Here's a Thought: The Intrigue Of Jonathan Sanchez

Nathaniel StoltzSenior Analyst IDecember 25, 2009

NEW YORK - AUGUST 16:  Jonathan Sanchez #57 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the New York Mets on August 16, 2009 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Mets defeated the Giants 3-2.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Say what you want about San Francisco GM Brian Sabean (I'm personally not a fan), but the man can build a defense.

The Giants were the fourth-best defensive team of 2009 according to UZR, behind the Mariners and Rays (by quite a bit), and just falling behind the Reds.

In particular, San Francisco's fielders showed incredible range, saving about 60 runs with range alone, according to the team's UZR breakdown. They were actually below-average at the other three components (arm, double plays, and errors), but only slightly, so the defense saved about 51 runs overall.

Of course, that's 51 runs out of pitchers' ERAs that the pitchers did nothing to deserve.

The result of this great defense is that most of San Francisco's pitchers' performances in 2009 look better than they actually are, at least in the context of what the pitcher himself did.

Of the ten San Francisco pitchers who tossed 50 or more innings in 2009, eight had ERAs lower than their True ERAs (my stat that adjusts for luck). Other luck-adjusted metrics came to the same conclusion: San Francisco's pitchers benefitted from their defense.

(Lest you doubt my True ERA, Giants fans, it rates Tim Lincecum as 2009's best starting pitcher).

That doesn't make the team any worse, of course; Giants fans just might want to shift a portion of their praise from their pitching staff to their defense.

Of course, this defensive support was not distributed equally. Brandon Medders had one of the highest True ERA/ERA differences in the majors—5.56 to 3.01—while Randy Johnson's 4.04 True ERA was much better than his 4.88 ERA.

The only other pitcher besides Johnson to actually have worse-than-average luck on the team was Jonathan Sanchez.

This really interests me because Sanchez occupies an interesting place with the Giants. They have Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain at the top of their rotation, with Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner shoring up the back, and they can't quite decide if Sanchez belongs with the former group or the latter one.

Sometimes, like in his no-hitter last year, Sanchez looks more dominant than 95 percent of the pitchers in baseball. Others, he looks like he belongs in A-ball.

But if it's true that all the Giants' 50-inning pitchers except Sanchez and Johnson (and Johnson won't be back, so he doesn't really matter in this context) benefitted from the defense, often to a large extent, doesn't that mean Sanchez is underrated and could see a big improvement in 2010, provided the defense holds up reasonably well?

I think it does.

Now, Sanchez wasn't unbelievably better than his 4.24 ERA shows—his True ERA was 4.04—but if he got the same run benefit as Lincecum (.67 runs), Zito (.99), or Cain (1.50), he'd be somewhere between 2.50 and 3.50.

In other words, he'd turn into an elite pitcher.

It's worth noting that, however ludicrous this notion sounds, Sanchez's True ERA was lower than Matt Cain's in 2009. 

His tRA and xFIP, two statistics that are more accepted than True ERA, which I came up with just a week or so ago, concur with that assessment: Sanchez pitched better in 2009 than Cain (not by much, but he did).

But that's a topic for another time, and I've had the "Cain got lucky in 2009" argument with a lot of you Giants fans here on Bleacher Report. I don't care to rehash it.

As far as what could possibly lead the numbers into thinking that Sanchez was better than Cain, I'm going to just show a simple table of batted balls off them in 2009:

Pitcher      Groundball Pct.      Line Drive Pct.      Outfield Fly Pct.      Popup Pct.
Sanchez    40.7%                  16.2%                 43.1%                  11.4%
Cain         38.9%                   18.7%                42.4%                   10.6%

Groundballs and popups are good, and line drives are bad. Note that Cain has more liners and fewer grounders and popups. These differences in batted balls (particularly line drives, which fall in for hits over 70 percent of the time) add up over the course of the year.

Sanchez got fewer line drives (the hardest contact) and more grounders and popups (the weakest contact) than Cain. He also had a much higher strikeout rate (9.75 K/9 to 7.07 K/9).

The point of this is not to bash Cain. It's to say that if the Giants defense could make Cain look great, they could also make Sanchez look great.

It's also worth noting that Sanchez, as his high strikeout rate indicates, has great "stuff" and is "still learning how to pitch," to use the cliches that pop up. Therefore, he has the potential, as he gains experience, to make substantial improvements in his own game.

Combined with the defensive support that is highly likely to increase in 2010, this skill-improvement potential makes Sanchez an intriguing player to watch from any perspective, whether it be an analytical one like mine, that of a Giants fan, or that of a fantasy baseball player.

It'll certainly be interesting to see how the lefty's 2010 season plays out. If he puts up a 3.00 ERA, you heard it here first—but you should also remember it may not necessarily be Sanchez's own doing.           


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