Prior to the suspension of Tuesday night’s game against the St Louis Cardinals, Jonathan Sanchez had given up two runs (one earned) over two innings – he gave up two hits while striking out three and walking just one hitter (with all the damage done in the first inning). With Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton either beginning to make rehab outings or close to it, the Pirates rotation has the potential to get overcrowded fairly soon. The question is where this leaves Sanchez in the future with the club.
Sanchez has made two other starts this season. In his debut against the Dodgers he gave up three earned runs in five innings, giving up six hits, striking out four and walking one. His second start was an ugly one against the Diamondbacks. He lasted just three and a third and gave up nine runs (all earned) on eight hits and four walks, striking out just two in the process.
While Sanchez has only just surpassed the ten inning mark (unofficially, given that the start against the Cardinals was rained out), he really needs to improve and quickly if he will retain a spot in the rotation when others are healthy. That said, it may still be a losing battle for a starting role; however the bullpen may be better suited for the left-hander in any case.
Sanchez has been much better when facing a hitter for the first time in a game over the course of his career with opposing batters hitting .220/.333/.364 against him first time up, which rises to .241/.339/.410 and .277/.366/.461 in the second and third plate appearances against him respectively. The shorter outing nature of relieving could help him improve on his numbers - he'd be able to pitch without worrying about fatigue - likely adding heat to his fastball in the process. The average velocity of his fastball/sinker has declined each year since 2009, with the slight increase this season likely due to the season being so young:
Sanchez is now pitching in the high-80s/low-90s and his fastball has topped out at 92.6 mph so far this season. In comparison, early in his career Sanchez’s average velocity was comfortably in the low 90s and he was able to reach back and hit 96 mph on the gun.
While pitching out of the pen may help Sanchez find some of the lost speed in his fastball, it would also limit his exposure to right handed hitters. Righties have hit him for a .339 wOBA-against (4.58 FIP) over the course of his career while lefties have a wOBA of .302 when facing Sanchez (3.74 FIP). He also has a career 2.66 strikeouts for every walk when facing a left-hander, compared to 1.63 strikeouts per walk against righties.
Jonathan Sanchez has always had swing-and-miss stuff, however he’s also always had issues with control. While he’s likely on borrowed time in the Pirates rotation; pitching out of the bullpen could be an option going forward and the move could help him mask his problems with the free passes. He could be an option to take Jeanmar Gomez’s role as the long-man if Gomez’s luck runs out (his current .250 BABIP is driving his 1.29 ERA); while Justin Wilson and Tony Watson both have options remaining if the club wants to stick with two lefties in the pen and keep hold of both Sanchez and Gomez. Nonetheless, Sanchez's future in the rotation is likely linked to the rehab schedules of Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton.