It’s always Sonny in St. Petersburg

Think of the 25 best starting pitchers from 2008.

Undoubtedly, you’ve thought of such mainstays as CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Johan Santana and Brandon Webb. You’ve probably thought of the guys who came out of nowhere to have fantastic seasons, like Cliff Lee and Ryan Dempster. You’ve thought of the youngsters who burst onto the scene, like Tim Lincecum, Edinson Volquez and Chad Billingsley.

But did you think of Andy Sonnanstine?

Sonnanstine had the 22nd best tRA of any starting pitcher this year. He also posted a 4.38 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and racked up 124 strikeouts (against only 37 walks) in 193 innings. Sonnanstine’s lack of strikeouts prevent him from becoming a fantasy ace, but he’s still an excellent pitcher whose ERA should have been even lower this year.

Sonnanstine suffered from a .312 BABIP this year, despite playing in front of one of the league’s best defenses. The Rays defense should be above-average once again next year, and Sonnanstine’s BABIP is likely to regress to the .270-.290 range, which should help to lower both his WHIP and his ERA.

In fact, Sonnanstine posted a 3.91 FIP this year – over 40 points lower than his actual ERA. Part of this difference can be blamed on Sonnanstine’s poor luck on balls in play; however, Sonnanstine also suffered from a very low left-on-base percentage.

Sonnanstine managed to strand only 66.3% of the runners who reached base against him – the fifth-worst mark of any qualifying starting pitcher. Not surprisingly, Sonnanstine pitched poorly with runners on base, allowing a .286/.314/.459 line with men on base, as compared to a .271/.310/.437 line with no one on base. This is not a huge difference; however, unfortunately for Sonnanstine, he allowed hits in the worst situations: with the bases loaded, batters were 3-for-6 with two doubles against him; with men at second and third, batters were 4-for-6 with a homer; and batters hit .345 against him when a runner was at third with less than two outs.

Even though he gave up more hits in “clutch” situations than regular situations, Sonnanstine struck out the same percentage of batters he faced with runners aboard as when no one was on base. In other words, Sonnanstine’s stuff doesn’t appear to have declined with men on base. Rather, he simply gave up a disproportionate amount of hits in the worst situations.

If you believe that this is evidence of Sonnanstine not having the mental fortitude to pitch well in important situations, I will point out that Sonnanstine allowed 0 earned runs in 13 innings in consecutive starts against the Red Sox in September, and he posted a 4.24 ERA in three postseason starts. He’s clearly unfazed by pressure situations. Therefore, there’s no reason to think that Sonnanstine’s ability to pitch with men on base is any different than in other situations. Rather, Sonnanstine’s poor showing with runners on base is likely due to random fluctuation.

Sonnanstine pitched quite well this year and experienced a rather large amount of bad luck. In fact, the 41 point difference between Sonnanstine’s ERA and FIP was the 12th largest discrepancy of qualifying starting pitchers. If that luck regresses next season, he could lower his ERA and WHIP even further, while continuing to rack up wins thanks to the strong team around him. While Sonnanstine will never strike out a ton of hitters, he will make up for this by contributing in three other categories, and is likely to be undervalued on draft day.

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The reference to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia made me smile.