By now, you’ve heard the news that the Royals have traded Melky Cabrera to the Giants for lefty Jonathan Sanchez.
My initial reaction was excitement. I can’t tell you if that was due to a trade being made or for the content of the trade itself. It was just a reaction. On first glance, it looks like the Royals have traded an average hitter following a career year for a left-handed starter with hints of domination who might be an adjustment or two from being a breakout performer.
The Royals didn’t rip off the Giants, nor did the Giants rip off the Royals. With a glut of outfielders capable of playing at the big league level – I’m thinking of Lorenzo Cain (who stands to benefit most from the trade), David Lough, Mitch Maier and perhaps Jarrod Dyson – and in need of pitching, the move makes sense for the Royals. Melky isn’t the best defender, not the most patient hitter, but he performed admirably in 2011. Sanchez has always had his warts. He walks quite a lot of batters but also strikes out a lot.
Upon further thought, it’s an even deal I think for both teams.
But what about Sanchez? What kind of pitcher is he, and what can Royals fans expect from him?
Last year, Royals pitchers struck out 6.7 batters per nine innings, just below the American League average of 6.9.
Strikeouts aren’t a guarantee of success, but in 2011, every team that won 90 or more games (Boston, Tampa, Detroit, New York and Texas) struck out more than the league average per nine innings. The Angels were the only team that finished above .500 but below the league’s K/9 average. My thought is that a strikeout records an out without the ball going into play, and if the ball isn’t in play, it can’t be a hit. Simple idea, but again it’s no guarantee. In this case, I don’t think it will hurt. The Royals were lead by Felipe Paulino in 2011, who struck out 8.6 batters per nine in 20 starts for the Royals. Danny Duffy, with 7.4 K/9 was next and other than Kyle Davies at 7.3 K/9 (remember what I just said about K/9 being no guarantee for success?), no other Royals starter had even 6 K/9.
In Sanchez’s case, he misses bats, resulting both in strikeouts and lower hit rates. The trade off is that he walks more than you’d want to see from a key starter. The Royals are gambling that they can get Sanchez back down closer to 4 BB/9 while maintaining his strikeout rate.
Sanchez likes to use his fastball and changeup to set up his slider as an out pitch. According to FanGraphs, he has thrown his fastball (which sits around 91 mph) 67% of the time, mixing in the change 20% of the time and the slider about 18% of the time (with a mish-mash of “who knows how PitchFX categorized that pitch” for the remainder). Sanchez rarely throws his slider unless he’s ahead or even in the count. Throughout his career, with 0-1 counts, the slider makes an appearance 17% of the time. That’s the highest percentage of any count that doesn’t involve two strikes. However, when the count gets to two strikes, he throws it regularly.
After that second strike, he breaks out the slider 39% of the time (0-2 counts), 42% of the time (1-2 counts), 29% of the time (2-2 counts) and 10% of the time (3-2 counts). It seems he trusts the pitch when he needs it but will rely on his other stuff to set it up.
It’s a gamble worth taking. Sanchez can be dominant for stretches, and has thrown a no-hitter in his career. Even with his high walk rates, his career K/BB ratio is 1.96; generally 2.00 and above is good enough for most starters. With his ability to miss bats, Sanchez somewhat alleviates the batters he puts on the walk (though the opposite is true, as his walkrate takes the shine off his H/9).
The Royals took a gamble on Gil Meche before the 2007 season and he was a very capable #2 starter for a couple of years until Trey Hillman turned his shoulder into pudding. Sanchez has a similar ceiling.
Considering the internet was abuzz with rumors of Wil Myers – to – Atlanta rumors all of last week, giving up Melky Cabrera for a starter with potential isn’t a bad deal at all. Cabrera’s career OPS+ is 93; Sanchez’s career ERA+ is 97. Both have had erratic values in those categories and the net takeaway is that they’re on the cusp of being better than average (when adjusted for the league and ballpark, as OPS+ and ERA+ do):
Additionally, the Royals received minor league left-hander Ryan Verdugo.
According to Hank Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Giants had asked about Melky at the trading deadline in July and now, with a deal coming together, the Royals specifically sought out Verdugo as a piece.
Verdugo is another lefty who misses bats. As a minor leaguer, he’s put up 11.1 K/9. His track record reminds me of what Tim Collins had done prior to joining the Royals organization in July 2010. High strikeouts with similarly high walks. Verdugo will be 25 shortly after the season starts and hasn’t pitched above Double A, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to Triple A competition (as he’s been assigned to Omaha after the trade). He may be an option out of the bullpen next year too.
Dayton Moore has seemed to go out of his way to get intriguing toss-ins when making trades. Will Smith, who may be another lefty vying for action this year in Kansas City, was a toss-in. So was Elisaul Pimentel who has been on many prospect ranking lists. Collins himself seemed a bit tacked onto the package of Jesse Chavez and Gregor Blanco when coming over from the Braves.
Dave Eiland, newly hired as pitching coach, will have his hands full, but if he can rein in Sanchez’s control, the Royals will have a strong starter in place with hopes that Felipe Paulino and Luke Hochevar step up, while prospects like Aaron Crow, Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery look to compete for rotation spots.
And who knows – the Royals may not be done dealing yet.