Fact #1: Jonathan Sanchez can be an incredibly frustrating pitcher to watch at times.
Fact #2: Jonathan Sanchez is an above-average starting pitcher in the National League.
These two facts are not irreconcilable. In last night’s game, Sanchez only lasted 4.2 innings against the Indians. In what can be best described as a typical Jonathan Sanchez start, Sanchez issued six walks, but he also recorded six strikeouts. He looked quite sharp in the 2nd and 3rd innings. His fastball command was erratic at times — according to Brooks Baseball, his strike percentage on his fastball was just 57.14% (32/56). Sanchez’s problem throwing the heater for strikes forced him out of the game by the top of the 5th. The Giants called in Santiago Casilla to get out of the 5th and from then on it was a bullpen game. The Giants’ pen gets major props for throwing 4.1 innings of scoreless baseball.
Giants’ beat reporter, Andrew Baggarly, tweeted the following when Sanchez was pulled:
And he quotes Bochy post-game:
There’s no doubt that the Giants are frustrated with Sanchez, but as Otis points out in his excellent ‘Jonathan Sanchez Amnesia‘ post, Sanchez is essentially the same guy he’s always been; high strikeouts, lots of walks, couched by the occasional ‘inconsistent’ start. In other words: Sanchez is who we thought he was, a frustrating, if not extremely talent (and remember, above-average) starting pitcher in the NL. The popular theory goes that the bullpen gets drained in Sanchez starts. His high walk totals often push him out of the game by the 5th inning and, as a result, the ‘pen is called in to clean up the mess.
Thus, the theory continues, it’s either time to A) trade Sanchez for something (insert mythical above-average position player, here), or B) remove him from the rotation in favor of another starter. I won’t address point A right now since flogging trade scenarios to death is the last thing I want to do on this blog, but option B) seems to gain steam with every start that Sanchez departs before the 5th. The ideal candidate to replace Sanchez is Barry Zito. Zito has been rehabbing in Fresno for what seems like a million years and all signs point to his return on June 28th when the Giants play a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs. The speculation is that Sanchez will get at least one more start before the Giants move him to the bullpen for a timeout. I don’t think the Giants will keep Sanchez in the bullpen indefinitely, but if they are considering Zito as a suitable replacement for Sanchez, well, I’m not sure what to say.
I decided to plot a frequency graph of Zito and Sanchez for games they’ve started. For Zito, all data is from time as a Giant (2007-2011) and for Sanchez, all the data is from when the Giants made him a starter in 2008. The frequency graph is based on innings pitched in games both pitchers have started. I excluded any relief appearances in the data-set.
And a data table for the same time period
Barry Zito IP H/9 SO/9 BB/9 ERA+ GS IP/GS 781 8.6 6.5 4.1 95 134 5.8 Jonathan Sanchez IP H/9 SO/9 BB/9 ERA+ GS IP/GS 600 7.4 9.4 4.7 103 107 5.6
Neither Barry Zito or Sanchez are pitchers that go deep into games. The frequency graph puts them both in the neighborhood of 5 innings per game started. Though, Zito has tended to go slightly longer into games, but that could be some managerial bias coming into play. After all, Zito is earning a huge paycheck and he doesn’t have the ‘headcase’ label that Sanchez has. Bruce Bochy will most likely give Zito more rope than Jonathan Sanchez and that could be showing up in our numbers. By a straight average, Zito has pitched 5.8 innings per start during his tenure with the Giants. Sanchez has pitched 5.6 innings per start since he became a full-time starter in 2008. If the Giants seek to rest their bullpen, replacing Sanchez with Zito looks to be a very, very minimal upgrade. So minimal that I would consider it not worth pursuing when considering other factors such as pitcher skill.
Pitching deep into games, which often is a byproduct of a successful start, isn’t the only factor we should judge a pitcher on. Sanchez beats Zito in hits-per-nine and strikeouts-per-nine. Batters generally have a very hard time making contact and putting the ball in play against the Sanchez. Zito’s walks-per-nine (4.1) is lower than Sanchez’s (4.7) but neither can be considered a strike-thrower that pounds the zone. When Zito pitches he nibbles, nibbles, nibbles. When Sanchez pitches he doesn’t know where the ball is going. Different approaches, very similar results. By adjusted ERA (ERA+), Sanchez has performed 8% better than Zito as a starter.
If the Giants want to save their bullpen, they should not look towards Zito. Sanchez will continue to throw games where he’s frustrating as hell to watch. But he’s also the better pitcher. And no matter how frustrating he looks, the Giants need their best team on the field to try and win ballgames. I would make the argument that with the Giants’ strength in the bullpen, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to lean on the ‘pen. It’s a major asset for the team, might as well use it. If the Giants seek to rest their bullpen by replacing Sanchez with Zito, they are shooting themselves in the foot. It just doesn’t show up in the numbers.
Well, that solves that. Seems like the Giants are gaming the DL, again. It’s not been uncommon in the past for the Giant to use the DL to delay players or to try and hide a player. They’ve been doing the same thing with Zito this year.