Clone Wars: Jonathan Sanchez and Clayton Kershaw

This doesn’t follow my normal comparison as I usually have two players with similar stat lines and try to explain why one player might be better or more surprising. This time I found two players who couldn’t have looked more different in 2009, but looking at the numbers they should have been more similar. These two pitchers are two of the better strikeout pitchers, but they also can’t keep from giving up the free passes.

Name                 W   L   ERA   WHIP   K     BB    IP     K/9   BB/9  K/BB  GB%     FB%     HR/FB%
Jonathan Sanchez     8   12  4.24  1.37   177    88   163.1  9.75  4.85  2.01  40.70%  43.10%  10.30%
Clayton Kershaw      8   8   2.79  1.23   185    91   171    9.74  4.79  2.03  39.40%  41.60%   4.10%

This matchup in 2009 came down to one thing. Kershaw gained a huge advantage in his number of homers allowed. You could argue he is going to continue this since he’s pitching in Dodger Stadium for half his future games, but as we know AT&T Park is not friendly to hitters either. Kershaw had the lowest HR/FB% in baseball this year and less than half the amount of any other pitcher on the Dodgers staff. On the other hand Sanchez threw a fairly high HR/FB% based on other Giants pitchers such as Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. Using xFIP we can get an idea of how similar they are with Kershaw at 3.94 and Sanchez at 4.22.

MLB: OCT 15 Phillies at Dodgers – NLCS Game 1
Oct. 15, 2009: Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw throws against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Dodgers lost 8-6 to the Phillies in Game One of the 2009 NLCS at Dodger Stadium. (Icon/SMI)

Obviously we are dealing with two pitchers who came into the league in very different situations. Kershaw was drafted seventh overall in 2006 out of high school while Sanchez went to college and lasted until the 27th round of the 2004 draft. Also using John Sickels ratings from Minor League Ball we see Kershaw was rated an A-grade pitcher and Sanchez was a B-grade pitcher.

Kershaw has the pedigree of a much better prospect and spent so little time in the minors we have very little to work with in minor league numbers. He struggled with control in the minors, though, topping 3.8 walks per nine innings at A ball and Double-A. His EqERA in Double-A was 6.94 in 2007 and 5.19 in 2008, which is also a bit concerning. On the other hand, Sanchez did not top 3.8 walks per nine innings until Triple-A in a small sample size of 44.1 innings. Their strikeout rates are comparable as they averaged around 11 strikeouts per nine in the minors.

These two pitchers do come at hitters just slightly differently. Kershaw has a two-pitch approach going with fastballs and his dominating curve nearly 90 percent of the time. Sanchez goes with a fastball and a slider nearly 90 percent of the time. This seems to be a trend as you could probably add lefty J.A. Happ who also is throwing two pitches nearly 90 percent of the time (fastball and a cutter).

Many pitchers take a few years to work out control problems once they make the majors and these two have almost the same amount of experience at 66 games started for Sanchez and 51 for Kershaw. Next year will be a defining moment for these youngsters.

Looking to the Bill James projections here is what we see for 2010 so far:

Name                 W      L      ERA    K/9    BB/9   HR/9   FIP
Jonathan Sanchez      8     12    4.24    9.59    4.6    0.88   3.92
Clayton Kershaw      13      7    3.25    9.4     4.55   0.55   3.42

Seems like more of the same for both here. The projections expect both to have big control problems with each walking more than a batter every 2 innings. At the same time, Kershaw is expected to be much better at home run control than Sanchez. Unless they expect Kershaw to improve his groundball numbers, I don’t think we should expect the HR/9 to be this widely separated between the two.

I am not confident either one can make huge strides in their control. Based on this, though, Sanchez makes a better value in 2010 as he will be largely forgotten compared to the publicity Kershaw already got before finishing 2009 with a 2.79 ERA. Based on the unpredictability of HR/FB it could easily be Kershaw with the 4+ ERA next year.

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12 years ago

Isn’t Sanchez around 6 years older than Kershaw? Talk about apples and oranges….

Troy Patterson
12 years ago

@Scott – You’re right he did have a K/BB split from the first half to the second half of 1.72 to 2.33.  It seems that it had more to do with his strikeouts though than his walk rate.

@Rick – I don’t see why it’s apples to oranges.  I’m not trying to say these are the exact same player and will go on to have similar careers.  Kershaw should have many more years in the majors especially if he stays in LA, but the fact remains so far their time in the majors have been fairly close according to statistical analysis.  My only presumption is that in 2010 you could do just as well by waiting for Sanchez instead of overpaying for Kershaw.

12 years ago

Based on the nature of pitching (particularly for power lefties) and health risk, their age is almost irrelevant at 26 or younger.

