The short answer is: yes.
Jonathan Sanchez has an impressive minor league track record and has shown the ability to strike out a lot of batters at the major league level. This year, Sanchez has posted a 3.54 ERA through five starts. Unlike many other pitchers who get off to a surprisingly fast start, Sanchez’s start to the season is legitimate and he very well could keep it up.
Throughout his minor league career, Sanchez has shown the ability to strike out batters at a very high rate and prevent homers, two extremely important predictive skills for pitchers. Sanchez has always has a relatively high, but not incredibly high, walk rate. For several seasons, the Giants could not decide what to do with him, and moved him between the bullpen and the starting rotation. However, whenever Sanchez pitched, he has dominated: throughout 252 minor league innings, he has struck out 333 (that’s nearly 12 hitters per nine innings), while walking 98 but allowing only 12 homers.
Sanchez was first promoted to the majors in 2006 to work out of the Giants’s bullpen. In 40 innings, he posted a 4.95 ERA and walked 23 hitters, but he also struck out 33 and allowed only two homers. In 2007, Sanchez’s ERA rose to 5.88 in 52 innings (4 starts, 29 appearances out of the bullpen). He allowed eight homers and walked 28, but he struck out 62 batters as well.
This year, the Giants have decided to once again try Sanchez in the starting rotation. Still only 25 years old, so far Sanchez has rewarded the Giants for their decision. In his first start of the season, Sanchez allowed seven runs over four innings against the Brewers, but he also only walked two and struck out eight. His most recent start was his best of the season, when he struck out 10 Cincinnati Reds over eight innings while walking just one and allowing only one run.
Through 28 innings this season, Sanchez has struck out 36, walked 11, and allowed three homers. His BABIP thus far is .292; he has stranded 72.9% of the men who have reached base against him; and 12.4% of his fly balls have become homers. None of these numbers are at all out of line with what we’d expect from a pitcher – in other words, Sanchez has not gotten particularly lucky (or unlucky) thus far.
Rather, it seems that Sanchez simply has excellent stuff. He has struck out 11.6 batters per nine innings – a very high number, but Sanchez has shown over and over throughout his career that he has the ability to strike hitters out in droves. A quick look at his pitch data shows that Sanchez induces a ton of swings and misses. 75% of Sanchez’s strikes are swinging strikes, and batters fail to make contact on 31% of their swings. Sanchez still somewhat struggles to throw strikes – only 62% of his pitches are strikes – but the fact that he gets so many swings and misses suggests that his stuff is extremely good.
As is not particularly surprising for a strikeout pitcher, Sanchez is a ground ball pitcher. However, Sanchez does get approximately as many ground balls as fly balls, and he plays in a home park in which it is difficult to hit homers, thus boding well for keeping the ball in the park.
Sanchez pitches primarily off of his fastball, which averages 91-92 MPH. He can pump it up to 95-97 when necessary. Sanchez has thrown his fastball 67% of the time this season. The key appears to be that Sanchez gets a lot of movement on his fastball: it moves both 8 inches vertically and horizontally. Sanchez’s main secondary pitch is his changeup, which he throws 21% of the time and which also has a ton of movement, thus making up for the fact that he throws his change around 86 MPH – not that much slower than his fastball. His slider and curveball are thrown the other 11% of the time – more often to lefties than righties. Interestingly, Sanchez throws his fastball 76% of the time against lefties, while only 64% of the time against righties, instead relying more often on his changeup to get right-handed hitters out.
In summary, it appears that Sanchez does nothing fancy: he throws his fastball and changeup, both of which have a ton of movement, and batters simply can’t hit them. There are few pitchers around baseball who can boast the same track record of wracking up strikeouts as Sanchez. He has also shown the ability to prevent homers. If he can harness his control well enough to keep his walks under four per nine innings, Sanchez should be able to maintain the success he has had so far this season.