Friday, June 19, 2009

Paying Forward: Sanchez and Sandoval

I was going to do two different posts but, basically, both are two stories of paying forward so I put them together. First, I will cover how Jose Uribe's contributed to Pablo Sandoval's development. Then I will cover how The Big Unit is helping out with Jonathan Sanchez's development. I think this justifies every penny we are paying Randy Johnson, and leads me to say that if Johnson wants to pitch next year, we should re-sign him and let Bumgarner and Alderson spend a full year in AAA in 2010 in preparation for joining our starting rotation in 2011.

Uribe and Sandoval: Tying the Knot

Most of you probably don't know this but I got my start doing this sort of stuff by writing about the Giants for Fanhome (which then became Scout.com; the Giants section was called SF Dugout back then), which was fed out to Yahoo. Here is a link to my first article, which explained that Jose Uribe helped with Vladimir Guerrero's early development by coming by his neighborhood and donating nine gloves to the kids, which allowed them to play baseball properly. And the rest, as they say, is history, Vlad eventually was signed and became the great player that he is today.

Remembering the kindness of Uribe, Vlad has been paying forward, bringing not only gloves, but clothes and other equipment, as well as building a proper baseball field. As accounted in today's article by the great Andy Baggarly in the San Jose Mercury, one day he donated a bunch of his used footwear to a cousin of his, who happened to be in the Giants farm system, but when it didn't fit his cousin, he passed it on to a fellow player on that short-season team who did have size 11 feet, Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval told Vlad, when they were on the field together in this last series, that Vlad's shoes got him to the big leagues.

And that seems totally appropriate because there have been a lot of comments about how Sandoval's hitting reminds people of how Vlad hits because, while he swings at a lot more pitches than most hitters, particularly out of the strike zone, he's able to position himself so that he gets the barrel on the ball and get hits. After starting out cold to start the season (many new starters appear to get the yips early on before getting their bearings), Sandoval has been bringing things up a notch, little by little, culminating in his recently ended 10 game hitting streak, where he hit .471 including four homers.

He is now hitting .330, good for fifth in the NL, which is bringing talk that perhaps he can be a perenial contender for the batting title. People complain that he doesn't take walks (or balls) but as Bochy noted in Baggarly's article, Tony Gwynn never got a lot of walks either, because players like him and Sandoval usually can put the ball in play when they swing the bat.

Baggarly had a nice discussion on how the Sandoval is adjusting his batting tactics this season, per the Giants suggestions. Not wanting to kill their golden goose, the Giants don't want to discourage his "bad-ball brilliance" but rather, show a more discerning eye at the plate. That would also explain his slow start, as he worked on doing that instead of just swinging and hitting.

The stats Baggarly noted on show that he's improving. His pitches per plate appearance is up 10%, from 3.11 last season to 3.46 so far this season. He is also swinging at the first pitch much less as well, only 45% this year vs. 50% last year. In addition, overall, he is swinging at only 58% of pitches this year vs. 64% last year. The results: he is hitting .330/.373/.536/.909.

That's why walks are overrated by the Giants fanbase and sabermetricians, who parrot the Moneyball line about OBP. Ultimately, if you have the choice between two similar players with the same OBP, you want the one who has the higher batting average, which by definition therefore has a lower walk rate, because the batting average boost both OBP and SLG. That's the ying and yang of offense, you want to both get on base (OBP) and drive in baseruners (SLG). That's a nuance that escapes many: of course, it's better, given the choice, to take a walk rather than make an out, but if a guy can hit well and not strike out much at the same time, a low walk rate is not bad. It didn't hurt Tony Gwynn, nor did it hurt Vlad.

Of course, there are few who can hit like Gwynn or Vlad. But so far in his career (careeer batting line of .336/.367/.518/.885) and only at the tender age of 22 (he'll be 23 in mid-August), Sandoval is doing a pretty good imitation of them.

As noted by Baggarly, one of the fears has been that pitchers would adjust to his aggressive tendencies this season, and he would not hit like he did last season. I didn't think that would happen because teams have known about his aggressive tendencies since he first joined the Giants, and every year, at every level, the pitchers were not able to control Kung Fu Panda. In fact, he figured them out more often than they figured him out:

2006 - A: 17.0% K%
2007 - A+: 13.0% K%
2008 - A+: 14.3% K%
2008 - AA: 11.4% K%
2008 - MLB: 9.7% K%
2009 - MLB: 14.7% K%

And while his K% went up this season, it should be noted that his BB% has gone up too, making his BB/K rise from last year's 0.29 to this season's 0.39, and that a major league hitter who can keep his K% at 15% and lower is among the elite of the league. The batting average of hitters who can keep their K% between 10% and 14% average around .285 batting average.

And with his increase in BB%, he greatly improved his batting average potential. For hitters who strike out as much as Sandoval is right now, those who walk at 5% and under average only a .269 batting average, while those above 5% to 10%, average a .279 batting average. He is also hitting more doubles as well.

I would also note that his cartoon-ish high .367 BABIP last year - each hitter's BABIP is individual - is being repeated this year, as his BABIP is currently .361. If this is his normal level of production, he would be one of the highest in the majors right now and, as noted, a perenial contender for the batting title.

