Minnesota Twins fans first learned that Miguel Sano was signing his brand new three-year contract. We then heard the interviews where time and again Sano mentioned he had been working on first base among other aspects of baseball. Then came the official news of Josh Donaldson coming to Minnesota and the official start to Sano’s move across the diamond as a defender.
We all know at this point that, although being very athletic for a man his size, Sano was not a good defensive third basemen. Now that he is on the move, what can we piece together about Sano, from the eye test as well as the numbers that may give us a clue to the type of first baseman Sano may be in 2020 and beyond?
When watching Sano highlights there are moments where he looks absolutely incredible. He sprawls out for a zooming line drive, collects himself, and rifles the ball across the diamond. In watching, it may simply be his arm that makes some of these lateral plays look tremendous.
At the same time he has these plays where he seems to almost stumble around. That is where the concern comes in as Sano moves across the diamond. First base requires good footwork, and does he have that?
Trying to look through game highlights of Sano as a first baseman, it is clear he can receive the ball well. It is also clear he hasn’t truly learned the craft of being a first baseman, but the ability is there.
Within the same game last season against the Yankees on July 24th we can see Sano not quite get a good stretch on a play in the fourth inning that allows DJ LeMahieu to reach safely. Then later in the game he makes a better (although slightly unorthodox) stretch to record an out in the fifth.
When using OAA we learn that our eyes do not totally deceive us and that he does lack lateral movement. What is good news in comparison to his third base numbers is that he sits much more in the “OK” range at first with OAA ratings of +2 (2017 on 11 attempts), 0 (2018 on 15 attempts), and -1 (2019 on 11 attempts). Very small sample size, but that's what we have to work with since Sano hasn’t spent much time at first.
The first basemen skill that we worry about the most with the infield in the past is how well can an errant throw be picked. FanGraphs Scoops stat ranks Sano favorable in his small sample size with +2 (2017), +2 (2018), and 0 (2019). Scoops is another imperfect statistic where Sano is likely being compared most against his teammates and is a stat that is figured to only show us about 25% of a first baseman's defensive worth. (Read more in this explanation of “Scoops”)
Sano does project as likely getting a plus on his ability to scoop compared to other first baseman solely due to his size. As the linked explanation of Scoops states, players who are right-handed and are over 6’1” see a 1.2 increase in runs saved on average. Sano standing at 6’4” has that working for him.
Putting all these pieces together, it seems Sano has all the tools to become an at least average first baseman. He may not win gold gloves, but his value remains his bat. If Sano carries defensive abilities that don't hurt the team he will still individually translate into a very good player since his bat does wonderful things, like hit 34 home runs with a .923 OPS in 2019.
The looming question may be: Do the Twins have too many players like Sano in their infield? Individually, Sano should be fine defensively.
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