Scouting Jonathan Sanchez

Prior to July 10th, 2009, Giants southpaw Jonathan Sanchez was just a high-octane, low-command curiosity to those outside of the Bay Area. No-hitters have a way of raising one’s profile, however.

A 27th round pick in the 2004 draft out of Ohio Dominican University, Sanchez quickly attracted attention in San Francisco’s farm system. The lanky lefty blew hitters out of their cleats in the minors, making 48 starts and 19 relief appearances from 2004 to 2007. Sanchez punched out an obscene 11.9 batters per nine frames, displaying decent control with 3.5 BB/9.

The native of Puerto Rico shot up the prospect ladder. He ranked 23rd in Baseball America’s Giants list in 2005, 6th in 2006 and 2nd prior to the 2007 season. BA called Sanchez’s fastball “sneaky-fast,” sitting in the low-90′s while occasionally creeping up to the mid-90′s.

He also had a “plus changeup” that “fooled hitters at every level,” as well as a sweeping slider in the developmental stages. There was some concern that Sanchez’s slender frame wouldn’t hold up under a starter’s work load (his career high IP in the minors was 125.2), but lefties with wicked stuff don’t grow on trees, and he had more long-term value pitching every fifth day.

Sanchez made his big league debut in late May of 2006, pitching mostly out of the ‘pen (23 relief appearances, four starts). In 40 IP, he whiffed 7.43 batters per nine innings while handing out 5.18 BB/9. His plan was simple: chuck low-90′s fastballs (thrown 72 percent of the time, with a run value of +0.79 per 100 pitches). Sanchez’s rarely-used breaking stuff (-0.25 runs/100) and changeup (-4.16) rarely hit the intended target. His xFIP was 5.40.

In 2007, Sanchez again spent most of his time in relief, with 29 ‘pen appearances and four starts. His 5.88 ERA was ugly, but there were signs of improvement. Jonathan K’d 10.73 per nine frames, lowering his walk rate modestly as well (4.85 BB/9). His fastball, thrown 71 percent, wasn’t as effective (-0.46 runs/100), and that “plus” changeup didn’t manifest (-1.98). But sliders and curves (+2.22) got the job done. With better breaking pitches, Sanchez raised his outside swing percentage from 19.4 in ’06 to 27.2 in ’07. In 52 innings, his xFIP improved to 4.18.

The Giants made Sanchez a full-time starter in 2008, giving him 29 turns in the rotation. Sanchez struck out an impressive 8.94 hitters per nine innings, though he was generous with the free passes, too (4.85 BB/9). Still, his 4.14 xFIP in 158 innings pitched far surpassed his 5.01 ERA. The San Fran southpaw suffered from a .327 batting average on balls in play, 10th-highest among starters tossing at least 150 innings.

As a starter, Sanchez used his fastball as a security blanket. He tossed the 91 MPH offering nearly 73 percent of the time, the 7th-highest rate among starters. The pitch had a run value of +0.33 per 100 thrown. His low 80′s breaking stuff (thrown 12 percent) had a -0.39 runs/100 value. The low-80′s changeup (thrown 15 percent) remained cannon fodder (-1.51).

Though unpolished, Sanchez was plenty hard to hit. His 75.7% contact rate was well below the 80.8% major league average, and his 10.9 swinging strike percentage put him in elite territory. The MLB average for starters is 7.8 percent, and Sanchez’s figure ranked 10th among starters.

Last off-season, former Rotographs writer Peter Bendix dubbed Sanchez a breakout candidate. His reasoning?

Certainly, Sanchez threw too many balls this year (38.6%, to be exact – league average is 36.5%), and walked too many – 4.27 per nine innings. However, starting pitchers who can get as many swings-and-misses – and, therefore, strikeouts – as Sanchez are few and far between. Sanchez’s ERA was artificially inflated by his inability to “stop the bleeding” this year – a fact that is probably borne from a combination of inexperience and bad luck. Therefore, it’s likely that Sanchez will fare better in “clutch” situations next season, thus lowering his ERA, perhaps considerably.

Bendix’s prediction proved correct, as Sanchez’s ERA and peripheral stats were a near-perfect match in 2009. In 163.1 IP, Sanchez posted a 4.24 ERA while compiling a 4.19 xFIP. His BABIP came back down to .290, as the Giants featured sleek leather (5th in the majors in team Ultimate Zone Rating).

