San Francisco Giants: Will 2011’s Jonathan Sanchez Be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

Vince CestoneContributor IIIJanuary 25, 2011

San Francisco Giants: Will 2011’s Jonathan Sanchez Be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

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    Jonathan Sanchez pitching the National League West ClincherEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    Revert back to July 10, 2009. After struggling earlier in that season, and being banished to the bullpen, Jonathan Sanchez spot started for the injured Randy Johnson.

    The result on that fateful night was a dazzling performance against the San Diego Padres, as he no-hit them in an 8-0 rout. Not a single walk tainted Sanchez's line.

    Fast forward to Oct. 23, 2010. The Giants are battling the Phillies in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series in Philadelphia, needing a big start from their left-handed hurler.

    Although the Giants ended up winning the clinching NLCS game, Jonathan Sanchez had a night to forget, lasting just two innings, while walking two and surrendering two runs. His night came to a close after he drilled Chase Utley on the back, leading to a Sanchez/Utley confrontation where Utley flipped the baseball back to the mound after he was hit.

    Such is the inconsistency of the Giants' left-handed enigma, Jonathan Sanchez. On one night, he can look just as good as Lincecum or Cain, but on another night, he makes Todd Wellemeyer look like Cy Young.

    One might think of Sanchez like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While he has all the upside in the world and had a fine 2010 season, his immaturity showed in the postseason, and he led the National League in walks.

    Will Sanchez show progress in 2011, or will he regress?

    Here are five reasons why one might be high on Jonathan Sanchez and five reasons why one might be skeptical about the left-hander.

     

     

     

     

    This article was featured on the blog Talking Giants Baseball.

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The Good Outlook: 1. Falling ERA

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    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Earned run average is a good indicator of how good a pitcher is, so a falling ERA is a good sign for Sanchez.

    Since his first full season in 2008, Sanchez's ERA has shown improvement year-to-year. In 2008, his ERA was a poor 5.01, but fell to 4.24 in 2009 before reaching a solid 3.07 in 2010.

    Although Sanchez led the league in free passes in 2010, Sanchez has learned to effectively pitch around them. For example, in his game against San Diego on Sept. 10 at Petco, Sanchez issued seven walks in five innings, but gave up no runs.

    It may not be pretty, but the bottom line is that Sanchez puts up zeros more often than not, which is a hopeful sign for 2011.

2. Falling WHIP

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Although Sanchez's walk total remained high in 2010, his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) has decreased every full season he has pitched. His WHIP in 2010 remained low because he did not give up many hits.

    When Sanchez pitched his first full season, his WHIP was a mediocre 1.45. In 2009, it dipped to 1.37 and fell to a respectable 1.23 in 2010.

    Considering Sanchez's high 2010 walk total of 96, it is remarkable how his WHIP was below average. Both his ERA and WHIP have almost solely been lowered by reducing his hits per nine innings throughout his career, leaving Sanchez with respectable pitching numbers.

    If he and pitching coach Dave Righetti can harness his control a bit better, Sanchez may contend for the Cy Young Award in 2011.

3. He Is Hard to Hit

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Sanchez usually creates jams because of his lack of control, but he still is not a comfortable at-bat.

    In 2010, Sanchez had the lowest batting average against him in the major leagues. His .204 batting average against him even beat out Ubaldo Jimenez, who was at a .209 mark.

    Anytime when total hits allowed is less than total innings pitched, that is a good range for a pitcher to be in. In 2010, Sanchez gave up just 142 hits in 193.1 innings pitched.

    Just like his other stats, his progression over the years in opponent's batting average is a hopeful sign for him in 2011. In 2008, players hit .257 against Sanchez, followed by .221 in 2009.

4. He Has Electric Stuff

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Sanchez is almost like a young Randy Johnson—without the 98+ mile per hour fastball. Like Sanchez, he had nasty stuff and was near unhittable, but gave up as many as 152 walks in a single season.

    Oddly enough, Sanchez grew up idolizing Randy Johnson and played with him in 2009. Could Johnson have taken Sanchez under his wing, which led to his drastic improvement in 2010?

    On July 10, 2009, Sanchez demonstrated what could happen if he could harness his stuff. With his sneaky-fast 91-93 mph fastball and a sharp slider almost as devastating as Johnson's, Sanchez no-hit the Padres out of nowhere—on a spot start for none other than Randy Johnson.

    Sanchez also features a nasty split-finger that runs away from right-handed hitters.

    Unlike his earlier years, Sanchez showed that he can pitch around his walks and errors—except in the NLCS. If he continues his year-to-year pattern of maturation , Sanchez should be even better at pitching through adversity in 2011.

5. He Now Has Postseason Experience

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    Pool/Getty Images

    Call Jonathan Sanchez whatever you would like, but the reality is that he pitched for a team that won the World Series. Although Sanchez showed brain lapses during the postseason, he has nowhere to go but up and can learn from his mistakes.

    Anytime a pitcher takes the mound in his first postseason, it will not be easy for him—unless he is Madison Bumgarner. Right away, he will notice that the intensity of the crowd is different, the players are more focused, and the big-game feel.

    Sanchez proved capable of pitching big games in 2010. He had an ERA below 2.00 in September, and he pitched strong games in the NL West clincher and Game 3 of the NLDS.

