Ever since Andy Sonnanstine was in the minor leagues posting astronomical strikeout-to-walk ratios, there were always certain tenets that we have held to be true about the right hander that could dominate without a dominating fastball.
- He throws about 46 different pitches
- He has impeccable control
- He can keep batters off-balance by changing speeds
- He throws pitches from a number of different arm angles
These beliefs are so ingrained in what we know of Sonnanstine that it spawned the nickname “The Duke” because he seemed to be Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez’ caucasion brother from another mother.
Unfortunately, the minor league numbers and pinpoint control did not translate to the major leagues last year, leaving many to wonder if Sonny was just a place-holder until until something better came along.
But after a shaky start to 2008, Sonnanstine has been solid in his last three outings including a 3-hit shutout of the White Sox and an 8 inning, 1 run performance against the O’s.
We were curious as to what Sonnanstine was doing differently in 2008.
Imagine our surprise when we realized that The Duke was no longer throwing pitches from different arm angles.
Another factor that is recorded is release point. Here is the release point data from Sonnanstine’s 2007 player card in which 885 pitches were tracked.
Now, here is the release point data from Sonnanstine’s 2008 player card in which 334 pitches have been tracked to date.
- All of the release points this season are much more clustered. Outside of a single fastball, he is not changing his arm angle in 2008. One of the first things a pitching coach will try to teach a pitcher is “repeatability”, the ability to repeat his delivery exactly the same on every single pitch. This helps a pitcher stay consistent and if anything starts to go awry it is easier to pinpoint and fix the problem. Sonnanstine appears to be using this approach in 2008.
- His “standard” release point is much more over the top in 2008. Notice that the cluster on the right is higher than the main cluster on the left. Among other things, this makes Sonny’s curve ball a little closer to the standard 12-6 break. That is the curveball will not sweep across the strikezone as much as in years past. We see that when we look at the vertical and horizontal break charts on his 2007 and 2008 Pitchf/x cards (scroll down to the first chart on each page). In 2007, Sonny’s curve ball had little vertical break, but moved 10-15 inches horizontally. In 2008 the vertical break is now as much as 10 inches and the horizontal movement is only 5-10 inches.
- His different pitches are now being released from the same point. In 2007 we can see certain pitches clustering in different areas. This could very well have been a mechanism for batters to more quickly determine what pitch was being thrown. Many batters train themselves to focus on the release point of a pitcher to more quickly focus on the ball. In 2007 almost every time Sonnanstine changed his arm angle, he threw a fastball. A good hitter might be able to use a deviation from the norm to predict a pitch more quickly.
But the lack of different arm angles is not the only thing Sonnanstine has changed this season. If we look at The Duke’s pitch-selection from 2007 versus 2008 we can see that he is no longer relying on the accuracy of his fastball…
As we can see here, in 2007, nearly half of his pitches were fastballs. That number is down to about 1/3 in 2008. It is more difficult to gain a grasp of the use of other pitches. The system used to identify pitches is not always very accurate and we assume it would be less so for a pitcher such as Sonnanstine. With the more sweeping nature of Sonny’s curveball, it is quite possible some curves are being mistaken as sliders. Also, the sinker and splitter may be the same pitch. We knew Sonnanstine was playing with a sinker last year, but are not familiar with him throwing a splitter. Even if the two pitches are actually one, we see that they are being used much less in 2008.
There was some idle chatter at the end of the 2007 among some Rays’ fans, calling for the Rays to remove Jim Hickey and install Xavier Hernandez as the Rays’ pitching coach. But given a full season, and a few more major league arms, Hickey has transformed the bullpen from the worst in the last 50 years, to one of the best in 2008. And Hickey also deserves considerable credit for the transformation of Sonnanstine as the 2008 numbers are more than just a new-found confidence or ability to hit the strike zone.