I have to be honest, back in March I did not expect to be writing this article but here we are. Back in 2019 the Angels saw the debuts of three pitchers in Griffin Canning, José Suarez, and Patrick Sandoval. However, none of them have had sustained success at the major league level until Sandoval made his way into the rotation this year.
Since May 17th, Sandoval has been in the Angels rotation and has been the most consistent Angels starting pitcher other than Shohei Ohtani. Other than his first start of the year, he has gone at least 5 innings in all of his starts, going at least 6 innings in 3 of them and even 7 innings in his last two starts. Unheard of from Angels starters. Sandoval has a 3.86 ERA which could be even better had the bullpen not allowed inherited runners to score. However, in his previous two starts before Sunday, he hadn’t allowed a run till the 4th inning. His FIP is at 4.36 and his xFIP is 3.78 which are both the lowest in his career. While Sandoval has been a great surprise for the Angels this year, he hasn’t always had this amount of success.
In 2019 and 2020, Sandoval’s first two years in the majors, he had 15 starts with the Angels and his ERA in those two years was 5.34. His FIP was 5.26 and he struggled with walking batters in his first year sporting a 4.35 BB/9 in 2019. The home run ball also hurt him in 2020, sporting a 2.45 HR/9 that year. Despite these underwhelming numbers he always had a plus Changeup and this would always allow him to get opportunities as a starter given how much the Angels (or Eppler) like their Changeups. The graph below shows Changeup % for this year:
The Angels find themselves with the sixth highest Change-Up % in the league. If we look at the span from 2018 to this year, the Angels find themselves in the top 3 of the league. This was a focus under Eppler and a possible factor why the Angels acquired Sandoval when Maldonado was traded to the Astros in 2018. That Changeup is now one of the best pitches on the team.
The first two years Sandoval was a Changeup and 4-Seam Fastball pitcher who also had a Slider and Curveball, with his Changeup being his best pitch. This year he has spread out his pitches, reduced the 4-Seam usage and increased his Changeup usage while still using the Slider, Curveball and Sinker interchangeably.
The 4-Seamer has been much better this season. While his usage of the pitch decreased, the effectiveness has slightly increased. His usage fell from 44.6% in 2020 to 26.4 % but his Whiff% on that pitch jumped from 8.1% to 17% from 2020. Part of the reason it has improved is the change in location:
In 2020 he mostly threw the pitch in the middle of the zone exclusively, however in 2021, he throws it higher in the zone. He still misses in the heart zone which is a problem because he has a very flat fastball that is mostly straight. Which is understandable given his 4-Seam spin rate is in the 9th percentile. His batting average allowed on his 4-Seamer increased to .348 from .324 but he has decreased his hard hit rate on the pitch from 55.2 to 32.6 in 2021 which is very good to see.
Sandoval’s 4-Seamer has been getting more whiffs but he has allowed softer contact when located well and this is great for a fastball that does not move much. This is a pitch he can not throw in the zone, especially if he doesn’t have his other pitches working. While his 4-Seamer doesn’t move much he has added a Sinker that does. The image below illustrates this:
While the 4-Seamer (red) has little horizontal movement, the sinker on the other hand does. The good thing about his sinker is it plays off the fastball very well since there is some evidence to suggest he is using Seam-Shifted Wake to make his 4-Seam better which is suggested by the images below:
The image from the left shows how his 4-Seamer and Sinker are thrown with the same axis, meaning the spin the hitter sees on either pitch looks very similar to each other, but the image on the left shows the difference in movement. Essentially both pitches look the same when thrown but have different movement once it arrives at home plate. This a key substitute for the lack of spin Sandoval has on his 4-Seamer and has resulted in weaker contact and more swing and misses.
Just like his 4-Seamer he has allowed softer contact on his other pitches as well. His Changeup hard hit rate fell from 35 % to 29.8 % in 2021 and for his Slider it fell to 19.2 % in 2021 from 42.9 %. His Changeup is being thrown outside of the zone more this season which has been beneficial. This has helped in increasing the Change-Up Whiff% from 45.9 to 52.3. Now the Slider on the other hand, is being thrown more up/middle of the zone which is odd given he is still not allowing hard contact on that pitch. Sandoval is doing a good job of not allowing hitters to pick up the ball and is throwing the Slider on the same plan with his fastball. His overall Whiff% is in the 96th percentile and his June 6th start against Seattle is when Sandoval showcased it:
As mentioned earlier, Sandoval is in the 77th percentile in hard hit rate. The softer contact is also accompanied with a lower HR rate. His HR/9 fell to 1.45 compared to 2.43 in 2020. However he is still a groundball pitcher at heart. He has a 53% groundball rate which is down only 2% from last year and his flyball rate is slightly up 2% so his overall batted ball data has not changed from the previous year. His outside swing % is up from the previous year while his contact rate on those pitches is down.
His overall contact rate allowed is down from 73.1% in 2020 to 66.1 % this year. Simultaneously, his swing and miss % is up from 12.7% to 16% this year. Therefore, while the batted ball profile has remained the same, Sandoval has gotten hitters to swing at bad pitches. This has resulted in softer contact and more swing and misses.
The improvements to his arsenal has allowed him to become a stable pitcher within the Angels ineffective rotation. Their rotation has seen guys like Dylan Bundy and Jose Quintana head down to the bullpen thrusting younger guys like Patrick Sandoval and Jose Suarez into starting roles. Their promotions have been earned rather than just a need for competent innings, so hopefully they are promotions that reflect a brighter future.
While the future seemed bright with Canning, Suarez and Sandoval back in 2019, none of them have had a ton of success. Unfortunately, Griffin Canning found himself demoted to Salt Lake right before the All-Star break this year but Sandoval, and to an extent Suarez, have been major contributors so far this year. While Sandoval has had the most success so far, hopefully his development is a sign that their pitching development will get better.
Featured image courtesy of the Los Angeles Angels Twitter account: @Angels
Statistics updated through July 7th 2021.