From 2008 to 2011, Jonathan Sanchez has the fourth highest strikeout rate (24.1%) of any starting pitcher in baseball (500 IP minimum), ranking behind only Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw, and Yovani Gallardo. Given this ability to consistently miss bats, Sanchez is often lauded as a pitcher with a lot of untapped potential. Pitchers who can post those kinds of strikeout rates are often quite successful, and if Sanchez could just refine the other parts of his game, he looks like he could turn into a dominant starting pitcher.
There’s just one problem – Sanchez isn’t even close to refining those other parts of his game, and we simply can’t ignore that he’s a massively flawed pitcher. Over the same time period (and again, 500 inning minimum), no starting pitcher has posted a worse walk rate than Sanchez’s 12.3% mark, and it’s not even all that close. The next worst mark is Gio Gonzalez, more than a full percentage point behind, and he is then followed closely by Barry Zito.
Sanchez’s high walk and high strikeout rates are the product of his propensity for pitching up in the strike zone, where contact is less frequent but so is the likelihood of getting a called strike. By pitching up in the zone, Sanchez is essentially choosing a strategy that increases the likelihood of deep counts, thus increasing both his walk and strikeout rates. Unlike some other high walk/high strikeout pitchers who simply need to improve their command of premium stuff, Sanchez is getting his whiffs through location, and if he began to throw more strikes, he’d likely see a significant drop in his strikeout rate as well.
Evaluating what Sanchez could be if he could just get his walks under control is a bit of a fantasy, and one that is not likely to come into being. Instead, we need to evaluate Sanchez for what he actually is, and that requires looking at the negative value of the walks in addition to the positive value of the strikeouts.
This pitch-to-no-contact strategy has essentially resulted in Sanchez being the poster boy for a league average starting pitcher. In just over 700 career innings, his career ERA- is 103, just slightly higher than his FIP/xFIP marks (both 100). These are basically identical to the league averages posted by starting pitchers over that time frame. On a per-inning basis, Sanchez has personified an average starting pitcher, but his high pitch counts and health problems have limited his innings totals, making him slightly below average when quantity is considered with quality of innings pitched.
Average (or slightly below average) pitchers certainly have value – guys like Jon Garland, Carl Pavano, Brett Myers, and Randy Wolf have all been given decent contracts as free agents over the past few winters based on similar-ish production, though each go about getting to their averageness in different ways. The going rate for this type of pitcher tends to be in the $8 million per year range and they’ve historically gotten 2-3 guaranteed years depending on prior health. Given Sanchez’s arm problems, he’d be on the low end of the durability spectrum, but he’d probably have been able to command a two year deal if he was a free agent.
Because he’s under team control for one more season, the Royals get to forego the risk of having to guarantee multiple years to acquire an average starting pitcher. However, since Sanchez is headed to arbitration with 5+ years of service time and made $4.8 million in salary last year, they’re probably not going to save much in annual average value compared to signing a comparable free agent. Sanchez is likely to get a salary for 2012 in the $6-$8 million range, not far from what similar pitchers will land in free agency.
There’s certainly some value in avoiding the multiple years needed to sign a free agent, so Sanchez is a positive asset, even though his salary is approaching something close to market value. The Royals also have more depth in the outfield than they do in the rotation, so it’s understandable why they would want to swap Melky Cabrera for Sanchez in order to better reallocate their resources.
That said, Kansas City should be realistic about what they’re getting in return for Cabrera – a guy who doesn’t have the kind of upside that might be suggested from a cursory look at his strikeout rate, and has essentially proven to be an average starting pitcher with durability questions throughout his career. He’ll make their rotation a bit better than it was before the deal, but he’s not the kind of “front line starter” than Dayton Moore has professed to be looking for. He’s a useful arm whose K% is intriguing, but once you look at the total package, he’s more of a decent role player than any kind of long term rotation savior.