What Went Wrong With Jonathan Sanchez

On Tuesday afternoon, the Kansas City Royals designated left-handed starter Jonathan Sanchez for assignment. The Royals, of course, acquired Sanchez and rightleft-handed pitcher Ryan Verdugo from the San Francisco Giants over the winter, in exchange for Melky Cabrera. At the time, the trade came in for criticism and praise on both sides, which suggested it was a fair deal. Obviously, it was not.

Sanchez started 12 games for the Royals this season but pitched only 53 1/3 innings, an average of fewer than six five innings per start. He was on the disabled list from early May to early June with left bicep tendinitis, the same maladay that kept him the disabled list for more than a month last season. With the Royals, Sanchez’s strikeout rate (6.08/9), walk rate (7.43/9), batting average against (.294), and WHIP (2.04) were all the worst of his career. His FIP was 6.42, the highest in the majors for starters with more than 50 innings pitched.

Throughout his career, which began with the Giants in 2006, Sanchez battled problems with his command. His walk rate never dipped below 4.00/9, even in 2010, his best season in the majors. And yet, there were games — and stretches of games — when Sanchez was quite effective. His no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on July 10, 2009 is one example, but there were others. Because even when Sanchez was wild, he still possessed — until this season — “swing-and-miss” stuff.

Let’s look at some video first, and then delve into the numbers.

Here’s a clip from a Sanchez start in September, 2010 against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, as the Giants were battling for the National West title. Sanchez struck out nine: one looking, five swing-throughs on fastballs and three swing-throughs on off-speed pitches.

Sanchez had a similar game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in May, 2011. Seven strikeouts, one looking, and six swing-throughs: three on fastballs, three on off-speed pitches.

But there are no MLB clips of six and seven strikeout games for Sanchez this season. His season high was five strikeouts in an April 24 game against the Cleveland Indians. He also walked seven in that game.

What happened?

Here are some numbers. They’re not all the numbers you can look at, but the ones I found most interesting, for the 2010, 2011, and 2012 seasons.

2010 2011 2012
Fastball velocity 90.5 mph 89.7 mph 89.1 mph
Changeup velocity 81.2 mph 82.8 mph 83.2 mph
Slider velocity 80.4 mph 80.9 mph 80.1 mph
First-pitch strike rate 57.4% 53.4% 50.7%
Swinging strike rate 9.8% 9.7% 7.2%
O-Swing rate 28.2% 27.5% 21.4%

Notice the drop in Sanchez’s fastball velocity, coupled with the increase in his change-up velocity. In 2010, the difference in speed between his fastball and his change-up was 8.7 mph. This season the difference shrunk to 5.9 mph. At a slower speed, his fastball was easier to hit, and at a higher speed, his change-up was easier to detect, resulting in fewer swing-throughs on both pitches. That’s corroborated by the drop in Sanchez’s O-swing numbers over the last three seasons.

What accounts for the changes in Sanchez’s velocity since 2010? Perhaps it’s the left bicep tendinitis that’s bothered him since last season. Or changes in his mechanics. Or maybe it’s the fact that Sanchez will turn 30 years old in November. The last factor would be consistent with the analysis of my colleague Bill Petti, who has studied the decline in velocity as pitchers age and how it affects performance.

Whatever the cause, Sanchez’s declining fastball velocity and increased off-speed velocity tipped the balance, changing him from an effectively-wild pitcher to a wildly ineffective one.

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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

29 Responses to “What Went Wrong With Jonathan Sanchez”

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  1. Justin says:

    Looks like he needs to go to a relief role, maybe his fbv can jump 1-2 mph and he will regain that gap between the fb and change.

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    • Baltar says:

      He has always walked way too many guys to be an effective reliever, even when he was in his prime.

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      • Justin says:

        Yeah but you can be an average middle reliever with high walks, kinda like a Jose Veras type.

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  2. chri521 says:

    He’s always been the second coming of Oliver Perez in my eyes… and that’s not a compliment.

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    • Choo says:

      Well, technically Jonathan Sanchez is the 4th coming of Oliver Perez, 3rd coming of Scott Kazmir, 2nd coming of Francisco Liriano, and 1st coming of himself, the latter of which is not to be confused with masturbation unless you would prefer it that way. I mean, who am I to stop you from thinking about that.