Sanchez whiffed even more hitters this past year, with an eye-popping 9.75 K/9 (6th among starters). His contact rate dipped to 73.8 percent. Among starters with 140+IP, only Rich Harden and Javier Vazquez had more success avoiding lumber in 2009.

Jonathan’s swinging strike rate remained steady at 10.8 percent, and his percentage of plate appearances ending with a K increased from 22.6 to 24.75 (16% average for starters). Not bad for a guy temporarily demoted to the bullpen in late June.

Control, however, remained elusive. Sanchez walked 4.85 batters per nine frames. He did have five intentional walks in ’09, compared to just one in 2008. But his unintentional walk rate still rose from 10.7 percent to 11.9 percent (7.5% average for starters).

In terms of pitch selection, Sanchez leaned on his fastball less than in 2008. He threw a heater 66 percent, with a league-average run value per 100 pitches (+0.06). Jonathan’s changeup still fooled no one (-1.62).

It’s his slider that made the most progress. Sanchez’s Pitch F/X data shows that he actually has a pair of low-80′s breaking pitches: a slider and a curveball. In 2008, he threw a pretty even distribution of sliders (6.3%) and curves (7.1%). In ’09, he went to the slider far more often (18 percent, compared to 4.9% for the curve).

Courtesy of Trip Somers’ Pitch F/X tool, here’s the tale of the tape for Sanchez’s breaking pitches in 2008 and 2009. Jonathan’s curve fell out of favor, while he tightened his slider:

2008

Slider: 51.7 Strike%, 14.4 Whiff%
Curve: 60.3 Strike%, 22.2 Whiff%

2009

Slider: 60.8 Strike%, 15.6 Whiff%
Curve: 53.2 Strike%, 13.7 Whiff%

Sanchez’s breaking stuff had a +1.96 run/100 value in 2009. The slider showed more bite. The average lefty slider breaks away from lefties (in toward righties) 1 to 1.5 inches more than a pitch thrown without spin. Sanchez’s slider actually broke in toward lefties 1.1 inches in ’08. In ’09, the pitch moved away from southpaw batters nearly three inches.

Despite his wildness, Sanchez has displayed the skills of an above-average starter in each of the past two seasons. The 27 year-old is a quality, if occasionally aggravating, fantasy option. Sanchez is a good bet to post another low-four’s ERA next year: CHONE pegs him for a 4.26 mark in 2010, with 9.3 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9. His control keeps him out of the batch of elite arms, but Sanchez makes the Giants rotation more than just Lincecum, Cain and pray for rain.




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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


16 Responses to “Scouting Jonathan Sanchez”

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  1. Bodhizefa says:

    Solid analysis, but is it wrong that I was hoping for an actual scouting report on Sanchez? At what point is it okay to use the word “scouting” without actually watching the guy play? No offense meant, David (it’s a nicely researched and interesting article).

    I do like your conclusion an awful lot. Instead of preaching about Sanchez’ “upside”, you veer towards a very approachable and likely outcome for him in 2010. If you need strikeouts and can take the WHIP hit, Sanchez is a sturdy play this year. I’m sure plenty of people will take him hoping for a big breakout, though.

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    • Ramah71 says:

      Sanchez has great stuff, and racks up the K’s, so when he is showing control and the walks go down, his ERA and WHIP take a tumble and he tosses a quality outing. He probably will have an ERA under 4, but don’t expect him to be a top end starter in 2010. He is, as David said, a very solid #3 option, and could potentially turn a Randy Johnson, start peaking at 29 or 30 and sustain that peak for at least 7-8 years (though probably excluding the Hall-of-Fame part). Also, that no-hitter was on my 13th birthday. Best gift ever.

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  2. David Golebiewski says:

    Bodhizefa,

    I appreciate the response. However, I have to disagree with the “without watching the guy play” part. Most of what is written in articles like this is based off of observations of a pitcher’s starts. From there, you look for objective metrics to back up (or perhaps refute) what your eyes tell you.