    With the postseason experience under his belt, Sanchez might channel his frustration a bit differently—such as striking out Utley with a blazing fastball rather than arguing with him and lighting a fire under his belly. If Sanchez continues to get better season-by-season, perhaps he will show growth deep into the postseason as well.

The Bad Outlook: 6. Increasing Walk Total

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Although Sanchez is a dynamic pitcher who is tough to hit, his high walk total is a concern.

    At some point, one might wonder how long he will be able to get away with surrendering so many free passes. In 2010, Sanchez walked a major league leading 96 batters but seemed to get away with it, as he posted a 3.07 ERA and a WHIP of only 1.23.

    Eventually, if Sanchez keeps tempting fate, the walks are probably going to come back to bite him. Consistently walking people almost always hurts a pitcher in the long run.

    Not to mention, the amount of high-stress pitches he makes, and all the extra pitches due to walks, can take a toll on Sanchez's body. A pitching arm can be a delicate thing, and if it wears out, a plethora of three-run home runs could be coming in 2011.

    For the sake of the longevity of his career, Sanchez needs to pound the strike zone more often. Randy Johnson's transformation into more of a control pitcher might have extended his greatness for a few more years, and Sanchez needs to make the same transformation if he wants to pitch until he is 40.

7. His Inconsistency

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    On the night of Jonathan Sanchez's 2009 no-hitter, former Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. described Sanchez's inconsistencies best when he said, "On film he throws the ball hard, but it looks like he doesn't know where it's going. Today he looked exactly like he knew where it was going."

    On one night, Sanchez can sparkle like he did on the night of his no-hitter. On another night, his line might look like this: 5 IP, 1 H, 7 BB, 4 K, 0 Runs.

    Worse, he might completely fall apart on another night and allow a five-spot in his run column, like he did against the Florida Marlins on July 28th. His games seem to fluctuate from start-to-start, and sometimes, you simply cannot rely on him to pitch a quality start.

    In a sport where consistency can mean everything, Sanchez struggles to be as reliable as a Greg Maddux. If he cannot be counted on to pitch well during tight, close, or important games, the bullpen could be a reality for Sanchez in 2011—a possible reason why the Giants signed a sixth starter in Jeff Suppan.

8. It's Easy to Get Into His Head

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    If a team's strategy was to beat Sanchez by getting into his head, that would probably be its best bet. Sanchez, in the biggest game of his life, showed why he was not ready to pitch under the lights of postseason play—and it showed up on his line.

    After Sanchez drilled Chase Utley in the back with the score tied 2-2, Utley casually flipped the ball back to the pitcher's mound. Angered by this, Sanchez barked back at Utley, leading to a benches-clearing altercation and Jonathan Sanchez's removal from the game by Bruce Bochy.

    Sanchez's overreaction illustrates his immaturity. Instead of letting it go, he made things worse than they actually were, even though Utley should have probably left the ball alone.

    Mychael Urban of CSN Bay Area had a very good take on the issue on his blog. What Utley did was not really "malicious or totally out of line," but Sanchez felt that he had to say something.

    Sanchez would no longer be a factor in that game after the incident. The end result of the game may have worked out for the Giants that time, but it was not because of Sanchez's pitching.

    More brain lapses like that can mean a miserable 2011 for Sanchez. However, a good therapist might be able to solve that problem, but he must get his head right in a game that is arguably mostly mental.

9. His High Pitch Count

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    As mentioned earlier, Sanchez's high pitch count, mostly due to his high walks and strikeouts, can be detrimental to both his pitching and health. He was 15th in all of baseball in pitches per inning pitched, which is something he needs to improve upon as a starter.

    It would not be so bad if Sanchez did not throw so many pitches in such stressful situations. If there was a stat measuring this (maybe total pitches with runners in scoring position), Sanchez would surely be a league leader in this category.

    Eventually, this will catch up with Sanchez, either in the form of three-run homers, a long stint in the bullpen, or a career-ending arm injury. His electric stuff will mean nothing in 2011, and in the long run, if he cannot use it more efficiently.

10. He Does Not Always Think Things Through

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Along the lines of point number nine, Sanchez does not yet understand the mental aspect of baseball. He clearly showed this when he inaccurately called a sweep against the San Diego Padres in August.

    This was the worst thing he could have done. Not only did it motivate the Padres, but it also made him look bad around baseball.

    Guaranteeing a sweep is not a smart idea, especially in baseball where it is hard to sweep a team. It would be one thing if Sanchez said, "we are going to show the Padres why we are a good team," but calling a sweep—a humiliating experience for any team—in front of the media was just out of line.

    Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News wrote it best in his blog when he stated, "Jonathan Sanchez doesn't really qualify as a team spokesperson."

    Maybe he should have let the Giants' Jim Moorehead, senior director of media relations, speak for the team.

    In that Padres series, Sanchez ended up with the losing decision in one of the games. Hopefully, he learned his lesson to think before he speaks.

    If Sanchez continues to make such statements, other teams might give that extra effort against him at the plate. That energy might be channeled through a big home run in a crucial game down the stretch.

     

     

     

     

    This article was featured on the blog Talking Giants Baseball.

    Follow me on twitter @vintalkingiants

    Do RBIs measure a player's offensive worth? Click here to vote.

    Questions? Comments? Feedback? E-mail my blog mailbag at vc4re@yahoo.com. Your question may be posted on my blog, along with answers.