When the news came out that the Pittsburgh Pirates were close to an agreement with left-handed pitcher Jonathan Sanchez, my initial reaction was that he was very similar to Francisco Liriano. It started out as a basic comparison. They were both left-handed pitchers coming off down seasons with control issues, high strikeouts, and they were each a few years removed from a great season.
The Liriano signing has been crazy. The Pirates agreed to a deal with him on December 21st. A few days later he broke his right arm. A month later, the two sides agreed to a revised deal. It’s been a few weeks since that reported agreement, and the only update we’ve heard is that there’s a hold up over guaranteed money and whether the deal would be a minor league deal.
Because Sanchez and Liriano are so similar, and because there have been so many delays with the Liriano deal, that leads to the speculation that the Pirates are finally moving on from Liriano. I’d avoid that speculation for now. That’s the same speculation that popped up after the Jeff Karstens signing, which was before the update about Liriano agreeing to a revised deal. The Pirates could still sign Liriano and Sanchez. Sanchez is on a minor league deal, and is coming off an injury in 2012, so he’s not guaranteed a roster spot. The Pirates are also thin with left-handed relief options, so he could fit there.
What the Sanchez signing does provide the Pirates with is leverage for Liriano. The most recent update said that the Pirates would be comfortable going with Kyle McPherson or Jeff Locke in the rotation. If that were actually true, we wouldn’t even be discussing Liriano, since the Pirates could have had Locke and McPherson in the number four and five spots from the start of the off-season. You couldn’t really get leverage with Karstens, because he’s far from a guarantee to play the entire season. Sanchez wouldn’t add much leverage either by himself, but adding his bounce-back potential to the list of names does give the Pirates a good alternative. Plus, if Sanchez does bounce back to his 2009-2011 numbers, he could provide the same production that you’d hope for out of Liriano.
Let’s dive a little deeper into that comparison to see how the two players stack up.
Liriano and Sanchez are both left-handed pitchers. Sanchez (30) is one year older than Liriano (29), so they’re both pretty young for free agents.
Liriano has a career 9.06 K/9 ratio. He’s dropped below a strikeout per inning a few years in his career, but had a 9.59 K/9 in 2012.
Sanchez has a career 9.10 K/9 ratio. He’s been around a strikeout per inning or better every year from 2007-2011. Last year he really struggled with a combined 6.26 K/9 with the Rockies and Royals.
The Control Issues
The big knock on Sanchez throughout his career has been his lack of control. He has a career 5.00 BB/9 ratio, and has never been below a 4.27 BB/9 in any season throughout his career. The control hasn’t seemed to derail his success in the past. He had a 4.24 ERA in 2009, a 3.07 ERA in 2010, and a 4.26 ERA in 2011. His xFIP numbers in those respective years were 4.14, 3.94, and 4.36. That’s the performance of a league average number three starter. Last year the control issues were horrible, with a 7.38 BB/9 ratio.
Liriano has dealt with some control problems in each of the last two seasons. His walk rate each year has been right around a 5.00 BB/9. His ERA has soared to above a 5.00 in each year, although his xFIP was better than the ERA both times. I don’t want to say that Liriano’s struggles are all because of the control problems, but if you look at his career you can see a trend. Every time his walk rate rises, his ERA also rises. He’s had three seasons with an ERA over 5.00, and each season his walk rate was above a 4.00 BB/9. His other three years have produced ERAs below 4.00, and each year his walk rate was below 4.00 BB/9. Two of those seasons were below a 3.00 BB/9.
The Advanced Metrics
Sanchez has been pretty consistent with his xFIP. From 2007-2011 he’s been in the 3.94-4.36 range. He was at 6.46 in 2012.
Liriano has been all over the place. He’s had two years with an xFIP under 3.00. He’s had two years with an xFIP in the 4.14-4.25 range. He’s also had two years with an xFIP around 4.50.
Sanchez looks like more of the conservative choice, without the potential for a ton of upside. Liriano has a better chance of putting up a huge upside, but also has a chance of being worse than Sanchez.
The PNC Park Factor
One reason I liked the deal with Liriano was that he was a lefty in PNC Park with an above average ground ball rate. PNC’s outfield favors left-handed pitchers, and the Pirates have a pretty good infield defense, so that’s a good combo. Sanchez doesn’t have this advantage. His career ground ball rate has been below average. He still has the left-handed factor, so that will help him in half his games, but Liriano has the advantage with the extra grounders.
Liriano has averaged 92.7 MPH with his fastball throughout his career. He’s seen that drop in certain years, possibly due to his many injuries. Last year he was at 93.0 MPH.
Sanchez has averaged 90.7 MPH in his career. His velocity has dropped the last two years, going down to 89.0 last year. I’d say that’s a concern, but he had an arm injury last year. He went on the DL several times with left biceps tendonitis, and it eventually ended his season on August 5th. That could be the reason his velocity had dropped so much.
Even when they’re both on their game, Liriano’s velocity is slightly better.
The Bounce Back Factor
The appeal with both pitchers is that they’re young, they’re both only a few years removed from outstanding seasons, and they both have the potential to bounce back to those numbers.
Liriano has the advantage because of the aforementioned PNC Park factor. He would also be moving to the NL for the first time, which should help him put up better numbers. The control seems to be his big issue, and if he can reverse that trend, he could get back to the number 2-3 starter he was before the walks increased.
The issues with Sanchez seem injury related. His advanced metrics were pretty consistent the previous three seasons. Then his velocity dropped, the strikeouts dropped, and the walks soared. Jon Heyman noted that Sanchez was healthy and that he worked all winter on his mechanics. If that’s true, then Sanchez could bounce back to his 2009-2011 numbers, which would make him a steal. That, of course, assumes that his issues are a result of the injury and nothing else.
Liriano and Sanchez both have a lot of similarities. They are both left-handed, which would fit in well at PNC Park. They both post strong strikeout numbers. They both have struggled with control. They’re both coming off bad seasons, but they’re also both young, which means their careers aren’t over yet. They are also both just a few seasons removed from strong years.
The differences would have me leaning more toward Liriano. David Todd at ESPN 970 has called him a high-beta pitcher, and his advanced metrics above back that up. He could be as good as a number two starter, or he could be as bad as a number five starter. If Sanchez bounces back, there’s a good chance that he’s going to put up numbers around what you’d expect from a number three or four starter. Considering that the Pirates would be filling the number four starting spot with one of these guys, it wouldn’t hurt to have some upside. If Sanchez bounces back, he might be a little better than what you’d expect from a number four starter. Liriano might be a little worse than what you’d expect from a number four starter, but if he bounces back he could be considerably better than the normal expectations for a fourth starter.
Liriano also has the added benefit of an above-average ground ball rate in his career. He’s also getting the “move to the NL” help that doesn’t really apply to Sanchez, since most of Sanchez’s best years already came in the NL.
I wouldn’t say the advantage for Liriano is significant, especially with his recent injury. When you consider the money factor (I can’t imagine Sanchez would be getting anything close to what Liriano is getting), then Sanchez might be the better value. If you remove the money, Liriano looked like the better option between the two before the injury. If his injury isn’t serious enough to have a long-term impact, then that opinion wouldn’t change for me.
Best case scenario would be to get both pitchers. Have Liriano as a starter when he’s healthy, and use Sanchez either as rotation depth out of Triple-A, or as the second lefty in the bullpen, and a 6th starter if needed. He’s shown at times in the past that he can handle going from starting to relieving, so that shouldn’t be a difficult role for him.
Links and Notes
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