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Sailor’s Delight: Ricardo Sánchez is making it look easy

Another solid start for the smooth lefty is a positive step for the M’s pitching depth.

MLB: Seattle Mariners-Media Day Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

If it all goes right over the next couple years in the Mariners farm, the 2021 roster will feature a litany of exciting position players. J.P. Crawford will be at shortstop, with Shed Long bouncing all over the field and Evan White corralling every ball in his hemisphere. Any of the several young outfielders could join Mitch Haniger, Domingo Santana, and/or Mallex Smith for a lineup that is balanced and deep.

But even if they’re all shining, Seattle’s rotation will be a question mark. Marco Gonzales figures to be there, as should Yusei Kikuchi, but the rest of the rotation will be aging and at the end of their contracts. Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, and Justin Dunn could all be their best selves, and Logan Gilbert could progress rapidly, but beyond the finicky nature of any player’s development, pitchers are prone to injury at any moment. The Mariners have top-end talent in their farm, but they need depth options like Ricardo Sánchez to bear fruit desperately.

Ricardo Sánchez is just 22 years-old, but like a few current and future M’s, he’s a bit of a post-hype prospect. He was the No. 3 overall prospect for the Angels after the 2014 season per Baseball America with a heater from 91-95 and a plus curveball. Sánchez now works a more controlled 91-94 with sink, and highlights an improved changeup with the curve more of a change of pace. His struggles have been command-based, as his fluid delivery hasn’t always been consistent. He finished 2017 on the DL and began 2018 there as well with the Braves, but for the first time in his career he managed to get his BB% under 10%. Since joining the Mariners we’ve only seen Sánchez improve, and last night was his best work yet.

Working against the AA-Northwest Arkansas Naturals (the Royals affiliate) Sánchez put up 7.0 IP, no runs, seven Ks, one BB, two hits, and 12 groundouts to just two flyouts. He only needed 86 pitches in his outing, 60 of which he threw for strikes. Two things jump off the stat sheet there for me: the K/BB and the groundballs. I was already curious about Ricardo, so I’d set aside time to watch the Travelers play yesterday, and was rewarded with arguably the worst angle I’ve ever seen for appraising pitching. All the same, here’s a good heater.

One of his seven strikeouts on the night.

Regrettably, this angle offers little and less for us judging movement, but I hope to provide a better film update when Arkansas plays at Tulsa again, or another higher-quality film affiliate. Even from this grainy angle, however, we can see the bat swinging over Sánchez’s sinking fastball. While it was nearly impossible to identify a changeup from a fastball, Sánchez appeared to keep hitters off-balance while commanding the ball in the lower half of the zone with aplomb. The surest bet for the change was this pitch, inducing a weak chopper that he snagged himself for an easy out.

Easy 3/4s release, good late sink.

Catcher Joe DeCarlo had an easy night behind the plate, as Sánchez was consistently putting the ball right on his target, or inducing bad contact on well-placed pitches.

Another fastball, another harmless groundout.

The difference between control and command is an important one, as control keeps your walks low but makes you susceptible to leaving pitches in the zone. Command allows you to work on the edges, forcing hitters to attack your pitch, and so far this year Sánchez has had the latter.

That’s been with a 23.3 K% and just a 5.5% BB%. and a laughable 76% groundball-rate when hitters do put the ball in play. Sánchez hasn’t been a groundball maven his entire career, so it’s tough to tell whether this is an intentional new development or simply noise from a stellar first 18.1 innings, but missing bats and keeping the ball on the ground is a recipe for longevity and success in the majors. One of the best ways Sánchez has induced weak choppers has been with his curveball, evoking a Marco Gonzales-like arsenal from a similarly diminutive stature.

Grounders come in all shapes and sizes.

Because the curve is not a devastating sharp breaker, it’s the type of pitch that could get hammered if he leaves it up. The same is true, generally, of his entire arsenal. But Sánchez is keeping it down and hitters so far have been responding in kind. That’s great news if it sticks, and as a 22-year-old in AA, where the average age is 24, it’s even more impressive. Every team that goes for a rebuild or step-back needs guys like Sánchez to realize their potential just as much as they need guys like Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis, or Evan White. Ricardo Sánchez is off to a great start, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on him, particularly when he plays in front of better cameras.