      The family crest for this lineage depicts a shield surrounded by four baseballs and the image of Kazuhisa Ishii being devoured by a dragon.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      I’ve thought that way about him for the last few years. The ‘good’ Sanchez was similar to the ‘good’ Perez, and it’s remarkable how they both fell off a cliff in similar fashion. Physically, they look like they can be brothers or cousins. Their skillsets are similar. They’ve always been seen as having great ‘stuff’ but not harnessing it enough. The main difference is that Ollie was able to score a nice 3-year deal before falling apart, while Sanchez won’t have that chance.

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  3. Bigmouth says:

    I’ve always thought Sanchez was the second coming of Atlee Hammaker and destined to break Giants fans’ hearts. Looks like we dodged that bullet.

    I still think his problem is mental, but you make a compelling case, Wendy.

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  4. Detroit Michael says:

    Hey, at least Sanchez isn’t having the worst season of the two pitchers that the Royals acquired in the Melky Cabrera trade:
    2012 MLB ERA for Sanchez: 7.76
    2012 MLB ERA for Verdugo: 32.20

    OK, that might not cheer up Royals fans, but maybe Sanchez’ mom will feel better.

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  5. Gadwin says:

    Small error, but Verdugo is a lefty, not a righty.

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  6. DrBGiantsfan says:

    It’s probably mostly a physical problem leading to decreased velocity and less effective “stuff.” On the other hand, I’ve got to believe at least some of it is mental too. In 2011, it looked like the mound was the last place on Earth he wanted to be, like his mind was a thousand miles away or something.

    Whenever he was asked by reporters about the walk rates, he would get extremely defensive and insist that he did not regard it as a problem and did not have any plans to change his approach.

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  7. Richie says:

    Correction: Sanchez is averaging fewer than 5 innings a start

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  8. Wendy, his cut FB had 2 stage break when he was on, sort in the same vein as Bumgarner’s does now. That’s just gone now. Nothing but line drives and hard contact. Oddly, with Bumgarner, same thing happens to him when that cut FB inside to RHB loses it’s tilt.

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  9. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Simple, he doesn’t have Rags as his pitching coach anymore.

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  10. Neil says:

    He’s got to be hurt. I heard Keith Law say it last week and it makes a lot of sense. There’s an injury that he isn’t talking about or doesn’t realize. Sanchez was never an elite pitcher or anything, but pretty much everything you can do to measure a SP shows he went from erratic but useful to a mess in one offseason.

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  11. Ben says:

    Not only were his innings pitched under 6 per start, they were under 5!

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  12. Wendy Thurm says:

    Thanks for picking up the errors, guys. All are fixed. The hazards of writing after everyone in the house has gone to sleep.

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  13. Sabergid says:

    I sadly admit that I thought this trade was not going to work out well for the Giants… I guess Sabean is allowed a good trade once a decade.

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  14. gypsysoul says:

    Really? Is the difference in fastball velocity that significant? Is there any data pointing to it being significant?

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    • Cidron says:

      the big issue in velocity is the gap from fastball to his offspeed. Not much gap there, so, the reaction time is very similar. read, react, swing. You got the same basic time whether it is fastball or offspeed. You want a speedchange of more than 10mph. If they are to close, you get hammered, regardless of how fast your fastball is. It is called “off speed” for a reason.. make them look at something that is well off the speed of a fastball.

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  15. Jeff Mathis does Steroids says:

    According to my math, at the rate he is going, by 2016 his fastball will move at 86.36 MPH and his changeup will be 87.35 MPH. By 2019 his fastball will be 84.26 MPH and his changeup will be 90.61 MPH. And in 2027, when he is 45ish years old, his fastball will be 79.26 MPH and his changeup will be 99.89 MPH.

    IMO, he isn’t just failing, he is starting over. He is turning himself back into a prospect. The man is a genius.

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  16. Cory says:

    It appears he’s getting around the ball now as opposed to the 2010 footage. He has a little bit of a slinging motion anyway, but if you compare these clips to footage of his outing against the Mariners a few nights ago it’s more obvious.

    I hadn’t seen him pitch this season, but went back and reviewed the footage from the Mariners game. He looks like a pitcher hiding an injury.

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