Pittsburgh Pirates Jonathan Sanchez: Upside Project or Wheel Spinning?


Apr 24, 2012; Cleveland, OH, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez (57) delivers a pitch in the third inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Basically there are two schools of thought on the Pittsburgh Pirates signing the polarizing Jonathan Sanchez.  Sanchez is a massive project for the men who will be coaching the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff in 2013.

The second is that last year, Jonathan Sanchez set some of the worst records imaginable for a starting pitcher–why are the Pirates wasting their time again?

Yep.  This is one of those low risk, high upside moves we have seen a few times under the Neal Huntington regime.

But still, it’s hard for me to imagine someone saying that about a pitcher with the fourth highest strikeout rate from 2008 to 2011.  We say, why not roll the dice on a player like Sanchez?

In a lot of ways during that four-year run, Sanchez was Bad-Ass.

Bad because his 24.1 percent strikeout rate only trailed Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw and Yovani Gallardo.

Ass because of his tendency to be all over the strikezone leading to the highest walk rate in the game over that time period.  The closest pitcher to Sanchez’s staggering walk rate was fellow lefty Gio Gonzalez.  Heh!  Gonzalez turned it all around, while Sanchez put up his worst season ever– pitching like total ass–no bad involved.   [Well except if you mean bad in a literal sense.  Not like how we mean bad, like baaaadddd.]

So what the hell happened?

Sanchez has seen his fastball drop in velocity while his change-up has increased in velocity each year since 2010.  That’s not a good combination.

In 2012 when he was released by the Kansas City Royals, the numbers showed less than a six mile per hour difference from his 89.1 mph heater to his 83.2 changeup.  It was a noticeable difference for hitters.  So guess what happened?

Sanchez got less first pitch strikes, his swing and miss stuff dropped from nearly ten percent to just over seven percent.  Also, fewer batters bothered to swing at his pitches outside the zone–and Sanchez slings a lot of pitches outside the zone.  [Check out his heat maps from Fangraphs–from the perspective of the catcher.  Learn more about HeatMaps here.]

The six-foot southpaw doesn’t get a high rate of groundballs, (probably because he has been up in the damn zone so much), so he relied on his fastball during the 2008-2011 seasons when he was whiffing hitters at such a prolific rate.  So, it’s pretty easy to understand how the 2012 season would have a negative mental impact on him.  In past years, Sanchez struggled to keep runners off the basepaths, but he could always get  some of the poor hitters to chase and would post six, seven, eight strikeout games rather regularly.

But in 2012, he struckout five once.  Once.  And it was Cleveland, so take it for what it’s worth.

So his velocity is on the decline, he gets that nasty left bicep tendinitis rather regularly these days, and we read that he worked on his mechanics all winter.  Hmmmm….before Pirates fans get all wrapped up in what Sanchez once did, it would be beneficial to look ahead and see what he might do in 2013.

Not much.

No wait…that’s not fair.

We think the Pirates are going to take it very slow with Sanchez.  The first thing that would concern me would be making certain the former 27th round pick is healthy.

The team will probably take a look at those mechanics that Dave Righetti could never quite fix, and wonder how in the world they could have been worked on all winter.  We can totally see Ray Searage pulling a Baseball-God-Power-Move-Prayer like he did a couple of spring trainings ago with Paul Maholm.  I’d imagine those lefties have that effect on pitching coaches.

If the prayer doesn’t work like it did in turning around Paul Maholm, maybe someone on the Bucs staff can call to get some insider secrets on how the Nats turned around Gio Gonazlez?

But to be fair, the Bucs have done a rather fine job in finding pitching pieces on the scrapheap and turning them into some rather polished projects.  Remember Chris ResopJose VerasChris LerouxJason GrilliJoel Hanrahan?  Heh, they are all relievers–maybe that’s the key ingredient for this project?

Now none of those pitchers came with the degree of intrigue that Sanchez brings, which is why this could be a lot of fun to watch.  Spring Training can’t start quickly enough.

Bottom line:  Sanchez is a very interesting (and valuable left-handed) arm who once upon a time whiffed a lot of hitters (and walked a lot of hitters.)    Right now, he’s a major project who will be 30 years old and will need to learn how to pitch if he wants to remain a starter.

But of course until that happens we don’t think he can be counted on to provide many useful innings in 2013. (The guy made his debut when he was 23, but his defensiveness in the interviews we watched lead us to think it won’t be easy trying to teach this dog some new tricks) So we will just sit back and hope for some more pixxy dust from Ray Searage and the boys.


Thanks for putting up with so many run on sentences–one of these days we will learn to write, but damn…Sanchez is a really interesting project.  Sort of like a 1984 300ZX.  The engine is awesome, but the body…oh, that slender and so often, rusted out body that goes long before the engine is ready to die.  And let’s not talk about that digital dash, the mind behind the machine…yeh, this Sanchez project is going to be just like that terrible comparision.

Sanchez Heat Maps on FanGraphs

What Went Wrong With Jonathan Sanchez