Let us convince you why Miguel Sano might be AL Rookie of the Year

There was a time this season when it looked like Blue Jays infielder Devon Travis would have a serious case for winning the American League Rookie of the Year award. What that is, more than anything else, is a reminder that the regular season is really super long, but you can say this much — a heck of a race has emerged. Though many are understandably more focused on the games at hand than the end-of-season awards, this is a special class, and at the top you’ll find the Indians’ Francisco Lindor, the Astros’ Carlos Correa, and Miguel Sano of the Minnesota Twins.

There are others. Of course there are others. There have been more than three good rookies in the AL, and I don’t mean to take anything away from anyone, but barring a complete surprise, this is going to come down to that core group. Lindor has helped Cleveland try to make a desperate playoff run. Correa has helped Houston stay in a spot to advance. And Sano has helped keep the improbable Twins alive.

Now, if you take those three, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to take the shortstops, Lindor and Correa, first. A right-thinking person might well rank Sano in third, were the voting to take place today. Most simply, Sano has played in about 20 fewer games. He’s not about to catch up, and that’s an eighth of a whole season, which matters when you’re talking about guys who haven’t been up since Opening Day. Voters tend to prefer a mix of both quality and quantity.

And Sano, for the most part, has been a DH. He’s been a hell of a DH! Really good DH. But it’s a DH against two shortstops, and there’s no more important position than shortstop, save perhaps for catcher, which is a whole other weird thing. Correa’s been a fine defensive shortstop. Lindor’s been an outstanding defensive shortstop. Their bats have been strong, too, so it’s not just an appeal to defense. Lindor and Correa have well-roundedness in their favor. Sano’s more of a one-trick pony.

He’s been phenomenal at that one trick. He’s slugged .568. He’s almost tied with Correa in runs, homers, and RBI, despite the playing-time gap. He’s got Lindor beat in two of those categories. Few players in baseball have been more effective hitters to this point than Sano, and so that’s his case: awesome hitter. Better hitter than the shortstops. I now want to give you one more bit of information. It’s plainly evident that Sano has out-hit Lindor and Correa. Less evident is the competition the players have faced.

Here’s a stat: average fastball velocity seen. Pretty simple. The hitters have all seen a bunch of fastballs, and here’s how fast they were, on average.

Miguel Sano: 93.4 miles per hour

Carlos Correa: 92.1

Francisco Lindor: 92.0

OK. That doesn’t tell you much of anything, directly. It tells you Sano has seen the fastest fastballs, by just under a tick and a half. We all know of hard-throwing pitchers who are simultaneously ineffective pitchers. However, velocity does correlate with success. Harder-throwing pitchers do tend to be better. What’s suggested by this is that Sano has faced a tougher slate of opponents.

Let’s pull back. That focused on Sano, Correa, and Lindor. We can open it up to all players. Here’s the top of the major-league leaderboard, setting a minimum of 200 plate appearances.

Miguel Sano: 93.4 miles per hour

Kris Bryant: 93.1

Anthony Rendon: 93.0

We find Sano at the top, out of more than 300 players. The league average is 92.1. So we can say that, this year, out of regulars and semi-regulars, Sano has seen the hardest fastballs. And we can go past this year, too. We can go all the way back to 2002, using the leaderboards on FanGraphs. Sano remains in first — fastballs have been getting faster over time. No one we know of to this point has seen a faster average fastball than 2015 Miguel Sano. His season isn’t over yet, of course, but time’s running out.

That all implies a difficult set of enemy pitchers. We can do more to try to confirm. See, it’s easy enough to pull up a list of all the pitchers a batter has faced, including how many times they’ve matched up. So then with a little math, you can try to approximate a hitter’s "strength of schedule," so to speak. The following table includes the three rookies, and it also has three statistics: ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP-. These are averages of the opposing 2015 pitchers, where 100 is considered league-average, and a figure lower than 100 means better pitchers. It might be easier to explain after the table.

 

Opposing Pitcher Quality, 2015
Player ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Miguel Sano 95 96 96
Carlos Correa 103 99 101
Francisco Lindor 100 101 101

 

Taking Sano, his average opponent has had an ERA- of 95, or 5 percent better than the league. The other two marks are 4 percent better than the league. Correa and Lindor look more average. We can estimate, based on this, that the pitchers Sano has faced have been about 5 percent better than the pitchers Correa and Lindor have faced. You expect these things to even out over time, but they don’t always do that. It follows from this that, if Sano has indeed faced tougher opponents, that makes his offensive advantage all the more impressive. He’s done that against better pitchers than average.

Baseball Prospectus keeps a quality-of-opposition stat. They use slightly different numbers, and slightly different inputs, but I can tell you this: setting, again, a minimum of 200 plate appearances, we get Sano facing the toughest slate of opponents in all of baseball. Not just rookies. All regular and semi-regular hitters. His "lead" is a narrow one, and maybe he’ll lose it before the season’s over, but this reflects what’s already happened. He’s faced considerably tougher pitchers than average, and still he’s done what he’s done at the plate. You have to think that should earn him a few bonus points.

Maybe it won’t. This is complicated, and not the sort of information voters typically keep in mind. And even if you did give Sano bonus points, maybe it still wouldn’t be enough to erase the advantage of the others. Correa and Lindor do have the games played, and they do have the key defensive position. This isn’t going to be an easy thing for Sano to win. He can lose it, very deservedly. The others are also terrific.

Just consider this a point in Sano’s favor. And independent of any thoughts of awards, consider this one more reason why Sano’s big-league debut has been spectacular. You see the hits. You see the numbers. Now think about who those numbers have come against. This has really been something.