Jonathan Sanchez Isn’t As Good As His K%

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.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

60 Responses to “Jonathan Sanchez Isn’t As Good As His K%”

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  1. Blue says:

    Better than Jair Jurrjens for Lorenzo Cain, so it is a winner in my book.

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  2. Tony says:

    Sanchez will by default become a front of the line starter for the Royals. But i don’t think anyone in the Royals Front Office is assuming they just got a true #1 (they might say something to that effect to the press, but that’s only for PR purposes).

    The fact is there aren’t alot of pitchers to be ‘got’ much less for the talent that is Melky. By no means is Melky horrible but he certainly wasn’t going to get anything of much more value than sanchez.

    every since Al Gore invented the internet there has never been a ‘fair’ trade between two teams. Only “Team X got fleeced by Team Y” type of trades.

    Is it so hard to believe that there is such a thing as a fair win-win’ish trade?

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      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.

      Clearly, this should be translated as “Royals made a dumb trade.”

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      • ecp says:

        Why? It’s not dumb at all.

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      • Matt says:

        Tony needs to re-read the article.

        Ecp needs a lesson in sarcasm :)

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      • Tony says:

        That part shouldn’t be translated that way but this part cerainly could be:

        “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.”

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      • NBarnes says:

        I love you, Dave, but this comment is taking brevity being the soul of wit a bit far. I’m not sure what you mean.

        For my part, getting anything back for Melky Cabrera constitutes a victory. Getting a vaguely interesting starting pitcher back is more than nothing, ergo Royals win.

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      • Really? I’m assuming you’re kidding, Dave. (This is a great article, btw: I feel like this provides a lot of insight on Sanchez’s value, how he will develop, etc.)

        I can’t see how this is a bad trade for the Royals at all. Melky had a career year on a BABIP 35 points above his career average (not necessarily the only thing to look at, of course) and is also under team control for one year, like Sanchez. If the Royals believe Lorenzo Cain is ready to replace some-to-most of Melky’s production (I’m not convinced of that, actually, being a Brewers fan), then Sanchez for Melky doesn’t seem bad even if it was straight up.

        But the Royals also got Ryan Verdugo.

        Granted, Verdugo probably doesn’t have ace upside, but he’s posted solid enough numbers in the minors to be considered a pretty good prospect, and one that the Royals have under cost control for at least six years.

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      • Ari Collins says:

        Dave, you should use sarcasm more. It works great on the internet.

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  3. Steve says:

    He’s Oliver Perez.

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  4. John says:

    uh, no shit, dave.

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  5. mcneo says:

    Solid trade for the Royals. He’s not an Ace, and maybe he’s no better than Francis or Chen; but it’ll be fun to watch Lorenzo Cain play Centerfield.

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  6. GotHeem says:

    Still wasn’t worth a prospect on top of the trade. All the Giants fans are probably going to go nuts thinking Melky is better than he really is.

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    • bblh says:

      uh…no, Giants are going nuts due to Sabean’s incompetence. This trade isn’t *awful* for us, but it’s not good. And no Giants fan really trusts Sabean to trade Lincecum/Cain and get their true value in return.

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      • Reede says:

        Giants fan here. Not going nuts. It’s a typical Brian Sabean trade. We get an offensive player that can’t get on base to bat at the top of the order. And we give up a pitcher that, while Dave’s assessment is correct, could probably have brought more than Cabrera. And we throw in a second pitcher on the side.

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      • Husker says:

        GotHeem’s intuition is correct. bblh’s opinion is similar to mine, but at least 90% of the commenters in Baggarly’s blog approved of the trade, most very enthusiastically. (102 runs! 102 runs!)
        I got ridiculed for panning it.

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    • Naveed says:

      I don’t like this trade; neither do any of the other Giants fans I’ve spoken to.

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  7. Scout Finch says:

    Sanchez is also a bullpen wrecking ball. His high pitch counts result in quite a few 5 inning outings and handful of the stinkers that demand 5+ innings from the pen. He averaged just a hair over 5 IP /GS start last year, so KC would be advised to have him followed in the rotation by a horse.

