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Sanó's 2020 goals: Stay healthy, keep raking

After struggles in '18, early '19, third baseman delivered on promise
@dohyoungpark
October 17, 2019

All along, the Twins made little secret of the fact that the 2019 season would be a pivotal opportunity for Miguel Sanó, a point that was driven home when newly hired manager Rocco Baldelli traveled to the Dominican Republic last offseason to meet with the cornerstone third baseman. At that

All along, the Twins made little secret of the fact that the 2019 season would be a pivotal opportunity for Miguel Sanó, a point that was driven home when newly hired manager Rocco Baldelli traveled to the Dominican Republic last offseason to meet with the cornerstone third baseman.

At that point, the all-hands-on-deck project to trim down the slugger's hefty physique was already in full swing. That effort had started in earnest when Sanó was demoted all the way to Class A Advanced Fort Myers in the midst of a disappointing 2018 season and it carried through an intense offseason regimen of nutrition, workouts, yoga and weekly videos and FaceTime calls with Twins staff.

All that work paid off.

Sanó hit a disappointing snag at the end of that offseason when he sustained a laceration to his heel area that caused him to miss all of Spring Training and the first month and a half of the regular season. Though that rust carried into a difficult slump early in the summer, the 26-year-old slugger broke out with a strong July, posted some of his best career numbers and provided a few of the most memorable homers of the season for the Bomba Squad.

"As a whole, I think we have to be extremely happy with how the season went for Miguel," Baldelli said. "We know how hard he worked in the offseason. Not just offensively, but on his body ... with everything that he did in his workouts."

With the disappointment of a brutal 2018 behind him, Sanó, like teammate Byron Buxton, stepped up in an important year. Sanó showed the Twins that his All-Star campaign in 2017 was not an anomaly and also made the commitment to the hard work and improvement that helped him -- at last -- grow into his potential as one of the premier power threats in a loaded lineup.

What went right?

If you like counting stats, consider that Sanó hit 34 homers in 105 games, which would have put him on pace for around 50 in a full season's worth of plate appearances. Sanó hit a homer once every 11.2 at-bats, ranking him fifth in baseball among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, behind only Mitch Garver, Mike Trout, Christian Yelich and Nelson Cruz.

Sanó's downtime from injury prevented him from qualifying for league leaderboards, but his career-best .576 slugging percentage would have ranked fifth among American League hitters, while his .923 OPS would have been the seventh-best mark. Simply put: When healthy, Sanó displays a power-hitting ability that ranks him among the elite hitters.

A look behind the curtain at Sanó's underlying numbers also reveals a similarly dominant ability to square up the baseball. The big man led all Major League hitters with a 57.2 percent hard-hit rate (balls hit in excess of 95 mph), while his 94.4 mph average exit velocity on batted balls placed him second behind only Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.

And one last note of promise? While Sanó destroyed fastballs more effectively than he had in his career, his walk rate on breaking pitches also ballooned to 13.4 percent in '19 from 3.7 percent in 2018, indicating development of a more selective eye at the plate to complement his power-hitting prowess.

What went wrong?

The primary factor that held Sanó back was the heel injury, a freak accident during the celebratory parade for a Dominican Winter League championship that not only ate into Sanó's playing time but also prevented him from being fully settled in at the plate when he first took the field in May and June.

Of course, there's also the question of his defense at third base, as Sanó's range and execution were lacking at times despite a cannon of a right arm that helps him make plenty of difficult plays at the hot corner. Sanó averaged 88.2 mph on his max-effort throws from third base, which led all Major League third baseman with at least five such opportunities.

But his 17 errors at third base -- in an abbreviated season -- were tied for second-most at his position, behind only Rafael Devers of the Red Sox. His overall defense also graded out as a negative according to advanced metrics, as his -5 Defensive Runs Saved ranked him in the bottom third at his position, while his Ultimate Zone Rating, projected over 150 games, would have ranked him as the worst defender at third base among the 12 players to log at least 700 innings at the hot corner this season.

"I enjoy watching the guy throw, to be honest with you," Baldelli said. "Some of the individual plays that he makes are pretty special, and I think he’s taken pride [in his defensive play]. Can we always continue to improve and make adjustments and do things? Of course we can. We’re never going to stop, and I think Miguel's pretty motivated right now, so I think he'll take whatever suggestions we're willing to offer and try to help him become an even better player."

Best moment

The Twins held a 3 1/2-game lead over Cleveland in the AL Central entering a pivotal Sept. 14 doubleheader at Progressive Field, with the Indians' hopes for a division crown essentially hanging in the balance. In the first contest, Minnesota got a dominant bullpen game in a 2-0 win over Mike Clevinger, then clawed back from a deficit into a 5-5 tie in the eighth inning of the nightcap.

Enter Sanó with the bases loaded. It only took one pitch from Nick Goody -- a slider over the inner half -- for the big man to unload for Minnesota's second grand slam of the season, which silenced a rowdy September crowd at Progressive Field and secured a sweep of the doubleheader to all but lock down the division title.

"It's a tremendous swing in a very challenging, dramatic moment," Baldelli said that day. "Something big was needed. These are really emotional, big games. These games are fun; [it's] a different brand of baseball this time of year, and that's just a huge play and a huge swing."

2020 outlook

As long as Sanó can carry his work ethic into this offseason and maintain his body, he should be a force in the heart of Minnesota's 2020 lineup. With his underlying metrics, plate discipline and results all trending in the right direction, a healthy Sanó for anything close to a full season has the potential be one of the most productive hitters in the league.

Baldelli said after the end of the season that there aren't any plans to move Sanó from third base for now, though he has played first base in 20 games over the last two seasons and could continue to be a factor there. The 2020 season may provide some indications of Sanó's defensive future, with possible factors including his continued work at the hot corner and the progress of a trio of Twins up-and-comers at first base: Brent Rooker (No. 8 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline), Luke Raley and potentially Alex Kirilloff (No. 2 prospect), all of whom could surface in the Major Leagues next season.

"Defensively, I think [Sanó] worked really hard," Baldelli said. "I think he did an admirable job over there at third base. Is there always a chance that he could also help us and play other positions? Maybe some first base? Of course. He already did. Could he do more of that in the future? Possible. But I wouldn’t want to take third base away from him at any point."

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.