MLB.com Columnist

Mike Petriello

Sano hitting rockets as slow start already in rearview mirror

Young slugger is batting .360 as Twins have won five of past seven games

Sano hitting rockets as slow start already in rearview mirror

We are constantly talking about "small sample sizes" this early in the season, warning that just about anything can happen in a tiny sample of games, and that it's not necessarily indicative of what the entire season will look like. After all, even the great Manny Machado isn't going to hit .407 all year. Chris Archer is too good to carry a 7.32 ERA all season. Hot or slow starts are just that: starts.

So fear not, Twins fans. Miguel Sano is going to be just fine. Forget "going to be," actually. He is just fine.

That was understandably difficult to believe over the nine-game Minnesota losing streak to begin the year, over which Sano hit just .143/.294/.143 -- that's four hits, all singles, and a handful of walks in 34 plate appearances. That being the case, the panicked explanations were endless. Was it a sophomore slump? Was it a repercussion of his move to right field? Was it that Sano wasn't putting enough work in during the spring, as one major local media outlet breathlessly suggested?

In times of crisis, grasping for answers is justifiable. But the truth was a whole lot simpler: It was 34 plate appearances. In 31 plate appearances since, as the Twins have won five of seven games, Sano has hit .360/.484/.680, including a home run on Thursday in a victory over Milwaukee.

It's not that the more recent stretch is the "real" Sano either, because we chose those endpoints arbitrarily and he won't keep up a .360 batting average all season long any more than he was a .143. It's just that the underlying indicators show plenty of reasons to trust that the Sano of 2016 is going to end up looking a lot like the Sano of '15, and that Sano was a star.

For example: Despite the fact that Sano has just a .245 batting average, he's actually been 30 percent better than league average as a hitter this year, as evidenced by a 130 wRC+. (Since batting average ignores walks and de-emphasizes power, it will never be a useful tool for a hitter such as Sano.) His walk rate, which was already very good, is up -- from 15 percent to 18 percent. Sano's strikeout rate, his main flaw, is down -- from 36 percent to 31 percent, and that's despite a nearly 50 percent rate in the first week of the season.

Plus, as you can see, it's clear that Sano is changing where he's doing damage with batted balls. Just look at the first nine losses against the most recent seven games:

As Miguel Sano is heating up, he's hitting the ball more to his pull side.

That's a hitter who is trying to get back to his strengths, which makes sense. Last year, about a quarter of Sano's batted balls went to right, and only two of his 20 career homers have been to right field. A Sano who is hitting the ball hard to left and center -- and he is, with a 96.3 mph Statcast™ exit velocity when he does that this year -- is a Sano who is succeeding.

Don't forget, anyway, that Sano led baseball last year in what's become a pretty important skill. A term we like to use here at Statcast™ HQ is "barrels," colloquially referring to a hitter "barrelling up the ball." A barrel is when a batter hits the ball at 100 mph or more, with a launch angle of between 10 degrees and 30 degrees.

You can consider that the line drive zone, which Sano inhabited regularly last year, and it's about the best thing a hitter can do -- Major Leaguers have a .807 batting average in 2016 when they hit a ball that hard at that angle. Sano, last year, led baseball in barrels, doing it on 16.7 percent of his batted balls, and when other names on that top 10 included Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout, and Giancarlo Stanton, it's a good spot to be in.

Now, combine that with the high walk rate -- only Joey Votto, Bryce Harper, Jose Bautista and Goldschmidt have a higher 2015-16 walk rate among the 286 hitters with 300 plate appearances -- and we're seeing not only one of baseball's better hitters right now, but perhaps in decades, at least for his age.

Miguel Sano hits homer into 3rd deck

Since divisional play began in 1969, 598 hitters have collected at least 400 plate appearances through their age-23 season. (Sano is only 22, but turns 23 on May 11, making this his "age-23 season.") Only a dozen of them have been more productive, by wRC+, though that time than Sano, and that list is littered with interesting names, including a few Hall of Famers and some active players well on their way:

wRC+ Through Age-23 Season, 1969-2016, minimum 400 career plate appearances

1. Reggie Jackson -- 179
2. Frank Thomas -- 178
3. Trout -- 167
4. Fred Lynn -- 166
5. Albert Pujols -- 164
6. Kal Daniels -- 163
7. Ryan Braun -- 155
8. Yasiel Puig -- 152
9. Ron Blomberg -- 151
10. Mark McGwire -- 150
11. Harper -- 149
12. Mike Greenwell -- 149
13. Sano -- 147

It's not out of the question that Sano will get himself into the top 10 of that list, since he has nearly a full year left to play in his age-23 season. It's also not a guarantee of success, either, but it is a good reminder that a lousy week-and-a-half to start the season hardly outweighs what we saw last year, particularly since he's already turning it around. Sano will be fine. Sano is fine. Now, about that outfield defense...

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.