Updated: Oct 14, 2021
In a deep dynasty league, a league-mate approached me about one of my pitching prospects. He's a top 150 prospect depending on which list you are using. This is a league in which I am pitching heavy in MLB talent and have a decent pipeline of pitching prospects, so I looked for a comparable hitting prospect to ask for in a swap. Jesus Sanchez caught my eye and we made a deal.
Jesus Sanchez is the 113th fantasy prospect on the February update to Eric Cross's Top 300 Fantasy Baseball Prospects list. That ranking is down from 87th on the previous iteration of the list, which no doubt is a result of Sanchez's abysmal MLB debut in 2020, but more on that in a bit.
Jesus Sanchez's 2020 scouting report from Fangraphs makes a number of interesting observations:
Two of the trades Tampa Bay made last summer -- swapping Nick Solak for Peter Fairbanks and Jesus Sanchez for Nick Anderson -- made us wonder if we were undervaluing long-tethered, potential late-inning relievers, or at least underestimating their value to immediate contenders or perhaps the impact of 40-man crunch on trade leverage. It also made us worry we were too high on Sanchez himself. We, and much of the industry, are scared of corner-only prospects who clearly lack plate discipline, and Sanchez is one of these (6.5% career walk rate). That, plus Sanchez's swing still not being fully actualized for power (a seven degree launch angle in 2019, a groundball rate around 50%), means he's fighting an uphill battle to get to his huge raw power in games, since he's either swinging at pitches he can't do anything with or failing to lift a lot of the ones he can. However, Sanchez has some of the most thrilling bat speed in the minors and despite his issues, his talent has enabled him to perform statistically so far. He hits balls very hard (50% of his 2019 balls in play were hit 95 mph or above) and has feel for contact, just not for contact in the air. We think it'll be enough for Sanchez to be an average everyday hitter, and the Marlins have two option years to try to tinker with the swing and coax out more power if they want to. There's All-Star ceiling here if they can do it.
There's plenty to like here in a mid 100's speculation-level prospect. Much of the report can be seen in Sanchez's minor league stat lines. Despite 60+ grade raw power, he has never hit more than 15 home runs in a single season. That was in 512 plate appearances at Level A, and with a 48.6% groundball rate. R.I.P., worms.
I wont trudge through Sanchez's minor league career because the scouting report and that 15 home run season tell the essential story. Big power. Too many ground balls. One could complain about Sanchez's walk rate, but it isn't terrible. A 6% to 7% walk rate is acceptable to me if the player doesn't strike out too much and makes decent contact, which are things Sanchez does. His career strikeout rate in the minors is below 20%.
So, Jesus Sanchez has a decent pedigree as a notable prospect for several years. He has tools and a minor league career that reveal a path to fantasy relevance.
It is his 2020 MLB debut that further intrigued me. Read this post from Freeze Stats to see how utterly useless this exercise probably is based on when statistics stabilize, but this article is called "Fun in Small Samples," so get out your jump to conclusions mat, and let's take a look!
Jesus Sanchez debuted for the Miami Marlins in the shortened 2020 season and had all of 29 plate appearances. What use can we possibly make of such an insignificant sample? For starters, his .040 batting average, 0 home runs, career high walk rate (13.8%), and career high strikeout rate (37.9%) don't matter. We probably shouldn't put too much stock in his 77.9% contact rate either, though I expect that to be within the reasonable range of his outcomes.
What interested me was Sanchez's Statcast data.
Let me just scream this at you again: SMALL SAMPLE!
Jesus Sanchez's 29 plate appearances produced 14 events measured by Statcast. The first number that jumped out at me was his average exit velocity of 95.4 mph. How good is that? Well, take a look at the top 5 average exit velocities by qualified batters:
Jesus Sanchez would be number two on this list, slighly behind Tatis and ahead of two other first-rounders, Yelich and Trout!. Ok, ok. That's a guy with 29 plate appearances among qualified batters. But let's drop the plate appearance threshold down to 20 and let in every other Joe Schmoe like Jesus Sanchez:
Dude still comes in at number four. Wild!
Let's look at hard hit rate next. Jesus Sanchez's hard hit rate in 2020 was 64.3%. How good is that?
That's best-in-the-whole-entire-league good, homie. Let's let in the Joe Schmoes:
Still the best around. Kind of makes you want to watch this:
Next, let's look at maximum exit velocity, which does not need to stabilize. It is a straightforward measure of how hard a batter is able to hit the ball. Sanchez's maxEV in that short 2020 stint in the bigs was 110.4 mph. How good is that?
Skipping qualified batters and looking at every batted ball from every player who appeared in 2020 (Total: 581 Batters), Jesus Sanchez ranks 143rd in hardest hit ball. Take a look at his maxEV peers:
This mix of emerging hitters and established veterans is good company to be in and suggests that if Jesus Sanchez can make the necessary adjustments, he has the power to reach, as the Fangraphs scouting report put it, an "All-Star ceiling."
What adjustments does he need to make? Put simply, he has to put the ball in the air. Sanchez's ground ball rate in his short MLB debut was 57.1% and his launch angle was only 7.9%. Small samples to be sure, but certainly consistent with his minor league career. Indeed, Sanchez's groundball rate was typically in the 45% to 50% range during his time in the minors.
Players do hit for power with high ground ball rates and low launch angles. Eloy Jimenez was tied with several others at 14 home runs in 2020, which was top 20 home run production. He did it with a ground ball rate of 51.9% and a launch angle of 5.7%. Eloy is a special hitter (and perhaps this suggests he's an adjustment away from unlocking 50 HR power), but the point is that hitters with big power can overcome a high ground ball rate and low launch angle.
But better than overcoming it is to make an adjustment, and even a modest change in launch angle could unlock major home run power in Sanchez's bat. An old 2014 article on Christian Yelich from Fangraphs is burned into my memory, mostly because of the title: Christian Yelich, Worm Killer. The content of that article is not particularly relevant to this discussion, but the obvious reference is that in 2014, Yelich had shown very little power, and had consistently hit balls on the ground at a league-leading clip. He had done so in the minor leagues, and continued to do so in the majors. The reason I remember this article, other than the cool title, is that from 2015 onward, Yelich cut his ground ball rate every season, and increased his launch angle every season (except for 2020, which I'm excluding because I can!). Take a look:
Yelich always had the ability to hit for power and gradually unlocked it with launch angle adjustments. Players do this.
Jesus Sanchez is not Christian Yelich or Eloy Jimenez. He is a prospect who has shown that he can hit the tar out of the ball, but needs to make further adjustments in order for that to translate into usable real-life and fantasy production. The path to that production is clear, but most likely requires more minor league seasoning. All the better, since Sanchez is currently blocked in Miami by Corey Dickerson and Adam Duvall. It is likely that Sanchez gets another shot in 2021. He's already better than Lewis Brinson and, I would argue, Monte Harrison, the two other outfield prospects on the 40-man roster. But for Jesus Sanchez, I'm eyeing 2022 for a real impact.
( *The player I traded was Shane McClanahan, who I am quite fond of and higher on in 2021 than Jesus Sanchez)
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