It looks like Miguel Sanó has been benched for Alex Kirilloff, and his path to starting again is challenging...
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#3) By all appearances, Miguel Sanó has become a platoon bench bat. The small side of a platoon, at that.
If you’d like to view this through a positive lens, I think it says a good deal about what the Twins think of rookie Alex Kirilloff.
It’s a bit of a surprising development for a guy who has been a solidly above average hitter for his career, although there’s no denying Sanó’s struggles this season. While it’s true that his critics over-exaggerate his shortcomings, it’s fair to say that he’s hit his way out of the everyday lineup, in the same way that Kirilloff’s emergence has made him a good choice to be the Twins’ starting first baseman (when the corner outfield can be filled in other ways).
Sanó is hitting just .196 this year, and his 37% strikeout rate would be second-worst in the Majors if he had the plate appearance to qualify. (Future free agent shortstop Javy Baez holds the top spot at 38%.) He’s slugging about the same as Kirilloff, at .437, and given the power, Sanó actually is only four percentage points below the league-average hitter this year, as measured by Weighted Runs Created (96 wRC+).
For awhile, Sanó was the starting first baseman and Kirilloff was the starting right fielder. The Twins had an off day before the Rangers series and got Max Kepler back in the corner outfield, and that appears to be where the switch was made. With their opening day right fielder back in the fold, the Twins bumped the rookie Kirilloff into the infield, where he started the first game in Texas at first base, opposite righty Mike Foltynewicz. Sanó got Game 2, in Byron Buxton’s return to the lineup, against lefty Kolby Allard. Then Kirilloff got the next 5 starts at first base (righty, righty, lefty, righty, righty), even when Buxton was again lost to injury, this time a boxer’s fracture in his left hand.
From the outside looking in, it appears the Twins would rather Kepler in right and pick-your-centerfielder, with Kirilloff at first base. As opposed to sliding Kepler to centerfield, playing Kirilloff in the corner outfield and Sanó at first base. Put another way, in the four games since Buxton went down, the Twins have already chosen Nick Gordon and Gilberto Celestino in centerfield over Sanó at first base, when you combine the gloves and bats involved. And remember, given all the outfield injuries this season, those two guys were probably — generously — fifth and sixth on the centerfield depth chart to begin the year (assuming Gordon, the converted second baseman, was on the list at all).
So that’s the state of affairs for Sanó right now. A caller this week on Twins Today asked me about Sanó’s trade value, and I have to admit that I don’t think it’s very high. Would a contender have a need for a first baseman that strikes out a lot, is slightly below league average as a hitter, as is fine but not exceptional at first base? He’s due about $10.6 million next season with an option the year after that for $14 million. At best, you’re counting on even value going forward, and that’s if you’re counting on his bat to rebound, back to his previous levels of slugging damage, high walk rate, and a lot of punchouts.
For his full career, Sanó is 16% better than league average hitter against lefties and 17% better than average vs. righties (116 and 117 wRC+, respectively). This year, though, he’s close to a career norm, at 20% better than average against righties, and he’s cratered against lefties, roughly 40% below leagueaverage as measured by wRC+, the measure of how much you contribute to your team’s run scoring, scaled to make 100 exactly average for a hitter.
Now you’re thinking, wait a minute, I thought the Twins are using him against lefties and not righties with Kirilloff taking over first base? And you’d be right. Not only has the 28-year-old Sanó lost significant playing time, his best hope to earn back any of those plate appearances is to do damage against his big weakness this year. That offsets the chance that he will provide the kind of slugging power that makes up for his ruts at the plate. Roughly 39% of his 224 plate appearances this season have come against lefties, way up from his career total of about 27%.
All told, he’s been roughly equal against pitchers of either handedness in his career. This year he’s completely fallen off against lefties, his exposure to them has increased by about 44%, and the act of hitting them significantly better might be his only ticket back into the everyday lineup.