Jonathan Sanchez hasn’t had a very good year.
A lefthanded starting pitcher in his first season with the Kansas City Royals, Sanchez has posted a 6.75 ERA in 11 starts. He’s struggled to throw strikes, walking 43 in 52 innings to go along with 58 hits allowed. Not surprisingly, Sanchez has had difficulty going deep into games, pitching into the sixth inning only three times and posting just one quality start – six or more innings pitched while allowing three or fewer earned runs – and even in that game, he walked four (including one with the bases loaded), hit two batters and was charged with two throwing errors in a Royals loss. Never a pitcher with great command, Sanchez had moderate success with his former team, the San Francisco Giants, winning 13 games for them in 2010 and helping them to a championship. However, the average velocity on Sanchez’s fastball is down this year by about three or four miles per hour – a significant drop, by Major League Baseball standards – and the Royals thought the diminished velocity might be the result of an injury, leading them to put Sanchez on the disabled list for a month. But, Sanchez’s velocity hasn’t increased since his return. Nor have the results changed.
Entering 2012, the Royals have posted losing records in 16 of their last 17 seasons, so their fans are accustomed to poor performances and lousy play. But, the ire directed by the fans toward Sanchez has been different than the ire directed at most other struggling Royals players and has been fueled in part by the way he carries himself. On the field, Sanchez is emotionless and dispassionate. In a few of his post-game interviews after his starts, the soft-spoken Sanchez has deflected attention from his lackluster results; in one instance, he suggested that the opposition’s success against him that day was largely due to luck. Oftentimes, Sanchez has reiterated that he’s pitching the same as he did in the past, when he was more successful, even though the results have been subpar. On my Royals post-game radio show and on Twitter, I’ve heard from several Royals fans who assume Sanchez doesn’t care. Some say his pitching has been lousy because he never wanted to play for Kansas City in the first place. Others say Sanchez would be more tolerable to them if he showed some emotion and showed that his struggles were getting to him. A few others have mentioned their disgust over the fact he rarely tweets about baseball on his personal Twitter account.
So, is Jonathan Sanchez apathetic? Does he not care about baseball? Is he mailing it in, since he knows he will make $5.6 million this season, regardless of how he pitches? All are legitimate questions. However, it’s extremely doubtful that Sanchez is simply going through the motions.
I understand why fans latch onto things like body language and post-game interview responses, especially when a player isn’t performing well; fans are trying to figure out why a player is struggling and those are the easiest things to pick on. Most fans aren’t going to notice issues with mechanics or pick up on things like significant drops in velocity or slight adjustments in batting stances. Many media who cover a team on a daily basis won’t observe such things on their own either, but media have the opportunity to get specifics and explanations from players and coaches. I also understand why fans sometimes see the struggles of a player or a team and pin them on a lack of effort or assume that the winning team simply “wanted it more.” But none of those things could be farther from the truth.
If Sanchez were pitching well, his lack of emotion on the mound would be considered a “game face” and a way for him to conceal his intentions to his opponents; Sanchez would be praised for having the same demeanor regardless of what was happening around him. And, his post-game press conferences wouldn’t be an issue; after all, if a player is doing well on the field, fans rarely concern themselves with what that player is saying to the media. But, the fact of the matter is, Sanchez isn’t pitching well and, as a result, fans and media alike are going to dissect his on- and off-field actions even more. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean those actions are indicative of his lack of success.
What if Sanchez took the opposite tack? Sanchez could bash water coolers with a baseball bat after a bad outing, angrily kick the dirt when he gave up a key hit, throw his glove against the dugout wall after a rough inning or be extremely critical of himself in post-game interviews. However, none of those actions would change the results of his pitching performances. And, while fans may initially rave about the fact that Sanchez seems to really care and seems to be accountable, that act wears thin if Sanchez’s pitching doesn’t improve. Then, Sanchez would be criticized for boorish behavior. Body language and interview skills are important for athletes, but performing well between the white lines is what matters most.
There are a handful of athletes who are gifted enough to coast and to have success in the Majors based on ability alone, but success for players who rely solely on innate skills tends to be short-lived. Baseball players who aren’t putting in their work are noticed by their teammates, manager and coaches and are likely to be called out by at least one – if not all – of those entities if they aren’t playing well and, sometimes, they’ll be called out even if they are producing. In order to get to the Major Leagues and to stay there, players have to constantly work to refine and maintain their skills because there are always others waiting to take their jobs from them if they slip. A player could set his family up for life financially with even just a handful of serviceable Major League seasons, so the monetary incentive is there as well (In Sanchez’s case, he’s a free agent after this season and even a mediocre 2012 campaign could net him a multi-year contract worth well into the millions of dollars). Over the course of a long season, players will get frustrated and some will struggle to put forth the same effort consistently. Not all players approach their on- or off-field actions with the same level of care and dedication. But, the idea that a player or a team is struggling because of a lack of effort or because they don’t care is patently absurd. Generally speaking, the team that plays the best on any given day will win. And, the teams that win more often do so because they have more talent, the right amount of experience and ample depth to withstand injuries and other issues that affect a team’s consistency over the course of a season. The gap between the most talented and least talented Major League Baseball teams and players is rather narrow, and even the most gifted will struggle if they’re unable to maintain a consistent level of play. A lack of consistency or a lack of talent isn’t the same as a lack of desire or a lack of concern.
I don’t know if Jonathan Sanchez will turn things around or whether the Royals will continue to give him opportunities to sort things out at the Major League level. I don’t know Sanchez well enough to have an opinion on his passion for the game. But, I do know it’s very difficult to become good enough even to be a lousy Major League player by being complacent or by lacking desire. Regardless, carefully studying Sanchez’s body language, interviews and tweets won’t be enough to determine his commitment to baseball. When you see a player or a team struggle to have success or to maintain success, it probably isn’t because they don’t care enough or don’t work hard enough. More than likely, that player or team simply isn’t good enough. And, right now, Sanchez isn’t good enough.Follow @raford3