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  3. From a fantasy perspective, it’s important to note that Sanchez got less support from the Giants’ stellar defense than any other pitcher on the team (save Randy Johnson) in 2009. With the defensive support likely to increase next year, he could easily post a 3-3.5 ERA even if he doesn’t make many substantive improvements.

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    • stocktopus says:

      But with the Huff at first, taking games away from the talented Ishikawa, and Freddy Sanchez most likely missing some games early on due to injury, and a generally old defense (only getting older), I’m not sure that increased defensive support is as much of a lock as you think.

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  4. kevinhelfer says:

    His ERA won’t ever be that low until he trusts his stuff enough to throw strikes. To be that good he needs to get to 63% strikes.
    He didn’t improve from 08 to 09 and that’s disconcerting.

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  5. Verd14 says:

    Nice analysis. Let’s see something similar on Jorge De La Rosa.

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  6. Mad Bum says:

    It’d be interested to see what the report would say about his numbers before and after the move to/from the bullpen that immediately preceded his no-hitter. It seemed that after that move, he was a very different pitcher. Not only was his command better, but he also seemed more confident as a pitcher and didn’t get rattled out there as often if something bad happened. As I recall, he worked with Dave Righetti to make an adjustment to his motion that improved his mechanics and command during that time in the pen.

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    • quincy0191 says:

      Very much this. I am a big Sanchez fan, and have been ever since I first saw him throw in the majors. 2010 will be his breakout year; he showed a modicum of control for the first time last year (his midseason BB/9 dropped all the way to 1, though it’s ridiculous to expect that). If he can get it somewhere around 3.5 BB/9, Sanchez is easily a 3.00-ERA starter. And I personally think he can, especially after how well he pitched once he returned from the ‘pen last year.

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  7. NBH says:

    Over the last two seasons, as a starter, Sanchez only averaged 5.5 IP per start. Like Kershaw, Harden and Scherzer, he will struggle to pick up wins because he can’t go deep enough into games.

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  8. Scott says:

    As a Giants fan who has watched most of Sanchez’ starts, I don’t really see him turning the corner anything more than a guy with great stuff and average numbers. His problems include:

    1. He struggles pitching from the stretch,
    2. he throws too many balls
    3. and has low endurance.

    His stuff is good enough that he can pitch fairly effectively from behind in the count, so he ends up behind in the count fairly often. His pitch count rises quickly, soon he’s in the 90s in the 5th inning, and then he’s tired.

    He might get luckier, but I don’t think he’ll get any better.

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    • quincy0191 says:

      3 is a result of 2, and 2 isn’t necessarily bad. I don’t know about his stretch performance, but I personally haven’t noticed anything particularly wrong. As pointed out in the article, his swing-and-miss percentage is rather high, which would seem to indicate he’s throwing “good” balls (stuff that looks good, causing the hitter to swing, but remains out of the zone and therefore difficult to hit) as well as “bad” balls (stuff that doesn’t look good and results in walks). He’s got to cut down on the bad balls, which will cut his walk rate, which will boost his endurance because he can get through the fifth with less than 100 pitches thrown. Better control=fewer walks=more IP.

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  9. razor says:

    Scott is absolutely correct. Check out his numbers pitching from the stretch vs pitching with nobody on base. THAT one thing sums up the maddening “potential” of Sanchez.

    For anyone who has watched him this is simple to discern and appreciate. Sanchez will almost always have that one inning where guys inevitably reach base against him (just from his control alone), and then all hell breaks loose. He can’t hold runners on (despite being left-handed) to save his life, and he gets flustered easily. Then, as Scott also mentioned, his pitch counts elevate, and if you blink during most of his games, before you know it…he’s hit the showers.

    It’s not his arm…and any kind of analysis is going to show him in a favorable potential light, but unless someone gets a hold of this dude and figures out a way for him to remedy his issues while pitching from the stretch, potential is all he’s ever going to be about.

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  10. al says:

    Any more thoughts on Sanchez? i notice that any improvements he has made from 2008-2010 have been in ERA, WHIP, opp BAA, opp SLG – while his BB/9 and K/9 and FIP haven’t changed too much…is this BABIP luck or is he getting better? i notice he is 2nd overall among NL starters in opp BAA and 9th in opp SLG…not too easy to hit the ball hard vs. Sanchez….

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