KANSAS CITY, MO: Starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez #57 of the Kansas City Royals reacts as he walks a batter during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
So far, Gio Gonzalez has made an easy adjustment to the National League, and Jonathan Sanchez has made an unpleasant adjustment to the American League. But of course!
Gio Gonzalez and Jonathan Sanchez were unwitting neighbors. Gonzalez lived in one complex and worked odd but regular hours. Sanchez lived in the complex across the street, and worked odd and similar hours. Every so often, one would see the other, getting out of his car or walking the dog, but the other never registered as familiar. The other was just an anonymous person, a part of the scenery, like a mailbox or a hedge. Gio Gonzalez and Jonathan Sanchez were neighbors who might as well have lived worlds apart.
I'm not going to be able to extend that any farther so let's cut the literary bullcrap. For a time, Gio Gonzalez and Jonathan Sanchez were very similar pitchers. Both were starters, and both were left-handed. Both called the Bay Area home, at least during the warmer months. Both threw a fastball and a change-up and a breaking ball, and both could strike a batter out. Both had potential, and both were inefficient. Through 2011, Gonzalez had a 1.94 career strikeout-to-walk ratio, and averaged four pitches per plate appearance. Through 2011, Sanchez had a 1.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and averaged four pitches per plate appearance.
I don't know how many comparisons got drawn between Gonzalez and Sanchez, but there were comparisons to be made. Convincing comparisons. Statistical comparisons, and scouting comparisons! Baseball-Reference, for example, lists Gonzalez at six feet and 200 pounds, and Sanchez at six feet and 200 pounds. The two had so much in common, but there was one major difference: Gonzalez had pitched in the American League the whole time, while Sanchez had pitched in the National League the whole time.
Intuitively, you would think that Gonzalez therefore had faced the tougher task. In the American League, each team that isn't the Mariners has nine hitters in the lineup. In the National League, each team has eight hitters in the lineup, and one guy who holds a bat and usually does something embarrassing. You could argue that the National League compensates by having better offensive position players. I don't think that's true.
Gonzalez put up certain numbers in the American League. Sanchez put up similar numbers in the National League. This past offseason, Gonzalez was traded to the National League, and Sanchez was traded to the American League. If we're comfortable with our assumptions about league superiority, what we'd look for here is for Gonzalez to take a step forward, and for Sanchez to take a step back.
In the early going, Gonzalez has taken a step forward, and Sanchez has taken a step back. This is where the confirmation bias comes into play. I'm writing this because Gonzalez and Sanchez have numbers that match what I expected. It could be chance. I'm writing this anyway.
With Oakland, Gonzalez had his success, but he was limited by his inefficiency. He's started three times so far for the Nationals, and he's got 21 strikeouts and five walks. His strike rate is up, his contact rate is down, and he looks like the guy people wanted him to be.
With San Francisco, Sanchez had his success, but he was limited by his inefficiency. He's started three times so far for the Royals, and he's got eight strikeouts and ten walks. His strike rate is down, his contact rate is up, and he looks like a mess. Jonathan Sanchez had a fighting chance each time he took the mound a year ago, and now he's pitching like he was bumped to a higher level.
If you put it in your head that the American League is tougher than the National League, then it makes sense that Gonzalez and Sanchez have gone the ways they've gone. Take a pitcher with this profile and make his job a little easier, and he should look like a much better pitcher. Take a pitcher with this profile and make his job a little harder, and he should look like a much worse pitcher
Of course, because it's so early, this could all be noise. Nothing. As I mentioned, the reason I'm suggesting it might not be noise is because of confirmation bias that I can't help. When the Royals traded for Jonathan Sanchez, I thought "No, hold on, that doesn't seem like a good idea," because he was having a hard enough time keeping his head above water in the National League. How could the Royals hope he'd improve upon being introduced to the designated hitter? And with the Nationals and Gonzalez, even though they paid a hefty price, where better for a pitcher like Gonzalez to flourish than in the National League, where his inefficiency would be less bothersome?
There's so much more that goes into it, but in my head I understand it completely.
Sanchez seemed like a dangerous option for the Royals. Gonzalez seemed like a promising option for the Nationals. A combined six starts in, and my expectations have been met. If things were reversed, I might learn a lesson. Things being what they are, I get to feel smug, which is just as fulfilling.