Mike Scioscia was quoted in Baggarly's article:
"I tell you, he's a special talent at the plate. On video, we saw him hit some balls a really long way. The thing I notice is he's got good balance at the plate. There are some things you can try to do, but you don't have the margin of error you might have with other hitters wh ohave soft zones. He's too strong and his bat is too quick. You can try to get under his swing, and we've done it a couple of times. But if you don't get it there, you've seen what can happen."
I think I'll end with Vlad's comment to Baggerly:
"Leave him alone. If he's hitting the ball like that, hey, let him hit."
Yoda Unit and Luke Sanchez

In a nice article by Andrew Pentis, it discusses how The Big Unit, Randy Johnson, is actively mentoring Jonathan Sanchez. That is one of the benefits that was discussed about adding Johnson to the team. I won't go through all the details - and there is a lot of great detail, so I recommend going there if you want that - but would note that Johnson is giving a ship-load of advice to Sanchez and being a hard taskmaster.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but that would explain to me how Sanchez has been so up and down (mostly down) this season. He is thinking too much on the mound, and so he reverts back to his learning mode, which as Malcolm Gladwell noted in his article about choking and the art of failure. And that's not a bad thing in the long run, but has been pretty bad in the short run.

He is being driven by lofty goals. He wants to be like his fellow rotation mates - and that's a tall order with the current Cy Young winner, three Cy Young winners in total, and one (Cain) looking to be in the hunt for the Cy Young this season. He also wants to pitch 7 innings every time, but has rarely made the 7th, let alone pitch through it. And, so these goals could also be affecting him as well, making him think too much.

A player, including particularly a pitcher, need to be able to do everything that they do reflexively and subconsciously, using muscle memory, or they will get what people call "the yips". That is demonstrated when a catcher suddenly cannot throw the ball to the pitcher, launching towards secondbase, or an infielder who suddenly cannot throw to a base without throwing it over the fielder's head. I think this explains Sanchez's regression this year.

I think it will all pay off eventually, but "when" is the operative word. The team cannot wait much longer for him to start putting it all together. We have been good enough to still be over .500 even with him sucking so badly, but now that we are so close to the prize - a playoff spot, as they are only 1 game behind St Louis - the Giants are trying to shore up the weak points on the team. That's why Burriss was sent down to AAA so quickly, without waiting for Frandsen to be available to call up, and that is why Fred Lewis has become the 4th OF and Schierholtz has been seeing regular starts now - he has started in 6 of his and the Giants last 7 games.

I think that the Giants will skip at least one of his starts, that has been Bochy's M.O., and if he doesn't make enough progress, perhaps another one, and just let him relieve and get his mind back into order by giving it a rest. Hopefully that will be enough, but perhaps Johnson should also skip on his lectures for now until after the All-Star break, to give his pupil a mental break. Sometimes you are getting so many instructions that you feel overwhelmed.

That's what happened when I learned how to drive a stick shift. My friend, bless his heart, taught me how to drive, but was constantly in my face about everything that I needed a break and ended the lesson. I drove home and then just leisurely drove around my quiet neighborhood and, once the pressure was off, I was soon shifting very well (though once I burned some rubber and revved the engine, catching the attention of a couple of cute girls, who appeared to think I was doing that to impress them).

I think that Sanchez after the break will be more like the dominant pitcher he was last season, than the lost pitcher he has been this season. He has been pitching scared and thinking too much to let his abilities show, and the break will do him well. But I think that Johnson will have to be less of the stern teacher and more the supportive buddy to help with that.

Still, overall, based on the great reportage by Pentis, I would have to say that the Randy Johnson Experiment has been a great success. The details of how he has been tutoring Sanchez has been amazing. I was leaning towards letting him go and getting a draft pick for him, maybe, but now I think we have to resign him and let him work on helping our young prospects in the minors during the September call-ups (you have to think that Bumgarner and Alderson will be up here) and spring training next year. He, himself, hasn't been that great overall, but has been OK enough that we are winning games with him pitching and is worth the tradeoff in terms of him helping Sanchez reach his potential. I hope we keep him.

10 comments:

  1. Sanchez article by Pentis, not Haft.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you kindly for the correction. I will fix up the post, much appreciated!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Aren't you sick of making excuses for Sanchez yet? The guy needs to figure out something quick.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, Sanchez is only into his second year as a starter and you are ready to give up on him. Not every prospect is a future Hall of Famer, it takes time to develop them and figure things out, and yes some don't figure it out.

    Some get it almost immediately, like Cain and Lincecum. Perhaps we are spoiled by them. But we just recently released Jesse Foppert, who never regained the stuff he had before his injury.

    Other teams have their share of hearbreak as well. Homer Bailey of the Reds have been annointed since 2007 and he still hasn't figured it out, despite dominating in the minors. Anthony Reyes was suppose to the Cards shiny new starter but after a few years of trying, they gave up and traded him away. He's still working on it.

