belief that he’d eventually be forced off third base, his natural position.

However, after working with Hall of Famer Paul Molitor during spring training, Sano’s defense has noticeably improved over the course of the season. While he’ll always lack quick feet, the 20-year-old has learned to take a more instinctual first step and showcases at least average range.

In my look at Sano last week, I was particularly impressed with his body control at third base. Despite his size, he’s more athletic than people seem to realize. During the extra-inning game, there was one specific play that left an indelible impression: Sano came charging on a top-spun grounder, fielded the ball on an in-between hop, made a smooth transition to his throwing hand and fired a strike to first base while on the run.

Even though it was a pretty common play for a professional third baseman—and one he was certainly expected to make—it was enough to convince me that Sano will be able to remain at the position for the foreseeable future.

 

The Ceiling

With a name that’s become synonymous with elite raw power, it’s easy to peg Sano as a one-dimensional, all-or-nothing prospect. However, if you’ve learned anything from this article, it’s that the 20-year-old is much more than that.

Even if his strikeout rate results in subpar batting averages, Sano’s combination of on-base skills and power gives him the ceiling of a frequent All-Star. In his prime, 35-plus home runs in a season could easily be the norm. Even in his worst years, it's possible that he’ll rank among the league leaders in both home runs and slugging percentage.

At his current pace, Sano could be making a case for a September call-up at this time next season. However, there’s also a realistic chance that he’ll already be in the major leagues. Either way, Sano is the type of impact prospect that will be allowed to complete the final phases of his development at the highest level. And why not? He’s responded favorably to every challenge the Twins have thrown his way and continues to improve against advanced competition.

For me, he’s shown all the signs of a becoming a star.

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