- Miguel Sano's promising start to the 2017 season offers hope that his disastrous 2016 campaign is behind him.
There are countless examples of non-linear player growth. Few players are like Kris Bryant, and that has nothing to do with the heights he has reached in his young career. Over the last four seasons, Bryant was the college player of the year, minor league player of the year, NL Rookie of the Year, and NL MVP. It’s quite uncommon for a player to take such obvious steps year after year. Most players, even those who do end up reaching Bryant’s heights, have trouble making necessary adjustments at some point early in their career. It’s a rite of passage for most MLB players.
Miguel Sano went through that rite last year. After a banner rookie season in which he hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers, 17 doubles and 52 RBI in 335 plate appearances, Sano suffered through a terrible second year in the majors. The power was still evident, with Sano leaving the yard 25 times in 495 plate appearances, but he fell off the trajectory he set for himself as a rookie in all other facets. He slashed .236/.319/.462, struck out in 35.5% of his plate appearances, and spent a week at the Triple-A level when he was at the height of his struggles. It was a bad season, but, if Sano could bounce back this year and turn last season into his non-linear rite of passage it could be, in a way, a success.
One week into this season, Sano is turning last year’s mess into a positive. He’s 7-for-20 on the young season, with two homers, two doubles and eight RBI. Sano didn’t deal with an injury last year, and it’s self-evident that he has always had superstar potential. Sano was knocked off his trajectory and forced to swallow the rite of passage thanks to difficulty adjusting to the major league level. Or, to be more accurate, he had trouble adjusting to the adjustments the league made to him after it got a good look at him in his rookie year. It’s incredibly early in the 2017 season, but it appears Sano has made at least one adjustment that could be serving him well.
We’ll start, as well always do, at the beginning. Below is the first homer of Sano’s career, hit in July 2015 off Kevin Gausman.
There’s nothing remarkable about the way Sano sets up at the plate. It’s a pretty standard stance and swing, from his feet all the way up to his head and hands. Do notice, however, that Sano is slightly open. Now here’s Sano’s final homer of the 2015 season. Right away, you can tell that something has changed.
On this homer, Sano’s feet are perfectly in line with one another. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it was a tendency that may have contributed Sano’s struggles last year. He didn’t appear to have a regular routine in the box, setting up however he felt comfortable in the plate appearance in question.
Fast forward to August of last year. Sano’s 2016 season was already a disaster at this point, but, as we said at the top of the column, he was still hitting for power. Here he is taking Erasmo Ramirez deep with, yet again, a tweak in his stance.
Now Sano is closed, with his left foot closer to home plate than his right. Again, that’s a perfectly acceptable way for a hitter to setup, but we’ve now seen three different approaches to the plate inside the first year of Sano’s career. That’s a problem. We talk about pitchers needing to find a repeatable delivery all the time, but the same is true of hitters. Any hitter that’s continually changing his stance is likely to have issues, especially making contact. Everything at the plate starts with a hitter’s legs, and if the placement of those legs and feet are never in the same place twice, the rest of the chain reaction will be out of order.
With that necessary bit of history out of the way, we can now look at the 2017 version of Sano. The results are encouraging.
The first of Sano’s two home runs came off Danny Duffy, a pitcher who received hype as a dark horse Cy Young candidate this spring, and the second was against Nate Jones, one of the best relievers in the American League.
Finally, we see some consistency. Sano’s stance is slightly open on both homers, and has been all season. In terms of setup at the plate, Sano looks more like the hitter that nearly won AL Rookie of the Year in 2015, despite playing just 80 games, than he did at any point last season. That’s great news for a hitter still a month shy of his 24th birthday. It’s far too early to make any sweeping declarations, but Sano’s potential always made him one of the potential return-on-investment kings for this fantasy season. One week into the year, he’s doing everything that made him such an attractive mid-round pick.
Hitters to watch this week
George Springer, OF, Astros
Springer is off to a powerful start this season, hitting four homers in his first 37 plate appearances. Springer has long been one of the faces of the Astros rebuild, but this is already his age-27 season despite it being just his third Opening Day. If there’s a leap beyond the steady .265/.360/.460 numbers he has put up thus far in his career, it has to happen this season. Springer’s season is off on the right foot, though it’s worth noting that he has just three other hits, in addition to the four homers, and has struck out seven times against three walks.
