Red-hot Sano living in the line-drive zone
August launch angle of 20.62 degrees was the second highest in baseball
Two months into his Major League career, Miguel Sano holds an all-time Major League record, of sorts. Dating back to 1900, there have been 26,543 player seasons of at least 200 plate appearances. Sano's Batting Average on Balls in Play of .427 so far this year sits atop that list, right above a name you might have heard of: Babe Ruth, in 1923.
That BABIP -- which is certainly a factor in Sano's incredible .296/.405/.620 batting line -- can be taken to mean a few things. First, that nearly anything can happen over a relatively limited sample size, because having just under half of your balls in play turn into hits, well, that just doesn't happen. (Hence the all-time high number, which obviously won't last much longer.) You don't entirely get there by accident, either, and as you would expect, Sano sits fourth on the Statcast™ leaderboards (minimum 80 balls in play) with an average exit velocity of 95 mph.
So we can say Sano has been getting more than his share of hits because of decent luck over a small sample, and there's truth to that. And we can say that he's making his own luck by crushing baseballs, and that's true, too. But what really stands out about Sano is in the way the balls are coming off his bat, or more specifically, the angle they're coming off it.
For most of Sano's first few weeks in the bigs, he was something of a ground-ball hitter, as you can see in this launch angle chart:
The way to read that is to understand that a launch angle of zero is right back at the pitcher's release point, so a negative launch angle is a grounder and a positive launch angle is in the air. In July, Sano's first month, his average launch angle was 2.8 degrees, which is to say a lot of very low batted balls. In August, that jumped to 20.62 degrees, which unsurprisingly brought with it more than twice as many home runs (nine, up from four) and, even less surprisingly, a grounder rate that dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent.
Balls in the air are more likely to go for extra-base hits or homers, understandably, but fly balls have a lower likelihood of landing for hits in the first place. (To say nothing of popups, which are basically as effective as strikeouts, and Sano doesn't hit those: Just five thus far in his career.) While Sano did see that BABIP drop from an absurd .450 in July to .391 in August, even .391 is well above expectations for a slow runner, particularly one nursing a hamstring injury.
That's why launch angle is important, because the success of a batted ball -- i.e., whether it becomes a hit or not -- is based on more than just how hard it was hit. (A grounder at 100 mph is going to be more effective than a popup at 100 mph, obviously.) The optimum angle for a hard-hit ball, the "line-drive zone" if you will, is roughly 20-30 degrees. Higher than that, and it's a fly ball. Lower, it's a grounder. Either type is more easily caught than a liner.
So it's with that in mind that we share this: In August, 227 hitters had at least 40 batted balls. Sano's average launch angle of 20.62 degrees was the second highest in MLB, behind only to Matt Carpenter's 21.32 degrees, and Carpenter's 135 wRC+ was his best month since April. Sano's average batted-ball velocity was sixth, behind big sluggers Ryan Zimmerman, David Ortiz, Nelson Cruz, Miguel Cabrera and Jose Bautista. His average distance of 278.22 feet was first, just ahead of Ortiz. It's a simple process, really -- hitting the ball hard at an angle where fielders are less likely to catch it leads to hits.
This is all far from the only reason Sano is fascinating, of course. His 35.8 percent strikeout rate is the worst in baseball, but his 15.8 percent walk rate is the fifth highest, which helps compensate, and shows his patience. ("I always like getting to a full count," Sano told USA TODAY in July.) That 180 Weighted Runs Created Plus score Sano is carrying would be the second best in Minnesota history (minimum 200 plate appearances) if he can keep it up, and despite not being called up until July 2, he's suddenly become a serious challenger for the AL Rookie of the Year Award that Carlos Correa had seemingly locked up. (Sano won the monthly version of the award for August on Wednesday.)
Sano was signed back in 2009 for what now looks like an absolute bargain of a $3.15 million bonus. He's already earned that back for the Twins, and then some. That BABIP isn't sustainable at this level, because it wouldn't be for anyone. We don't know yet if the launch angle will be, because we just haven't seen enough of Sano. So far, though? Hard to think Minnesota could ask for much more.