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