    Giants fans say ‘good riddance’.

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  8. Hurtlocker says:

    I don’t disagree with your assessment of Sanchez, but look at Sandy Koufax’s
    first 4-5 years, his numbers are similar to Sanchez’s. Don’t get me wrong, Jonathan Sanchez will never be Koufax, but it is possible to finally get that perfect release point and be a great pitcher. I’ve seen almost every one of Sanchez’s games and at times he goes from unhittable to walking 4-5 straight guys in the next inning.

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      But what he’s saying is that Sanchez’s problems aren’t with control, but with nibbling at the top of the zone. That’s the whole point of the article.

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      • Hurtlocker says:

        I disagree, I’ve seen him pitch a lot, he is just plain wild. I’ve seen him miss by 3-4 feet in many games.

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      • cs3 says:

        I disagree, I’ve seen him pitch a lot, he is just plain wild. I’ve seen him miss by 3-4 feet in many games.
        ====================================

        Ya exactly, if you watch Sanch pitch often youll see that he just plain does not have any control.
        Hes had the 3rd most walks in baseball since 2009, the 6th most wild pitches, and has thrown far fewer innings than any of the pitchers who had more. Hes also hit more batters (21) than all but 30 other pitchers in that time frame.
        Thats just outta control WILD.

        I can believe that his tendency to pitch up in the zone exacerbates his control problem, but its not the cause of it.

        (Matt Cain pitches up in the zone more consistently than almost any other starting pitcher in MLB and hes been pretty successful)

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      • cs3 says:

        To further illustrate my point take a look at Sanchez’ heat maps:

        http://www.fangraphs.com/heatmap.aspx?playerid=7507&position=P&pitch=FA&size=14&inty=80&pal=2

        Those are just fastball charts since I assume we all agree that the fastball is the pitch most often intentionally used up in the top of the strike zone.
        It shows that hes not just up… hes everywhere

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      • Eminor3rd says:

        I don’t know, that heat map looks just like what Dave was saying. Tons of pitching middle-up. Yes, there’s wildness there too, though.

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      • joe says:

        While some of it may be pitching up in the zone by design, I think most of it is poor command/control. Leaving pitches up on the arm side is not always intentionally done – if he’s struggling with his release point and/or opening up too quickly it’s natural to leave the ball up on the arm side of the plate (especially with fastballs). Similarly if he’s not doing this on other pitches (say a changeup or slider), it is also not conclusive that he’s doing it intentionally on fastballs.

        The evidence is he is up in the zone… there is no evidence in this article that it is being done by design or not. There is only a conclusion that he is doing this intentionally because it fits the narrative.

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      • YazInLeft8 says:

        I think the use of Heat Maps by cs3 is terrific. I then compared it to Justin Verlander’s map, which surely was a cruel comparison, but what I saw was staggering.

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  9. Sean says:

    From the Giants’ standpoint, would you say this trade is a slight upgrade or more of a lateral move? If Melky plays at his career average offensively, he’d be a boon to the Giants’ offense (sadly), whereas a league-average pitcher is an expendable asset in their deep rotation.

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  10. Ari Collins says:

    Interesting point. It’s not “great stuff with terrible command,” which would bespeak upside, but “good stuff with location issues/decisions that lead to little contact,” which doesn’t have any upside.

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  11. NS says:

    Regarding the title: did someone say he was?

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  12. Chuck Hussel says:

    Using your criteria, Sanchez has yielded a BABIP of .280 – 15th lowest in MLB in that 4 year span. His LD% was 17.9 – 9th lowest in MLB. His IFFB% was 12.0 – 12th highest in MLB. He’s induced slightly more GB than FB, 41.3% vs. 40.8%.

    Walking fewer batters and “pitching to contact” would be a bad/indifferent thing for Sanchez? Because he pitches up in the zone more than most strikeout pitchers? I must be missing something here. Would someone please help me better understand this line of reasoning? I understand that his K% might fall, but his batted ball profile seems strong and issuing fewer BB would help offset the decrease in K rate, right? What am I missing.

