Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Could Jonathan Sanchez Have a Better Year than Matt Cain for the Giants?

After last night's seven inning, 10 strikeout performance against the Padres, Jonathan Sanchez has caught the attention of the baseball nation once again.

Not only is Sanchez ready to breakout (as I hinted this off-season), but he is already on his way in doing so. Despite his record being 1-1 in three starts this year, Sanchez is posting a 1.86 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP and a FIP (fielding independent pitching on an ERA scale) of 1.46.

After years of speculation and disappointment, Sanchez is finally reaching his potential and is another important cog in the Giants' already impressive starting pitching rotation.

However, one question remains that isn't being widely discussed amongst those in Giants nation:

Could Sanchez be a better pitcher in 2010 than Matt Cain?

When you look at the big picture, it doesn't matter. The Giants have both pitchers, so it shouldn't be that big of a deal, right? As long as they both do well, it's a win-win for the Giants.

That is true, but to a point.

First off, Cain is coming off a very big extension (he'll be owed $27.5 million dollars over the next three seasons), so Cain is being paid and treated as the Giants' number two option of the future behind Tim Lincecum.

However, while Sanchez did sign an extension this year to avoid arbitration for another year (he signed a one-year $2.1 million deal this off-season), Sanchez could make a case that he may be just as valuable if not more than Cain after the 2010 season is finished.

Like I said, it know it sounds like blasphemy to some. Saying Sanchez is better than Cain to Giants fans is like saying Rocky II is better than Rocky I to die hard movie lovers (though I like Rocky IV the best, simply for guilty pleasure/patriotic/great music during the fight scene reasons).

If you look deeper at the numbers though, the gap between Cain and Sanchez is closer than it seems.

First off, look at what Sanchez and Cain have done so far in three starts:

Cain: 0-0 W-L, 18.2 IP, 3.86 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 2.91 FIP, 5.79 K/9, 1.45 BB/9, 4.00 K/BB, .295 BABIP, 1.55 GB/FB.
Sanchez: 1-1 W-L, 19.1 IP, 1.86 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 1.46 FIP, 12.57 K/9, 3.72 BB/9, 3.38 K/BB, .286 BABIP, 0.70 GB/FB.

Now, these are just their numbers after three starts. They could easily change for the better or worse over the course of the season. However, after looking at these numbers so far it's safe to say that Sanchez has performed better and has seemed to be the more impressive and dominating pitcher.

I know Cain fans (and I'm one of them too, by the way) will say "Cain is walking less guys! Things will turn around for him soon! Sanchez walks too many and that's dangerous if you're a pitcher!"

I agree. Cain's walk rate is almost a point and a half lower than it was last year (his 3.02 BB/9 was the lowest of his Major League career). However, the concerning aspect of Cain's pitching so far this year has to be his strikeout rate, which is 5.45. While I think it could improve as the season goes on, the decrease in strikeouts over Cain's career hasn't made Giants fans feel easy.

In 2006, his first full year with the Giants, his K/9 was 8.45. Last year, it was 7.07.

Sanchez on the other hand, has improved his ability to strike out guys as he has gained more Major League experience (his rookie year in 2006, his K/9 was 7.45; last year, it was 9.75).

What could be a reason for this? Well, despite having an advantage in velocity (Cain averaged 92.6 MPH on his fastball last year while Sanchez averaged 91.7 MPH), Cain simply allows too much contact as a pitcher. His contact rate last year was 80.7 percent and that has been the same case this year as he has a contact rate of 83.2 percent. In comparison, Sanchez has never had a contact rate over 78.4 percent, and that was during his rookie season (his contact rate was 73.8 percent in 2009, and is currently 71.6 percent this year).

(Furthermore, to put things into context, the league average contact rate for a pitcher is around 80 percent, usually.)

Another startling category where Sanchez holds a significant advantage is Sanchez' swinging strike percentage, which has been superior to Cain's over their respective careers. Last year, Sanchez had a swinging strike percentage of 10.9 percent (he has only had a swinging strike percentage under 10 once, back in 2006 when it was 9.4 percent). This season he has been unbelievable in that category, posting a 14 percent swinging strike percentage.

As for Cain? His swinging strike percentage last year was 9.1. His highest swinging strike percentage was 9.4 percent in 2008, and this year, it has suffered a big drop through the first three games as it hovers at 7.1 percent.

What does the mean? Well, considering the league average in this category is around 8.5 percent from season to season, Sanchez is a superior pitcher when it comes to missing bats while Cain may be little better than league average in terms of making batters miss.

Overall, there could be a lot of reasons why Sanchez has performed better this season and is a better strikeout pitcher than Cain. It could be Sanchez's delivery, which has been recognized as very deceptive by many baseball experts and scouts throughout Major League Baseball. It could be that Sanchez's breaking stuff and secondary pitches are far superior than Cain's, which explains why Sanchez is able to strikeout guys at a better rate than Cain despite having a slower fastball.

Whatever the reason, in my opinion, if Sanchez can't be considered better than Cain, then he should be at the same level or very close to the level of the Giants' 25-year-old right hander. While Cain does walk less guys and has been a better groundball pitcher this season, neither of those things have been very characteristic of Cain in his career. He has never had a GB/FB ratio over one (Sanchez on the other hand did it twice in 2007 and 2008), and while his walks have declined every year since his first full year in the rotation, he certainly is not a sub-two BB/9 pitcher.

Granted, Cain and Sanchez in the grand scheme of things is a wonderful thing for the Giants and San Francisco baseball fans. They both will provide great numbers and great outings throughout the course of the 2010 season.

That being said, things will get tough after the 2010 season when Sanchez will hit his second year of arbitration. If he ends up having a better year than Cain in 2010, the Giants will be hard-pressed to give him a "Cain-esque" contract by Sanchez's management team.

And, with re-signing Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey to long-term deals a priority down the road, it will be interesting to see if managing partner Bill Neukom will be open to shelling out that kind of cash to the 27-year-old left-hander from Puerto Rico.

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