What to Do with Andy Sonnanstine?

I have finally joined the 2008 and got on Twitter. I cannot promise anything great from my feed, but I like how easy it is to follow baseball news and read other analysts’ passing thoughts. It has already paid off in the form of the idea for this post. This morning Sky Kalkman tweeted:

Andy Sonnanstine: trade bait, rotation candidate, bullpen filler, or AAA veteran?

I had sort of forgotten about Andy Sonnanstine, but the tweet reminded me what an interesting pitcher he is. Sonnanstine was worth over 3.5 wins for the Rays in 2008, but then things fell apart in 2009. Part of that was bad luck on his BABIP and HR/FB, but part of it was also based on his performance. Sonnanstine doesn’t strike out many batters or get that many ground balls, so he needs to have a great walk rate to succeed. That is what he did in 2008 — walking just 1.7 — but in 2009 it increased to 3.0, erasing much of his value.

The increase of walks was not from missing the strike zone — his pitches were in the zone just as much — but, rather, from batters swinging less often at his out-of-zone pitches. Here are those numbers by pitch type:

             O-swing        O-contact
           2008   2009     2008   2009
Fastball   0.23   0.23     0.83   0.80
Cutter     0.22   0.19     0.73   0.72
Slider     0.40   0.35     0.55   0.69
Curve      0.29   0.26     0.57   0.86

The rates on his fastball were essentially the same, but for his cutter, slider and curve the O-Swing rates were way down. This turned many more plate appearances into walks. Another big problem was that the O-Contact rate on his slider and curve were way up, although this was not responsible for the increase in walks it does show these pitches were easier to hit.

Interestingly Sonnanstine also threw his cutter much more often in 2009. According to my pitch classifications, it went from 28% of the time in 2008 to 44% in 2009. Mostly this change came at the expense of his fastball which went from 35% to 24%. It could be that hitters do better on the cutter after seeing it more often or because they are expecting it. But I do not see evidence for this on an at-bat level. That is there was no trend for batters to do any better on the second or third cutter they see in an at-bat than the first cutter they see in at-bats against Sonnanstine.

Getting back to Sky’s question, I think I would take a little from column a, a little from column b and a little from column c. That is start him off in the pen as a long reliever — since the Rays have five better starting options — but with the eye to trading him if anything of value comes along or moving him to the rotation if needed. He has a relatively small platoon split, doing fairly well against LHBs, so deploying him as a long reliever would be a nice way to leverage that talent. Also his very deep repertoire of pitches plays well as a long reliever where he might have to face batters multiple times. These skills also mean he might be better suited as a starter if he can get things back together, which might mean throwing his fastball a little more often.

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Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.

18 Responses to “What to Do with Andy Sonnanstine?”

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  1. staplemaniac says:

    Wait, R.J didn’t write this?

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  2. Christian the Mormon says:


    “The lack of walks were not from missing the strike zone…”

    Usually a lack of walks would not be assumed to involve missing the strike zone, would it?

    “…but, rather, from batters swinging less often at his out-of-zone pitches and making more contact on out-of-zone swings”

    Swinging less often at out-of-zone pitches should definitely increase walks, but why would more contact on out-of-zone swings increase walks? Stay out of Grandma’s medicine cabinet, Dave.

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  3. Christian the Mormon says:

    No prob, Dave. As much great stuff as you guys churn out, coherence is a mere luxury. Keep up the good work.

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  4. Deacon Drake says:

    Maybe moving to the NL (or out of the AL East), where hitters aren’t as familiar with his junk, would boost his numbers.

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  5. johnf says:

    His cutter was by far his most valuable pitch in 2008 which was obviously his best season. I’m not saying he read the site and analyzed his pitch values, but maybe he got too comfortable using it that year and began overusing it in 2009 at the expense of his fastball(as you noted) which itself had negative value in 2008. This led to a decrease in effectiveness on his cutter. Sometimes you need to balance your pitches better and throw the lesser ones to set up the better ones. Throw the hittable fastball so hitters can’t sit on the otherwise tough cutter.

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    • johnf says:

      I didn’t mean to contradict what you were saying about doing better on the cutter after seeing it more often. I just mean, for instance, coming to the plate and being able to expect his cutter nearly half the time instead of a quarter(which makes it harder to sit on).

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  6. Sky Kalkman says:

    On Twitter Cork mentioned probably the most likely option — 6th starter. If any of the top five gets injured or one of the young guys struggles, Andy’s the man. Of course, the later in the year a 6th starter is needed, the more likely the Rays might skip directly to a younger guy with more upside, like Hellickson.

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    • Sky Kalkman says:

      And actually, I’d favor leaving Wade Davis in the minors until mid-May. Would keep him under team control for another year, not cost much at all in terms of performance, and build Sonny’s trade value.

      Not that the Rays want to start making it obvious when they’re showcasing players for trade.

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      • Bob says:

        Perhaps this is what Joe Maddon was setting up when he said yesterday that the 5th starter competition between Andy and Wade would end up being decided by ‘the proverbial flip of the coin’, when conventional wisdom so far had said it was Wade’s job to lose all along.

        I’m certainly hopeful for a big bounce back year for Sonnanstine but he’d have to be on an exceptionally short leash after last year, especially when he got called up to take Kazmir’s spot at home against the Red Sox and got shelled. If he were named the 5th starter he’d be set to face the Yankees at home on a Saturday, almost certainly a sell-out, and would have a chance to either announce his comeback in style or fall flat on his face in spectacular fashion.

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      • Dave Allen says:

        I hadn’t thought about that angle. That sounds like a good plan to me.

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      • Sky Kalkman says:

        Would it be crazy to just shut Davis down for now (or have never gotten him started yet this year) and start his “spring training” 1.5 months later, so that he gets the same amount of regular prep time for a May 15th debut, doesn’t start his arb clock, and limits his IP this year?

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  7. John P. says:

    Few things here:

    *Sonnanstine’s LOB% last season was impossibly low (58.4%). In fact, of all pitchers who tossed at least 80 innings in ’09, no one had a lower strand rate than Andy Sonnanstine.

    *His F-Strike% plummeted from 64% in ’08 to 57% in ’09. After falling behind in the count, it appears as though Sonnanstine was hellbent on not giving in with his heater, opting instead for his cutter and curve. Could this explain his uptick in walks?

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  8. pack says:

    Any shot the uptick in cutters being misclassified sliders?

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    • Dave Allen says:

      I don’t think so. I did a reclassification and am pretty confident in it. Also the two pitches are quite different. His cutter averages 86 mph while his slider just 78. If anything I might be mixing up some sliders and curves, which are quite close in speed and movement.

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