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  13. Bip says:

    If he pitches mainly at the top of the zone, does that mean that we should expect his home run rate to jump up now that he’s away from AT&T/Dave Righetti/whatever magic spell the Giants cast to keep balls in the park?

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  14. Ridiculous says:

    Ah, FanGraphs: Where the smug come for strength in numbers.

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  15. Colin says:

    Getting a league average pitcher for Melky Cabrera is a win.

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    • joe says:

      But it’s Dayton Moore…. so it’s got to be spun.

      If Theo or AA make this trade the article is couched in upside and risk/reward… for a non-favored GM it’s “meh, he’s not getting an ace”

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        Trading a guy who you don’t need because you have a prospect to fill in and in exchange getting a guy who will be one of your best pitchers is a win.

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    • Ari Collins says:

      Getting a guy who only has a chance at being a league average pitcher again is not a win.

      Although I’m not sure how much chance Melky has of being a league average CF moving forward himself.

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  16. fergie348 says:

    If the point of this article was to indicate that Sanchez is intentionally working up in the zone and has decent control and just refuses to give in, then I have to disagree based upon the games I’ve seen him pitch.

    I’m not saying that this was Dave’s point, but if you watch him closely in games it just seems that he goes from being locked in to not knowing where the ball is going sometimes several times an inning. He’s crazy inconsistent, sometimes in a single at bat.

    I’ve seen games where he has essentially no fastball command and tries to pitch the whole game backwards, throwing mostly breaking pitches down and away hoping that he doesn’t have to go to his fastball. He’s a chore to watch (and to catch..) and I’m not sorry he’s gone.

    Melky Cabrera probably won’t reproduce his 2011 numbers at AT&T, but we need someone to play in the outfield and Gary Brown won’t be ready for a couple more years. An outfield of Brandon Belt, Melky Cabrera and Nate Schierholtz won’t scare anyone, but we just need league average in order to compete with our pitching, I would think.

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    • cs3 says:

      An outfield of Brandon Belt, Melky Cabrera and Nate Schierholtz won’t scare anyone, but we just need league average in order to compete with our pitching, I would think.
      ====================================
      …and a real* 1B or SS

      *2010 Huff qualifies as real

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      • fergie348 says:

        Well, yeah. From an organization perspective deciding what to do about shortstop is the most important decision that the Giants need to make this off season. We have enough regular players who can play 1st. Shortstop? Not so much..

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  17. Nate says:

    I have also watched nearly every one of Jonathan Sanchez’s starts in the last 3+ years, and I totally agree that he is just plain wild. He has trouble maintaining his arm slot, which is why almost all of his fastballs naturally tail high and wide. When he does get on top of the ball, he’s able to pound the inside corner with the fastball, then drop a Randy Johnson-esque slider to a RH backfoot – nearly unhittable combination. Hence why he led the league in BAA in 2010.

    But like others said, Sanchez cruises along and then he just loses his feel for his mechanics and walks three or four guys in a row without ever throwing anything close to a strike.

    I also think his so-called “injury history” is a bit of a misnomer. The extent of his arm problems was a dead arm period this past year that was officially diagnosed as biceps tendinitis. His other injury in 2009 was oblique and the ankle sprain in 2011 was a freak play on a bunt.

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  18. JG says:

    Wow, I completely missed the news of this trade and was briefly very confused as to why you suddenly started discussing the Royals in the 7th paragraph until it clicked that he had been traded today.

    May want to include a token sentence in the first paragraph of future articles for people whose first dose of the hot stove today was fangraphs…

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  19. AnyoneButMelky says:

    I also was confused by what this article was about – having not checked baseball news in the past 12hrs – but the true reason for my confusion was not the author’s writing style, it was that I immediately skipped straight to the denial stage of my grief process.

    Does anyone remember Melky on the Braves?

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  20. Candlestick Parker says:

    I don’t really know what the Giants are getting in Melky Cabrera, but the Royals just acquired Sidney Ponson.

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  21. Kevin says:

    Nobody think Sanchez is savior. Dayton Moore said he is No.3 type starter in contender team.

