The Over/Under on Jonathan Sanchez
Last season the Giants rotation was very good. It’s easy to acknowledge, but if you look closely you’ll realize just how good they were, and just how difficult it’s going to be repeating this success. Everyone either pitched over their heads or to expectations, and the end result was that a historically bad offense mattered a little less than it would have with a league average pitching
Examining the starting staff top to bottom, you start to see that we’ve got out the work we’ve got cut out this season. Tim Lincecum pitched to his expectations–namely the ones that make him the best pitcher in baseball. Matt Cain had an absurdly low ERA given his .268 BABIP and 18.7% LD%. For those of you who don’t know the significance of those stats, basically Matty got lucky in 2009. Real lucky. Like unrepeatable lucky. He made marginal improvements from 2008 which is shown in his reduced walk rate, but for the most part another sub-3 ERA season simply won’t happen. Then we have Barry Zito, who exceeded everyone’s expectations by being league-average. And finally, we have Jonathan Sanchez, the one guy in the group who has yet to even graze his ceiling.
Sanchez has a lot going for him that could make him into a potential ace. He’s left-handed, he has electric stuff, and he misses a lot of bats. He took huge steps forward in 2009 after being relegated to the bullpen early on in the year. After his no-hitter he was damn near untouchable, and lot of that can be contributed to altered mechanics and pitch selection. First off, he threw his changeup much less (11.9% in 2009 vs. 15% in 2008), threw his slider nearly twice as often (21.3% 2009 vs. 12.3% 2008), and changed his leg kick to where his back was almost completely to the hitter, keeping his front shoulder from flying open. In terms of pitch value (as measured by Fan Graphs), his slider scored an 11.4, bettering the 2008 score of -1.3.
All this points to a phenomenal 2010 right? Well no. He still walked 4.8 guys per 9 nine innings, which was actually worse than 2008, and just as bad as his 2007 rate. He’s still not completely sure where the ball is going, and is still very much prone to the 4 inning/6 K/90 pitch outing. Until he can harness his control, he’ll still be a work in progress. All the pieces are there for a future ace, but time’s running short for the 27 year-old lefty to get his act together.
The fact that control is a difficult thing to really fix makes Sanchez a bit of an anomaly when it comes to projection. If he takes the proper steps forward in finding the plate, then he can be downright dominant. If he takes steps in the wrong direction, then it could get ugly. Now if he does exactly what he did last year, things could be worse, but with the upcoming regression of Matt Cain, the uncertainty surrounding the 5th starter, and the likelihood of Zito continuing to be perfectly average, we need more from Sanchez than a lateral movement. A marked improvement of his walk rate and pitch efficiency would spell doom for opposing hitters. A complete lack of this does not bode well, namely due to the fact that should he pitch poorly and get banished to the bullpen, our other option to start would be Todd Wellemeyer.
Much of the success of the pitching staff in the coming season hinges on how Sanchez progresses. With his improvement alone, our rotation could equal last year’s amazing season. The talent is all there, it’s just a question of him learning how to make the ball go where he wants it to, which is much easier said than done. Couple this with the remote possibility of the offense getting a notch closer to league average, and the NL West is up for grabs. It may seem like a lot to put on the shoulders of one player, but without this happening, larger miracles need to occur in its place. And lots of them.
Photo used with express permission of Joseph Pun and AZ Giants.