We continue our preview of the Marlins’ starting pitching staff with the team’s projected fourth starter, a player who spent a long time recovering from an injury but may be finally returning to form.
Sanchez impressed Marlins fans last season by being the “last man standing” amidst a slew of injuries and changes to the starting rotation late in the season. While Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco succumbed to injury and skipped their September starts, Sanchez remained to anchor the rotation as the team’s best pitcher remaining. He threw an impressive 195 innings, a career high by a large margin, and was able to display some of the gifts that impressed the Marlins in his first go-around in the majors in 2006.
Of course, Sanchez is best known for his injury history rather than his pitching record. After recording a 2006 season with a 2.83 ERA and a no-hitter, Sanchez missed the majority of the next three seasons recovering from a torn right labrum. In 2007, he was sent to the minors and went on the DL for the labrum surgery. In 2008, he stayed on the DL for the majority of the season still recovering from the labrum surgery. In 2009, when it was expected that Sanchez was fully recovered, he suffered a right shoulder strain that was reaggrevated and once again kept him out for significant time.
Sanchez’s health finally caught up to him in 2010 and resulted in his best season as a pro, but how likely is he to repeat his 2010 season in terms of performance and health? Only the Marlins can really tell how healthy Sanchez is after his second largest career innings load (he logged 197 innings combined between Double-A and the majors in 2006). However, there were good signs for Sanchez’s health; his fastball velocity actually increased as the season continued, and he is a few seasons removed from the actual surgery. While the projection of innings should be conservative, there is reason to believe that Sanchez is capable of pulling off another full season of innings.
What about Sanchez’s 2010 performance? The encouraging sign for Sanchez is that he was able to drop his walk rate and maintain an above average strikeout rate as well. He walked a career-best 8.3 percent of batters faced in 2010, which allowed him to push his K/BB ratio above 2.0 for the first time in his career. The increased velocity in 2010 also bodes well for Sanchez and his ability to maintain the strikeout rate he has held over the past two seasons (18.6 percent). The problem is that his home run rate, while strong over the course of his career (0.74 HR per nine innings), isn’t likely to remain at the rate it was at in 2010 (0.46 HR per nine IP). Sanchez is simply unlikely to repeat a performance of allowing 4.5 percent of his fly balls to leave the yard; among qualified starting pitchers in 2010, that total ranked as the third lowest behind Johnson and Chad Billingsley. That performance seems unlikely considering that, since 2008, the lowest HR/FB rate over the three-year span was Cliff Lee‘s 6.0 percent. Given the extensive talent gap between Lee and Sanchez, it is much more likely to expect Sanchez to reach his career 7.0 percent HR/FB rate or something closer to the league average of around 9.2 percent than to expect him to repeat his 2010 performance.
Nevertheless, how valuable is a player like Sanchez? When you look at the projection of the Fans, you might see something akin to his true talent level. If Sanchez can maintain a strikeout and walk rate similar to the ones he posted in 2010, the 2011 season looks bright even with regression in home runs. Given an average HR/FB rate of 9,2 percent and Sanchez’s career 38.3 percent fly ball rate, one would expect him to give up 20 home runs in the amount of innings at which he is projected. The Fans projected a more aggressive 17 home runs allowed, which represents a middle ground between using his career HR/FB rate and the league average. I would be generally comfortable with any of these projections, and they all mostly lead to a player whose ERA projects at just around 3.80 to 4.00 (my average projection shown here has him at a 3.96 ERA).
That all adds up to a good pitcher, right? Absolutely, when he makes a full season’s worth of starts. But can we expect that?
Projection: 150 IP, 2.4 WAR
At the average number of innings per start that Sanchez has pitched in his career, that number translates to about 27 starts made, meaning that we’d expect him to miss about five to six starts with some sort of ailment. Does that sound reasonable to Marlins fans? It does seem reasonable as an average projection, but the likelihood is that Sanchez will either pitch a full season or miss much of the year. For the team to succeed, it really needs Sanchez’s continued health, as the rotation depth is quite shallow behind him and the team has tried to build the 2011 club to support a strong starting staff. I’d gladly take this sort of production from Sanchez if he can provide it, but as always, the question will be whether his health can keep him in the game.