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Giants' Sanchez at Critical Juncture

Apr 14, 2010 – 8:00 AM
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Jeff Fletcher

Jeff Fletcher %BloggerTitle%

SAN FRANCISCO -- Jonathan Sanchez is a rare breed, a left-hander whose fastball hits the mid 90s and whose slider breaks off the table. He is one of the most electric pitchers in the majors.

Except when he's not.

Sometimes he's just a guy who can't throw strikes or loses focus or tips his pitches. That's when he can get racked up pretty good.

Giants fans have seen plenty of both guys over the past two years. Sanchez has had a couple mirror-image seasons, starting great in 2008 and finishing strong in 2009, with a whole lot of mediocrity in between. The game that marked the dividing line in last year's schizophrenic performance came on July 10, when Sanchez made the baseball world take notice of how good he can be. He pitched a no-hitter.

Although that game propelled Sanchez to a strong finish, he begins this year still looking to prove that he's not just another Bud Smith, a guy who pitched a no-hitter but had an otherwise nondescript career.

"We're going to find out this year where he is," Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "This is the year. It's on him."

Sanchez will make his second start of the season on Wednesday afternoon against the Pirates. His first start was a bit of a mess. He gave up seven hits and three runs and couldn't get out of the fifth inning.

His line wasn't pretty, but Righetti still saw some signs that this is the good Sanchez, not the bad one. Friday's game was the Giants' home opener, so Sanchez had to deal with a lot of hoopla and extra adrenaline that in the past might have really caused the wheels to come off.

"I'm not going to say it could have gone a lot of ways, but it could have," Righetti said. "There were some things that I took out of that that were really positive."

Sanchez is a key piece for the Giants, whose rotation goes from pretty good to otherworldly if he can string together a complete season like the two good halves he's had in 2008 and 2009. Outside of San Francisco, Sanchez is intriguing because of the no-hitter and his strikeout stuff. (Over the past two years, Sanchez ranks third among major league starters, behind Rich Harden and Tim Lincecum, with 9.35 strikeouts per nine innings.)

His control problems -- 4.7 walks per nine innings -- have resulted in a career ERA of 4.83, though.

Sanchez is 27 years old, so he's at an age when most pitchers have left those early-career struggles behind, if they are going to be successful. A list of all pitchers who had an ERA of 4.50 or greater and more than 4.5 walks per nine innings, over at least 300 innings, before their 27-year-old season doesn't show many who became frontline pitchers. Ryan Dempster and Russ Ortiz are the class of the group.

This year will go a long way toward determining if Sanchez is going to break that mold, or if he's destined to life as a back-of-the-rotation starter.

"We're going to find out this year where he is. This is the year. It's on him."
- Dave Righetti
"The stuff is certainly above average," said a scout. "A lot of these young guys have good arms, plus stuff, but shaky command. It's a matter of throwing strikes and getting ahead of hitters so he can use these strikeout pitches. He's got 'em, but you can't throw 'em when you are behind in the count."

The scout said Sanchez still has time to reach his potential as "a good No. 3."

One of the reasons for Sanchez's relatively slow development is that he got to the majors too quickly. The Giants promoted him straight from Double-A in 2006, less than two years after he'd been signed out of tiny Ohio Dominican College.

"He didn't belong here," Righetti said. "He was here because someone believed he'd come up and blow everyone away as a reliever. Now you have to turn him into a pitcher. The mindset still was there to just bring it. Now all the pitching stuff went out the door."

Righetti said Sanchez tipped his pitches. He couldn't maintain his delivery. He wasn't able to think through game situations. When the Giants made Sanchez a starter, Righetti had to sit on him between starts to keep him on track with his preparation. Catcher Bengie Molina said he didn't know how to pitch.

"The only thing I would give him advice on is not trying to throw too hard, not trying to strike out everybody," he said. "Just make everybody put the ball in play. That's good advice for everybody."

Molina said Sanchez also threw too many pitches, including some "no-purpose pitches. If he cuts down on those, he can have a great career."

Sanchez had a 5.30 ERA last July, when he turned his season around with one magical evening against the Padres. He struck out 11 and did not walk a batter, on his way to the Giants' first no-hitter in more than 32 years. Starting with that game, Sanchez was 6-4 with a 3.46 ERA the rest of the season.

"I think as much as anything it gave him a lot of confidence," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's got the stuff to pitch up here. He's got great stuff. He just has to throw strikes and he'll compete pretty well."

Sanchez said the confidence boost from the no-hitter allowed him to be more comfortable and trust his stuff. From a technical standpoint, he also developed a more effective breaking ball. His slider had always been sharp, but it was almost never a strike, so hitters simply let it go. Last year he was able to take something off the slider to get it over for a called strike. When he'd get to two strikes, he could unleash the nasty one in the dirt and get some swings.

Ideally, Sanchez will be able to control his breaking balls and have enough command of his plus fastball to get hitters to whack one fly ball after another into the massive right-center field gap at AT&T Park, Righetti said.

Whether he can become that remains to be seen. And this is the year to find out.

"There is no more hiding now," Righetti said. "He's not just a hidden talent. He's a guy who's got that (a no-hitter), so a lot of people are watching. Let's see what he can do."
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