12 years ago

Isn’t “SF a Pitcher’s Park” an old, expired truism?  Bill James handbook the last few years had the park about neutral, same with BP.  In fact, James latest has Runs at 105 for the 2009 season, 103 for 2007-2009.  Time to give that one a rest. 

Meanwhile, Dodger Stadium is still one of the most extreme pitcher’s parks around.  Jeff Weaver and Chan Ho Park owes tens of millions of dollars each to the park for hiding how below average they were when pitching outside of that park.  I’m sure they are not the only two (Boras can also thank the park too).

Bill James also has Dodger Stadium as one of the bigger dampers on HR hit, particularly RHH, who makes up the vast majority of hitters.  I think that his level is unsustainable too, but perhaps it would be useful to see what the historic HR/FB% is at Dodger Stadium.

I think that it should also be noted that having a high rate of walks is not necessarily worse than not being able to strike out hitters.  Derek Carty did a study where he studied pitchers with K/BB of over 2.0 and found that those who achieved that with a high K/9 but high W/9(like Sanchez and Kershaw) had a better average ERA than those who had a very low W/9 but also low K/9. 

I think that ERA projection for Sanchez will prove to be too high.  It is based on his past performances, but his past performances include a lot of time where his struggle was explainable.  In 2008, his ERA flew up once he tired out, that was his first season as a starter.  Before that, his ERA was in the high 3’s.  In 2009, he was horrible to start the season because he stupidly copied some mechanics from Johan Santana, who is much shorter than Sanchez, which screwed him up until he stopped doing that.  Once he had the no-hitter, even excluding that game, he again had a sub-4 ERA the rest of the season.

I think the no-hitter for him was the equivalent of the Wizard handing a diploma to the Scarecrow and suddenly he’s smart.  He always had it in him but never quite believed or was that confident of it.  I think 2010 could be the year he puts together a good first half with a good second half and have a great season.

Good conclusion on Sanchez, perhaps if you didn’t throw in Kershaw as a similar comparison, but as an example of a pitcher who should be fully valued, the other commenter would not have been so snarky.

Troy Patterson
12 years ago

I want to clarify something that I left unclear.  My reference of “AT&T park being not friendly to hitters” was meant to refer to home runs only.  The park is more of a hitters park, but the park does slightly lower home run totals.

12 years ago

Simply check out Sanchez’ numbers from the stretch position if you want to understand what’s holding him back. He’s a completely different animal out there once that happens. It’s also the reason SF has always been reluctant to use him as a power arm out of the bullpen. It’s unreal what happens out there when a runner reaches against this guy.

The typical Sanchez start has him sailing thru 4 to 5 IP, then he inevitably has that inning where the first two hitters reach. From there all hell usually breaks loose and he’s in the clubhouse within the next 10 minutes. Simply put, he can’t hold runners on and worse, he loses location and focus when anyone reaches base. Before you know it his pitch count is closing on 100 and he’s turned a gem into a mess, especially against an average or above offense…

12 years ago

Weren’t Sanchez’s numbers vastly improved during the second half, and after his no-hitter?

12 years ago

That 6.55 K/BB against lefties is very telling for Kershaw.

I actually don’t mind pairing Sanchez and Kershaw in an article like this; Their numbers and issues are very different, but in the off-season, putting two talented pitchers in an article like this isn’t a horrible idea. Plus, there’s some great some great thoughts and insight in the comments. That thing about Sanchez trying to ape Santana was something I hadn’t heard, and that puts the first half of ‘09 into perspective.

On an unrelated note, I’m glad I’m not the only person enjoying off-season fantasy baseball commentary. Thanks to THT for keeping these articles going.

Troy Patterson
12 years ago

I don’t see the evidence for any lack of skill from the stretch.  I actually find he is better than the rest of the league.  In his career his K/BB with the bases empty is 1.95, but in the stretch he is 2.08.  The league average in 2009 was 2.28 with the bases empty and dropped to 1.77 with runners on.  His 2009 numbers match this.

If anything it is his lefty/righty splits that show the trouble.  In 2009 he had a 3.31 K/BB against lefties, but only a 1.79 against righties.  Kershaw was even more so with a 6.55 against lefties and only a 1.41 against righties.

12 years ago

The difference between these players is how many hits they give up! Kershaw’s H/9 was somewhere in the 6.25 range – If he can keep that up it truly is apples and oranges here. Even if he can’t put up 6 H/9 again I have faith his walks are on the way down and this guy is going to continue getting better year after year. I do not have that same feeling toward Sanchez. The only scoring formats that would make Sanchez a value pick would be ones that ignore ERA, WHIP, H, W, L… the list goes on. If your league has a bias toward K, BB, or K/BB then yes Sanchez is a value pick – maybe.

Troy Patterson
12 years ago

@Phil – Why would you look to H/9?  His BABIP is down to .274 and when it returns to normal he will have a similar H/9 to Sanchez.  H/9 is a function of K/BB and also team defense.