Miami Marlins' Alex Sanabia having a confusing 2013 season

Miami Marlins starter Alex Sanabia is spinning quite the confusing season. - Marc Serota

Through three starts, Miami Marlins starter Alex Sanabia is having a confusing 2013 season. His ERA is not supported by his peripherals, but his peripherals are not supported by some outstanding Pitch F/X data.

Yesterday, I discussed the Miami Marlins and their dubious starting pitching past phenom prospect Jose Fernandez. i mentioned that only Wade LeBlanc seemed to be doing well, while the other pitchers were toying with disaster in terms of strand rates and abnormally low BABIPs. One of those odd pitchers is Alex Sanabia, and on the surface, Sanabia is just having a bad start to the season. Even after his two-run outing in six innings in last night's win over the Washington Nationals, Sanabia still boasts a mediocre 4.24 ERA that is more than a run below his 5.44 FIP.

Here is what I wrote on Sanabia yesterday.

Alex Sanabia's case is one in which he is just pitching poorly. He may have a shot to redeem himself tonight against the Nationals, but thus far he has been significantly worse than even his 4.91 ERA demonstrates. Sanabia's lack of strikeouts is unnerving, as is his high walk total to start the season. Add that to his fly ball tendencies of the past (career 36 percent ground ball rate) and you can see why the future is not bright for Sanabia, even with Marlins Park helping to suppress some fly balls. He needs more strikeouts or at least fewer walks to limit his natural home run damage, but that right now simply is not the case. When he stops stranding 82 percent of his runners and a few more end up on base for his home runs, Sanabia will be in trouble.

This is all true, and I was ready to leave it at that, but then something odd happened. Last night, Sanabia got 10 swings and misses in his 93 pitches, six of them coming off of sliders. I thought this was an anomalous start given his weak strikeout totals during the season, but then I saw these numbers, courtesy of FanGraphs and their pitch data:

Sanabiawhiffs_medium

Those do not look like the swinging strike and whiff rates of a pitcher with a 10.4 percent strikeout rate. Sanabia's whiff rates are in an elite territory among pitchers, but they are not achieving the desired results. Among qualified starters in 2012, Sanabia's swinging strike rate (rate of swings and misses per total pitches) would stand next to names like Chris Capuano, Clayton Kershaw, and James Shields. His contact rate this year would rank next to Shields, Kershaw, and Justin Verlander.

Aside from Capuano, Sanabia's whiff rates are putting him in some elite company, and this goes against the bad early season numbers. What can we find out about the rest of Sanabia's game that could clue us in about his performance thus far? I turned to Brooks Baseball's Pitch F/X player cards for the answer.

Pitch F/X: The Basics

Pitch Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam (FA) 63 24% 89.82 -8.76 7.85 -3.05 5.85
Sinker (SI) 70 27% 90.15 -11.16 5.00 -3.20 5.76
Slider (SL) 45 17% 82.69 2.09 0.44 -2.92 5.94
Changeup (CH) 81 31% 82.41 -11.63 2.84 -3.04 5.85

The 2013 data, at initial glance, does not look all that strange. Sanabia supposedly throws a sinker, though that pitch could be a part of a continuum of fastballs rather than a distinct pitch from his four-seamer. Both pitches are at very similar velocities, indicating that they might be thrown similarly as well. He complements those pitches with a changeup that acts as his go-to pitch and a slider that works as a tertiary offering. His rates of his breaking pitches match fairly well with his career numbers, but this season, it seems he is throwing more of the four-seam fastball variety rather than the sinker. Because we are unsure of the true difference between the two, I would not make any assumptions about that; the overall rate of fastballs remains the same.

Pitch F/X: Performance Metrics

Sanabia, 2013 BALLS/CS SWING% WHIFF% BIP GB% BABIP SLGCON
Two-seamer 3.7 51.4 11.1 22 54.5 .389 .364
Four-seamer 2.2 30.1 0.0 10 50.0 .222 .300
Changeup 4.1 52.5 38.1 16 43.8 .214 .250
Slider 1.8 44.4 40.0 8 37.5 .625 .875

One possible reason for Sanabia's struggles and lack of strikeouts immediately stands out when looking at this data: he is not getting called strikes. Sanabia's balls-to-called-strike ratio for all but one of his pitches is worse than the league average, and the only pitch better than the league average also happens to be the one that he throws the least. He has thrown the changeup 31 percent of the time this season, yet he has about a four-to-one ratio between balls and called strikes! His fastballs also have poor ratios, and he throws them the most often.

This problem with called strikes may be the primary reason behind Sanabia's lack of strikeouts. If he is falling behind and not getting into pitcher's counts, he probably is not getting to use his supposedly devastating early-season stuff to get hitters out with swings and misses. Rather, those swings and misses are being used to generate simple strikes instead of strikeouts, leading to the low total despite the high rate of whiffs.

Sanabia did not have this issue with placement in the zone in 2010, his last extended stay in the majors. In that season, almost all of his primary pitches were placed at a two-to-one ratio in the zone, with his fastball just under that mark and his slider just over it. His changeup was at a 2.5-to-one ratio, which is significantly better than what he is doing now. All of this shows that either hitters are laying off more of his bad pitches or that he is simply throwing more bad pitches. Given that he has also increased his whiff rate, it is possible Sanabia is working closer to the corners this season than he was in 2010, thus yielding more missed pitches and more swings and misses at difficult pitches to hit.

The only other major difference aside from the high whiff count is the sudden spike in ground balls. Sanabia was previously known as a fly ball pitcher, but now 48 percent of his balls in play have been hit on the ground. But with only 56 balls in play thus far, I would not extrapolate that to mean anything in particular.

Conclusion

Without a further investigation into his pitch locations from 2010 versus 2013, I cannot tell how Sanabia is missing on his pitches more often. But we can clearly see that he is working in such a way to get increased swings and misses along with increased pitches out of the strike zone. He is not pounding the zone like he did in 2010, but because hitters have laid off the bad stuff, we are still getting very similar strikeout results with a worse walk rate.

It is hard to say if this is a good or bad idea for Sanabia, because it is simply too early to judge the change in approach. It could be a temporary passing, or it could be the sign of something he is legitimately trying to do this season. Sanabia should get another start or two before being sent back to Triple-A, and the hope is that he regulates this problem in order to yield the strikeouts he was looking for. With more strikeouts, he should be able to buffer himself from the inevitable regression of his left on base (LOB) percentage, leaving him capable of stranding a few more runners than previously expected. That may be the difference between a major league job or a career Triple-A track.

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