This season has been better than the average year for the Twins. It hasn't been amazing, they probably won't go to the playoffs, but it's been better. Ervin Santana is pitching like he's trying to become the best Johan Santana in Twins history, Max Kepler is barreling up balls left and right, Jorge Polanco has been steady, and since this is an optimistic column let's just not bring up Byron Buxton. But perhaps the most encouraging sign this season has been the clear improvement of Miguel Sano. In addition to rocking some tremendous new braids, the young corner infielder has come out of the gate hot, hitting .297/.435/.649 with six homers. After an excellent rookie season, Sano took a minor step back in 2016 with his batting average dropping 33 points. Let's take a look at what he's doing differently this year.
The most obvious difference is that Sano's drawing more walks this year. Last season, in 495 plate appearances, he got 54 free passes. This year, he already has 18 in just 92 plate appearances. To put that into percentages, he's nearly doubling his walk rate, jumping from 10.9 percent to 19.6 percent. Despite those walks, he's being more aggressive within the strike zone. When he's gotten a pitch in the strike zone, he's swung at it 71.3 percent of the time. These better decisions have lead to him barreling up more balls than any other time in his career. According to Fangraphs, he's hit the ball hard 52 percent of the time, compared to his 40 percent mark from last year. Similarly, his percentage of balls that are softly hit have dropped, from 10 to four percent. His strikeout rate is still too high, at 32 percent, but that's still a slight decline from the last two years.
Now that we're done with the boring analytical stuff, let's discuss the important part: watching him. He hasn't been chasing after the low breaking balls that tend to plague young hitters (see: Oswaldo Arcia). He also appears to be more comfortable taking the ball the other way, putting pitches on the outside corner into the right field gap, one of which went for a triple earlier this year.
As far as defense goes, it will never be Sano's strength. But he's made some clear improvements. After settling back into third base after the ill-fated right field experiment, he hasn't been terrible. So far he's made several great bare-handed plays like this. Statistically, his fielding percentage is up to .958 from .896 from last year, even if the range isn't quite there. Just getting up to adequate in the field would be a big bonus.
Being a Twins fan takes an incredible amount of patience. Since 2010 we've had to do a lot of waiting. For Buxton, for Sano, for Berrios, for a more modern front office. And while we're still waiting for a lot, Sano becoming a star might be one thing we can stop waiting for.