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  22. Justin says:

    How about we go with it is what it is? =0) Maybe this and maybe that, perhaps they lost a .300 hitting 20/20 guy for a guy whose a 4.50 in the AL and walks more than 5 per 9… Maybe Melky’s BABIP comes to .300, he hits .280 and ends up 15/25 and Sanchez ends up transferring fair with a 3.80 over 200 IP despite his location issues. Maybe Melky reverts to his trade target he has been for years, with potential unrealized, or at least suppose to be, and then Sanchez learns to work in a new pitch tight and low. Really, right now, given their pasts and years left, along with each team’s needs, I think this trade is nothing more or less than right down the middle. Call me crazy, ignorant, absurd, but I have watched both for their days in the milb.com era and not much has changed. Cameron, I love your stuff, but your 100M contract piece was fair up and above this more or less disposable and obvious oped that really give little to anyone outside of the proclamation that Sanchez will never pitch down and in…which a new pitching coach could help, although he just lost one of MLB’s best.

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  23. Amish_Willy says:

    Over those last four years opponents have hit .225/.328/.372 off Sanchez. This was a great pickup for the Royals. Rather then repeating course on the free agent market, like the 5/55m deal given to Gil Meche (Edwin Jackson fits the bill), you get an arm with a similar amount of upside without the financial burden attached. Beats the heck out of giving Cabrera a multi-year deal and kicking yourself come May.

    Will be interesting to see if Cabrera’s success continues into next year.

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  24. johnny says:

    Thinking Sanchez’s excedingly high walk rate is purely due to pitching high in the zone is a mistake. Anyone who watches him pitch regularly knows that when his mechanics are good he dominates. His league leading opp avg does make his walk totals more acceptable. If you dont count all of his starts over the last few years in which he completely lost his release point, giving you a look a the guy you would have if he ever did become cosistent, you would find a pitcher who has high walk totals but a very good overall whip. Sanchez most likely will never be a front line starter. It just seems that when a guy walks 4 batters and gives up 2 hits in 2 innings, and in the other 4 innings he pitches he doesnt give up a hit and walks maybe 1, its easy to conclude that cosistentcy9(not purely pitch selection) is largely to blame. Also, dont people with cronic control problems normaly miss high in the zone with a large percentage of their pitches?

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  25. ANIBAL SANZ says:

    Finally Kansas City has gotten an excellent pitcher that they really needed. I assure that Kansas city is getting a good pitcher that will win more than 15 games next year. We the people of Puerto Rico are very please with this transaction now he would not be in the shadow of those other pitcher of the Giants and now is SANCHEZ TIME. buena suerte te desea GERY Y MARCOS FROM PUERTO RICO.

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  26. george says:

    He doesn’t live in the top of the zone. He misses outside…inside…and throws balls in the dirt just as bad. He’s just plain wild. Take it from us Giants fans. He will follow a 7 inning gem with a 3 2/3 inning 6 walk, 4 run stinker. Loses his cool on the mound and kills your bullpen. He may still get it together, but please don’t blame the false claim that he “lives on the top of the zone”. As another poster mentioned…he loses his release point frequently in the very next inning after just having a solid one. It’s his release point. Good riddance. His act was getting old. Hope this trade works for both teams…

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  27. george says:

    Another thing…when Sanchez dominates…he has a good release point and he pitches LOW in the zone. Nasty slider and cutter. Ask us Giants fans.

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  28. Dave Beal says:

    The Royals and Dayton Moore have no confusion as to what they are getting. The new pitching coach Dave Eiland will be tasked with taking the entire pitching staff and lowering the walk totals. It will be the entire focus of Spring training, and Sanchez is going to be forced to be the poster boy for trying to turn it around. So I think there will be an improvement to be realized. Salvador Perez as the new starting Catcher is a beast at blocking balls in the dirt, and might add to the confidence Sanchez will have to keep the ball down.
    On the other side, Giants fans can expect Melky to continue his better performance. His gains came from superior coaching by Hitting Coach Kevin Seitzer and also from learning to come into the season in beter condition.

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