Chris Owings, SS/OF, Diamondbacks
We discussed Owings in this week’s waiver wire column, and everything we said there helps explain why he’s a player to watch this week. He’s going to play every day for the Diamondbacks, save for a day off here and there, getting most of his time at shortstop. He has also been in beneficial lineup spots, hitting first, second or fifth in five of his six starts. Owings swiped 21 bags and hit 11 homers in 466 plate appearances last season, and he appears ticketed for somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 more trips to the plate this year. Even if he simply matches last year’s pace, he could be an easy 15-25 player this season.
Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies
Gonzalez had a brutal opening week, going 4-for-24 with a walk and seven strikeouts in his first six games. It’s disappointing that he didn’t get anything cooking at Coors Field last weekend, but he’ll get three more games at home to start the week, before the Rockies make their first trip of the season to San Francisco for a four-game series with the Giants over the weekend. At this point of Gonzalez’s lengthy career, we should all know what to expect from him. He runs hot and cold, and April has typically been his worst month, with a slash line of .275/.327/.460 for his career. He’ll get things going sooner rather than later.
Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants
Like Springer, Belt has been swinging a big stick thus far, hitting three homers in his first 37 plate appearances. Belt has always been a productive player who leaves a little to be desired in the power department for a corner infielder, so it’s encouraging to see his pop on such vivid display this early in the year. He’s not suddenly going to turn into a 30-homer hitter in his age-29 season, but it’s possible for him to get into the 20s for the first time in his career. Should he do that while maintaining his career .270/.360 batting average and OBP marks, he’ll be in for the best fantasy season in his seven years in the league.
Nicholas Castellanos, 3B, Tigers
Castellanos is a low-grade example of what we discussed regarding Kris Bryant and linear growth. A top-25 prospect before playing his first full season in 2014, Castellanos has quietly improved every season in the majors. He had a .700 OPS in his first season, improved that to .721 in 2015, and then jumped to .827 last year. In his first 26 plate appearances this season, he has two homers, one double and one triple. Castellanos hit 18 homers and slugged .496 last year, but was limited to 447 plate appearances because of injury. If he can stay healthy this season, there’s little reason to expect him to deviate from the linear path he has set over the first three years of his career. Still just 25 years old, Castellanos has plenty of time to realize his full potential. At the very least, he’s going to play well enough to be owned in all but a statistically insignificant percentage of fantasy leagues. The bet here is that he enjoys the first 25-homer season of his career in 2017.
Ian Happ, 2B, Cubs
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Cubs have another position player in the minors who appears ready to make an immediate impact at the next level. On many other teams, Happ would have had a chance to break spring training in the majors. On a Cubs team with Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez, Happ won’t see any time at second base anytime soon. He did, however, show off what he can do, slashing .383/.441/.750 with five homers and 21 RBI in 68 Cactus League plate appearances this spring.
Happ took that act to Triple-A Iowa, but little else has changed. In his first four career games at the highest level in the minors, he has three homers and a pair of walks in 17 trips to the plate. The ninth overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft out of the University of Cincinnati, Happ was a force at both High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He hit .279/365/.445 with 15 homers and 30 doubles between the two levels last season, a great debut season at both spots for a 21-year-old. It’s likely he’ll make his MLB debut in his age-22 season.
Whether that debut is with the Cubs is another question entirely. The same roster crunch that forced him to Iowa this spring will be present all season. Should the Cubs need to make a move at this year’s trade deadline, every team they talk to will ask about Happ. The Cubs are protective of their prospects, most notably refusing to even discuss Kyle Schwarber, but they did part with top prospect Gleyber Torres to get Aroldis Chapman last season. If they have an acute need this summer, Happ could be the centerpiece of a potential deal. If and when he makes the majors this year, he’ll be of immediate interest in all fantasy formats.
GIF of the Week
This was from Opening Day, so it feels like a lifetime ago, but it was still just last week. The world can’t get enough Manny Machado defense.