If you go to our pitcher leader boards and sort by BB/9, you’ll see a trio of lefties on top. Jonathan Sanchez, Gio Gonzalez, and C.J. Wilson pitched effectively in 2010 despite being the only three qualified pitchers in baseball to walk more than four per nine. Yet all of them out-performed all of their peripherals, in some cases to a considerable degree. It made me wonder who is the best bet in the long-term. In other words, if you got to pluck one of these guys from his current team, under his current circumstances, whom would you choose?
The case for Sanchez
In terms of results Sanchez put together the best year of these three. His strikeout rate was about two per nine better than the others, and his ERA was the lowest. While we can find encouragement in the former, especially since it was right around his career mark, we know the perils of relying on ERA as a predictor. In terms of his more predictive peripheral ERAs, it’s tough to be high on Sanchez heading into 2011.
The reasons for my bearish view on Sanchez’s 2011 don’t center on BABIP, though his .262 mark from 2010 certainly won’t hold up. That will affect his ERA right away. He’ll also probably have worse infield defense behind him, as he’s going from Juan Uribe to Miguel Tejada at shortstop. What really worries me about Sanchez is his high walk rate combined with average-ish home run rate. His HR/FB ratio was right around the 10 percent rate we use for xFIP, and has been around that mark for his career.
Those two factors then further combine with his high strand rate — 79.5 percent, well above his 72.2 percent career rate and fourth highest in the league in 2010 — to create a situation that he probably won’t sustain. If his LOB% falls to his career level next year, those walks are going to hurt more. The home runs will hurt more. I’d expect his ERA to climb into the 3.90 to 4.20 range next year. While that’s not bad by any stretch, it’s considerably worse than his 2010 performance.
Still, betting on Sanchez’s future might be a worthy endeavor. He still has two years of team control remaining, and he made only $2 million in 2010. That could help keep his cost a bit down in the next few years, though he’ll get a considerable bump this year. What I like about Sanchez’s future is that anyone who strikes out so many guys can sometimes keep his strand rate high, and therefore can cover up some of his deficiencies. I might not want to put Sanchez in a park such as Arlington, but he could help out many teams in his two remaining arbitration years.
The case for Gonzalez
You don’t need to look past Gonzalez’s birth date to realize the advantage he has over both Sanchez and Wilson. He just turned 25, while Sanchez is 28 and Wilson 30. He also has under two years of service time, meaning he has plenty of team control left. While he’ll almost certainly qualify as a Super Two next off-season, he is still under team control through the 2015 season. He’d have to be quite worse than the other two in order to not be the best value.
In terms of numbers, Gonzalez’s 2010 makes him appear to be a viable starter going forward. Despite his high walk rate he still managed a 3.78 FIP and 4.18 xFIP, and if either of those represents his 2011 ERA I don’t think anyone can complain. As with Sanchez, Gonzalez stranded a ton of runners this season, 78.1 percent, which was the 11th highest rate in the league. If that heads down towards the low 70s, his ERA will certainly climb. But will it climb higher than Wilson’s and Sanchez’s?
While Gonzalez’s age generally plays in his favor, it also brings a set of questions we can’t yet answer. Back in his prospect days scouts has many concerns about his ability and his make-up. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why he was traded three times before reaching the majors. Here’s what Baseball America said about him before the 2009 season:
Gonzalez has been a prolific strikeout pitcher, but his fastball command is below average and led to an excess of walks in his brief stint with Oakland. He needs to repeat his delivery with more frequency, which in turn will lead to better command.
I’m not sure about the delivery repetition, but he certainly didn’t improve his command in 2010 (unless he somehow improved his command without having much control, which is an odd combination). I always consider it at least a little concerning when a scouting report touches on something a player has to improve and, results be damned, he doesn’t improve on it.
Kevin Goldstein’s take was a bit more pessimistic than BA’s:
Gonzalez is inconsistent on a level that baffles scouts and team officials; he can look dominant one day and overmatched the next, depending on what kind of command he has in any particular outing. He still needs to make adjustments, since he was used to getting most of his strikeouts outside the zone until more advanced hitters began forcing him to challenge them.
Put all together, I take this to mean that Gonzalez can be better than both Sanchez and Wilson in the future, but to bet on that scenario represents a considerable risk. It’s one I’m not sure I’d make. In other words, while he has room to develop, I’m not certain at all of his projectability.
The case for Wilson
At a mere glance it’s clear that Wilson has plenty working against him. At age 30 he’s the oldest of the bunch, yet he has the least amount of starting experience among the three. He’ll also hit free agency after the 2011 season and is in line for a big raise this off-season. But at the same time if I had to pick one of these guys for just the 2011 season it would be Wilson. That leaves at least a little room for him in this conversation.
If anything stands out about Wilson’s 2010 numbers it’s his HR/FB rate, which was a career low 5.3 percent. The problem is we don’t know how much of that resulted form his conversion to starting and how much of it will regress in 2011. His ground ball tendencies help mitigate the HR/FB ratio, but again I’m not sure to what extent. I’d be far more comfortable projecting him at his career rate, 9.1 percent, than keeping him as lows as 5.3 percent. That could change things, but I think he’ll fall somewhere in between.
Where does that leave him? I can definitely see him as a 3.50 to 4.00 ERA kinda guy for a number of years, and I can see it depending on his home run rate. In terms of control, 4.10 BB/9 is probably what we can expect going forward. Ditto his 7.50 K/9, though that’s a bit tougher to project because of his history as a reliever. His health, too, is difficult to forecast. His biggest problem in 2010 was blisters, which certainly bodes well considering his enormous increase in work load.
The reason Wilson loses in this conversation is because of his impending free agency. If he has a quality 2011 he’ll almost certainly land a big contract, since there aren’t many high quality pitchers in the 2011-2012 free agent class. Then again, Sanchez is only a year behind him and will hit free agency at a younger age. That’s what makes this a tough decision.
If San Francisco, Texas, and Oakland all lined up and each offered me one of the above guys for the same Player X, I’d probably accept San Francisco’s offer. It wasn’t an easy choice, as each player has a pretty clear set of pros and cons, but I think in terms of current and future value I’d get the most out of Sanchez.
Really, it’s the strikeout rate that does it for me. I’m not convinced any of these guys will improve his walk rate. With Wilson and Sanchez it has been pretty well established, and with Gonzalez we heard about these issues since his prospect days. I also don’t think Gonzalez will significantly increase his strikeout rate, because of his previous and current inability to get higher level hitters to chase his pitches out of the zone. And then there’s the whole issue of his overall projectability — he is, after all, a pretty small dude for a pitcher.
That’s the whole thing with Gonzalez. He represents the lowest risk in one way, because he is the cheapest and under team control for the longest. Yet he’s the biggest risk, in that I think that both Wilson and Sanchez have a better chance of staying close to their 2010 performances in the future. I’m susceptible to arguments otherwise, but given the evidence as presented I’m a bit higher on Sanchez.