    Edwin Jackson was suppose to the D-gers next great starter, back in 2003, but he struggled there and in Tampa Bay, before starting to figure it out with Tampa Bay in 2008, and finally fulfilling his potential this season, 6 years after stardom was forecasted for him.

    The Pirates seem to go through this with every one of their prospect starters, from Oliver Perez to Tom Gorzelanny to Ian Snell to Zach Duke and Paul Maholm (the only ones to do well consistently so far)

    Why I don't give up on Sanchez: there are many reasons.

    Pitchers who can strike out around one per inning are very rare; he is at 9.0 K/9 for his career, 8.9 as a starter. In 2008, his K/BB was over the 2.0 that is considered good for starters. He had really bad luck that year, with a .327 BABIP, where most pitchers regress to a mean of .300, though that might be his level of performance since that's basically where he has been as a major leaguer. At the All-Star break last season, he had a 3.97 ERA, which is very good, with 115 K in 111 IP and 53 BB. So you are basically saying that that performance is a fluke and will dump him for his poor performance since then.

    Other factors are important too. We have no hotshot starter ready for the majors right now. Both Bumgarner and Alderson are not ready for the majors yet. He is our 5th starter, and most teams' 5th starter are like Sanchez.

    And if we were competing hard for the playoffs, then maybe I would change my mind, but the Giants, by not pursuing a hard hitting middle of the lineup hitter, signaled that this year was more about development than about charging hard for the playoffs. So why not let Sanchez pitch and play, and hopefully figure things out. That 3.97 ERA pitcher is still inside; we just need to figure out how to get him back out.

    The Giants actions thus far does not seem to change the mandate. They released Dave Roberts. They are still playing Ishikawa when they could have made the move to Guzman or now Bowker; and that seems to be paying off now.

    They continued playing Sandoval even though he was only hitting .246/.292/.328/.620 as of April 25th; they could have started starting Aurilia or Uribe at that point. When they bring up players, they play them instead of making them sit on the bench while a vet plays.

    They haven't made a big trade of big prospects to land the big hitter that we all know they need (and probably need two of!). They have kept their bounty of pitchers and not traded any away, when they most certainly could pick up a big hitter or two with the great pitching prospects that they have in hand right now.

    You want to give up on Sanchez, but then have no obvious alternative to tout, no plan behind your move.

    But I do agree with you that he needs to figure something out quickly. However, I'm willing to give him a bit more time to do that than you are.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm not giving up on the guy completely but how many starts does he get to pitch like a guy who has no business in the big leagues before they do something drastic? Kick his butt to the bullpen. Send him down. He should be embarassed. Martinez should be ready soon, give him a shot. Or give Pucetas a shot. Anybody.

    ReplyDelete
  6. this was one of the worst articles I have read..we know the type of player Sandoval is...I knew when I prospected him in San Jose..Kinda like Bumgarner and Alderson..and yes one if not both should deserve a shot in the big leagues NOW!!nothing to lose, last year during this time people were saying give Sandoval another year or two in the minors...if its such a development year,then give the fans excitement with showing the prospects, and baseball's 6th best prospect* (Bumgarner)should be shown.
    *MLB.com

    ReplyDelete
  7. OGC-

    You have helped me to understand the dynamics that are currently playing out with JS. Now I won't be so frustrated when I wake up and read the box score. I agree that we should re-sign RJ. A $10M investment RJ is just as much an investment in the resource that JS has the potential to be. These things normally play themselves out in the minor leagues but you have nothing left to accomplish on the farm you have to try and continue development at the next higher level. Great post and keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Another nice post, Martin. Good reading.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks Snuffy and steveb.

    Zach: you're welcome too. That's the problem to me, no vision for the future, it's now now now, damn the consequences.

    Bumgarner and Alderson are hopefully part of the rotation for a good 6 years. Frankly, we don't know what's in store with Lincecum or Cain, injury, decline, a line drive up the middle like Martinez, they turn down the Giants and don't sign extensions, moving on.

    We have a very good rotation right now. We are winning, even with Sanchez being so bad right now. Even though many fans were expecting the Giants to be below .500, they are doing pretty well right now, and look to do better.

    Why start Bumgarner's time clock now? Just to make the playoffs and probably end up losing and not reaching the World Series? I think the Giants will be pretty good, with Sandoval here now, and hopefully Posey, Crawford, Villalona, Noonan following closely in the next few years. That's when we will have our best chances to win it all, not the way we are constructed right now.

    Why cost us some of Bumgarner's service time this year and maybe next? Why not save him so that his 6-7 years with us will be the years our offense is ready to compete for it all, not now or next year when the offense are a work in progress (because there is no way it will be totally competitive next year, though I think there will be incremental growth)?

    More importantly, why add him in when we can give Sanchez the time to find himself? Sanchez was a top line starter in the first half of 2008. He has that inside him.

    If he can figure that out, he would be valuable enough by himself to pick up a top quality bat, and who then could be replaced by Bumgarner without missing a beat. Volquez got the Rangers Hamilton. Sanchez figuring things out should get him a similar value.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Matt, perhaps we agree, sort of. I'm OK with sitting him down, just not with moving him out of the rotation permanently.

    ReplyDelete

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