Jonathan Sanchez on the Pittsburgh Pirates: Absurd or rational?

Doug Pensinger

The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Jonathan Sanchez, who was too awful for even the Royals and Rockies. Is this an example of low-risk, no-reward?

Reductio ad absurdum is a common form of argument that uses absurd conclusions to prove a point. Something like this:

Person 1: Anyone can do a better job running the Pirates.

Person 2: "Anyone?" What about my infant child? He can't talk, and he's literally sitting in his own feces right now.

Person 1: Well, okay, that's not what I …

Person 2: So I reject your hypothesis that "anyone" could do a better job running the Pirates. Reductio ad absurdum.

Infant child: /spits up curdled milk

Person 1: Wait a sec … he might be on to something. That's one of the better ideas I've heard since the McCutchen extension.

And the Pirates weren't chosen at random for that example. There is honest-to-goodness Pirates news.

The Pirates have signed left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, who threw a no-hitter for the Giants in 2009 and was a part of their World Series-winning rotation in '10, to a Minor League contract that includes an invitation to Major League Spring Training.

The next part mentions "low risk, high reward", possibly to keep in line with local, state, and federal laws. And that's what you'll hear about the Jonathan Sanchez deal. Low risk, high reward. Can't hurt. Worth a flier. Why not?

My reductio ad absurdum response to that would be something like: Can't hurt? What if the Pirates invited me to camp to compete for a shortstop gig in the organization? Me. Grant Brisbee. A 35-year-old writer who hasn't faced live pitching in almost 20 years, who gets winded opening a car door, and who would almost certainly be scared of the baseball. Would that be a low-risk, low-reward move? Or is there a separate category, like "Who cares about the risk because there is no possible way a reward will come out of this?"

So there is a way to dismiss the argument that every minor-league contract is low risk, high reward. There is a point where any possibility of a potential reward is completely absurd.

That line shall be forever known as The Jonathan Sanchez Line.

Because he's teetering on the edge, folks. He's almost right at the point where the "low risk" just isn't worth it. There's something called opportunity cost, and a non-roster invitation to Sanchez is an invitation that's not given out to, I don't know, Ben Snyder. Kanekoa Texeira. Someone, anyone, who just might be the next Jason Grilli or Ryan Vogelsong, even if those odds are long. Sanchez had the 13th-worst season in major-league history for any starter over 50 innings, and his velocity trend is completely discouraging. He can't throw strikes in a serious way, and one of the smartest pitching coaches in the game, Dave Righetti, couldn't help Sanchez get a handle on his command.

But on the other side of the JSL is the glorious alternate universe in which Sanchez becomes the Grilli/Vogelsong, the once-prospect who turns into a present-day contributor. I've mentioned this several times before, but one of my favorite things in the whole world is this ZiPS projection from 2010, which listed Sanchez's comps as Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, and Mark Langston. When you have strikeout stuff to spare and a wild streak, those are three lefties who made great strides with their control in their mid-20s, and they might fit as a comparable player. The computer is just doing its job.

Here's a list of starters who have averaged more than a strikeout per inning as starters:

There's kind of a Pirates theme to that one. Oliver Perez is on it, and the Bucs have signed both Sanchez and Liriano this offseason. But here's another table:

Year Age Tm ERA IP H HR BB SO
2012 30 SEA 2.12 29.2 27 1 10 24

Those are the stats of Oliver Perez who is, was, and forever shall be the best comparison to Jonathan Sanchez to exist. And lookie here, Perez is back in the majors and pitching well.

So it's not quite absurd for the Pirates to take a chance on Sanchez. It feels like it. It feels like a dumb move by an organization that can't get out of its own way, and it feels like the Pirates squandered a spot at camp that they could have used on just about any other free agent in the world. But this really is the low-risk, high-reward move that people will make it out to be. Batters have rarely made good contact against Sanchez. That's worth a camp invite and a home in Triple-A, not a 40-man roster spot.

Who knows? He could be the next Oliver Perez, who was the next Jonathan Sanchez, who was the next Oliver Perez years ago. Stranger things have happened, and they will happen in baseball again this year.

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