Monday, March 28, 2011
Giants Pitching Preview 2011: Bring On the Dirty
Before 2010, Dirty Sanchez had been aggravating Giants fans for just about his entire major league career. Upon his arrival in 2006 as a swing starter/reliever, he tantalized us with moments of sheer dominance, giving us visions of a possible third ace to compliment the Tim Lincecum/Matt Cain twin terror that was sure to dominate for years to come. In early 2008, slotted into the rotation for good, Sanchez appeared to have figured it out, until a miserable second half led to more doubts about his future. The next season, he was a no-hitter away from losing his spot in the rotation for good, until that magical night against San Diego made it impossible for Bochy to yank him from the rotation again. He settled down in the second half that year and cruised to a decent 2009 season, but problems with walks led to simply too many early exits. It's hard to be a servicable starter when you can't escape the fifth inning without throwing 100 pitches. In short, Sanchez was a pillar of frustration.
Last season, the Sanchez we had all hoped and dreamed for finally materialized. He dropped his ERA by more than a run, leading the team in fact, and eclipsed the 200 strikeout mark, becoming just the second left-handed starter in SF Giants history to do so. He was also considerably more durable, pitching thirty more innings than in 2009. Combine that with his masterful pitching in the division-clinching final game of the season, and it was a wonderful, breakout year all around.
Yet it was still bloody frustrating. Sanchez is one of the most entertaining pitchers in the game to watch when he's on. The sheer sadistic glee one gets when witnessing batters flail at his nasty slider and deceptive arm angle is one of the joys of Giants baseball. When he doesn't have his stuff, though, he's an absolute frigging nightmare. Sanchez is prone to fits where he has no idea where the ball is going, and that leads to runners peppering the basepaths and early-inning death marches into the clubhouse. Nothing can epitomize the Jekyll/Hyde act that is Dirty Sanchez quite like two of his postseason starts last year. The Good: His 11-strikeout performance against Atlanta. The Bad: his Game Six meltdown against the Phillies, where he had to be pulled in the second inning after showering the bases with runners and then getting into it with Chase Utley.
Such is life with a guy with such a wild streak. Sanchez led the National League in walks allowed last year, continuing a trend that he established from the moment he arrived in the majors. The stat nerdier-types have worn out many a keyboard this offseason pointing out his extremely low .252 BABIP last year, but any major regression can be mitigated by a simple reduction in walks. If Sanchez can cut down on the free passes, it's going to mean less baserunners if those bloopers that were caught in 2010 suddenly start falling in for hits in 2011. Pitching in front of an outfield with Andres Torres and Cody Ross (and occasionally Nate Schierholtz, if he isn't traded) will also help fight the BABIP demon, but walks are the key.
Most pitchers, I think, generally improve their control as they age, mostly through simple maturation, but also because they have to find the zone more as their stuff starts to gradually decline. Can Sanchez reign in his penchant for over-generousity toward opposing batters? The dream scenario is something like Randy Johnson, who was a regular Nuke Laloosh when he first came up, but who gradually evolved into a bonafide control pitcher who could still get batters to whiff with regularity. The nightmare version is Shawn Estes, whose inability to get the walks under control turned out to be his undoing.
About a year or so ago, the hip radio trade chatter involved trading Jonathan Sanchez and his potentially golden arm for a big bat needed to send the Giants to the Promised Land. Now the Giants have reached the Promised Land, without any such trade promoted by beer-drunk KNBR callers, and they sure as hell wouldn't have done it without Dirty. Sanchez is a great third starter who can dominate even the best lineup and makes for a nasty gauntlet for opponents to run when combined with Lincecum and Cain. I just fear that, if he can't eventually get his walk totals down, we won't be able to say that for too much longer.
Predicted Sanchez Line: 12-11, 3.61 ERA, 195 K's I definitely see some regression to the mean for Sanchez in 2011. A good defense and a fly ball-friendly home park will help counter-balance all the walks, but I can't see another ERA threatening to fall below three. Not that that doesn't still make him a very good pitcher.