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Jonathan Sanchez's Odd Year

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Our recent little fireside chat about Stephen Drew, in which I blithely wondered out loud if a Drew-for-Sanchez swap would be fair, made me think a bit more upon the Ol' Dirty Dirty. (It also made a few people claim that I was proposing such a swap, which isn't really the case. Those people have been taken care of, shall we say.)

Jonathan Sanchez is a 27-year-old left-handed starter with a phenomenal strikeout rate even though he often has no quality secondary pitches beyond his fastball. The general zeitgeist holds that he is too valuable to trade for some run-of-the-mill schmuck. Rumors of a straight-up trade last winter for, say, Jorge Cantu or Dan Uggla or Edwin Encanacion seemed like a opposing GM's trial balloon.

Then again, suggestions of Sanchez straight up for, say, Ryan Braun or David Wright would get you laughed off your barstool. In our imaginations, a little too close to the subject and tainted with hope for what Sanchez could blossom into, it's been hard to pin down his value.

Hank heard yesterday that Brian Sabean doesn't want to trade Sanchez for Corey Hart. But Sabes is on the prowl for a big bat, and it seems inevitable to me that Sanchez will be part of the equation. So let's try to figure out what Sanchez is and isn't worth.

Fact! He is an elite strikeout pitcher. In each of his three years as a full-time starter, he's been among the major's top ten in K/9. This year's 9.03 K/9 puts him tenth.

Fact! He is ranked even higher in BB/9: Seventh, first, and second in the majors in his three years as a starter.

Fact! His ERA has gone down every year (5.01, 4.24, 3.47 so far in 2010) despite his K and BB rates staying about the same. This could be a function of the defense behind him, as his "fielding-independent" ERA has been 3.85, 4.17, and 3.89.

If you measure his value through WAR, or wins above replacement -- how many wins he contributes beyond what an average replacement would contribute -- his totals are 2.8 ('08), 2.1 ('09) and 1.6 so far this year. Among major league starting pitchers, those totals rank 44th, 64th and 57th.  

In case you're wondering: Stephen Drew has posted WAR of 2.2 and 2.1 the past two years and 2.1 so far this year. Practically the same as Sanchez.

Now let's dive into some odd things about Sanchez's year so far. As noted, he's still striking out and walking roughly the same number of hitters. But looking at batters' plate discipline, they're making more contact against him, both on pitches in and out of the strike zone. Swinging strikes have diminished. And this, despite Sanchez's trouble compared to the two previous years in throwing first-pitch strikes. (Throwing first-pitch strikes isn't a requirement for success; ask Tim Lincecum, who's been even worse this year than Sanchez in that regard.)

Here comes the really weird stuff. According to FanGraphs pitch value data, Sanchez's fastball is his only above-average pitch this year. It's always been his only above-average pitch, except last year when for some reason his slider was one of the best in the majors. (I have no idea how FanGraphs arrives at these numbers, by the way. If someone wants to prove them wrong, please go for it.) What's more, he's throwing his fastball a little less frequently than he did last year, and a lot less than in 2008. In other words, he's throwing more of his lesser quality pitches. 

So you've got a left-handed pitcher who has trouble throwing strikes but still strikes out a ton of batters. He's entering his late twenties, generally considered the peak of a ballplayer's talent, but he hasn't shown a ton of progress in his three years as a starter. He's been consistently pretty good, two to three wins above average, and has maintained that pace this year while missing fewer bats and not having a good feel for his offspeed stuff.

There are at least two different conclusions I can draw from all this strangeness:

1) Sanchez is learning how to make good pitches when needed. The overall data might not show it, but he's a better pitcher because he's maintaining his performance level without his best stuff. With a little more experience and good health luck, he can make the next step. If the Giants trade him, they should make sure to receive someone with just as much upside.

2) Sanchez might get better -- so much so that the Giants will regret trading him -- but his three years of remarkable consistency and his age argue against it. As the kids say these days, he is what he is: a two to three WAR pitcher who will usually run out of gas in the sixth inning. He might dominate the occasional team that can't help but swing at fastballs out of the strike zone, but this year's higher contact rate could be a bad omen. If the Giants trade him, they shouldn't expect an elite bat in return, just someone who will be a two to three WAR player. Corey Hart? He's on pace for a 4-WAR season. His three previous full-time seasons were 4.3, 1.1, and a measly 0.7.  

I'm not sure which conclusion I endorse. Perhaps neither. Perhaps one that you'll come up with. I'm all ears.

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