Sweet-swinging Sano slows down to speed up

Young slugger's combination of patience and hard contact fueling breakout campaign

May 8th, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS -- says the key to his breakout season so far is easy to explain -- he's just being more patient, and when he sees a pitch he likes, he's swinging hard.

The numbers back up Sano's assertion, and those hard swings are leading to even harder contact -- he leads the Majors in average exit velocity by more than three mph, averaging 98.9 mph off the bat, per Statcast™. A's slugger is second at 95.8 mph, but the difference between him and Sano is roughly the same as the margin between Davis and the 15th-highest average exit velocity.

Sano's hard contact, coupled with his career-best 18.7 percent walk rate, has helped him hit .300/.431/.640 with eight homers, six doubles, two triples and a league-leading 28 RBIs in 29 games. It's been a major bounceback from last season, when he hit .236/.319/.462 with 25 homers and 66 RBIs in 116 games.

"It's just more patience and trying to hit the ball up the middle," Sano said. "I've just been trying to simplify the game."

Sano believed he was putting too much pressure on himself at the plate, which caused him to chase pitches out of the zone. He has improved his swing rate on pitches out of the zone from 23.7 percent to 22.2 percent, while also swinging at more strikes, going from swinging at 62.9 percent of pitches in the zone to 71.4 this year.

It's allowed Sano to make harder contact, improving his average exit velocity on pitches in the zone from 93.3 mph last year to an MLB-best 100 mph this year. For context, the league average is 88.8 mph, and Sano 's worst average exit velocity in any of the nine quadrants of the strike zone is 92.1 mph.

"What an incredible talent, but more importantly what a good hitter," Twins hitting coach James Rowson said. "The power takes away from the fact he's a great hitter. He sees the ball well. He understands how to get a pitch to hit and will take walks when they're given."

So while Sano has been helped by a .440 batting average on balls in play -- higher than his career BABIP by 100 points -- much of it is because of how hard he's hit the ball. He's not hitting the ball on the ground as much, improving his average launch angle from 16.5 degrees to 20.2 degrees, leading to more extra-base hits when combined with his elite exit velocity. The league average is 10.9 degrees.

Ideally, players want to hit the ball at least 98 mph between 26 degrees and 30 degrees, which is classified as a "barrel" by Statcast™. Sano has been credited with 14 barrels this year, and 24.1 percent of his balls in play are classified as barreled, which is second only to 's 25.7 percent.

Sano is crushing fastballs, hitting .348 with an .826 slugging percentage against heaters, and he's batting .333 with a .667 slugging against sliders. The only pitch he's struggled against has been the changeup, against which he's hitting .167 with no homers. Last year, Sano hit .244 against fastballs, .173 against sliders and .188 against changeups.

Sano believes his work watching video has helped him identify pitches and patterns better this year, and Rowson said he's easily one of the hardest workers on the team.

"He works with a plan and he works with focus," Rowson said. "It shows up at game time. His success is no accident. He's a guy who prepares himself to succeed."