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In his first full season and just his second year in the majors, Andy Sonnanstine has turned into an important part of the Tampa Bay Rays‘ rotation. As their fourth starter, he takes the mound tonight with the Rays down two games to one. It’s a role he’s filled more than admirably this season, but is the progress he has shown a sign of what’s to come from the young hurler, or is he just a product of his environment?

Andrew Michael Sonnanstine pitched for Kent State University, where he would put up some excellent numbers during his last season there: 125 innings pitched, 8.4 K/9, and just 1.5 walks per nine, which makes for an impressive K/BB ratio of 5.6. Though he had good command of his pitches, his fastball topped out around 90 mph, and his draft stock reflected that; Tampa Bay selected the 21-year-old right-hander in the 13th of the 2004 amateur entry draft, and then sent him to Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League. He would throw just 27 innings there over six relief appearances and a pair of starts, but he impressed with 24 punchouts against just three free passes. He was promoted to the Sally League, where he would outdo himself, whiffing 42 batters over 31 innings against just seven walks. All told, 66 strikeouts against 10 walks (6.6 K/BB) isn’t too shabby as debuts go, but it wasn’t enough to grab the attention of Baseball America, and he would not appear on the organizational prospect lists before the 2005 season. Baseball Prospectus 2005 liked Sonnanstine though, saying:

Sonnanstine was an outstanding pitcher at Kent State, despite a fastball that only registered around 90; it has sink to it, and when he keeps both the fastball and slider down in the zone he’s tough to hit. He makes it even harder on hitters by changing arm angles on them, varying his release point while maintaining excellent control. Sonnanstine had a very good run through the NCAA playoffs, slid to Tampa in the 13th round, and just kept rolling through the New York-Penn and Sally leagues. A better test awaits in the Cal League.

The Rays didn’t rush Sonny straight to the High-A Cal League, however, instead sticking him in the Low-A Midwest League for most of the year. His command was indescribably good during his 116 2/3 innings there; Sonnanstine struck out 103 hitters (eight per nine) while handing out free passes to 11 batters for a K/BB ratio of 9.4. Coupled with his solid home-run rates (0.8 per nine, or 17 over 200 innings pitched) it’s no surprise that the 22-year-old posted a 2.55 ERA. A promotion to Visalia in the California League did not prove to be much of a problem either, as he finished the season there with 10.6 strikeouts per nine and just under a walk per nine in 64 innings.

Baseball America responded by rating Sonnanstine the 20th-best prospect in the organization, which may not sound like much, but remember that not only were the Rays loaded with prospects, Sonnanstine had just dominated different levels of A-ball at the age of 22, and he lacked the kind of stuff that would allow him to transfer his strikeout rates to the higher levels. They warned that he had trouble maintaining a consistent arm slot, though as Baseball Prospectus had mentioned the year before, he was able to maintain his control despite this, and had shown himself to be fairly durable to this point as well. Baseball Prospectus 2006 made a point of saying that “If he prospers in Double-A, it will be time to put aside doubts about his stuff and rate him a solid prospect.”

Luckily for Sonnanstine and the Rays, that’s what transpired in 2006, with the right-hander putting up some excellent numbers. He threw 185 2/3 innings for Montgomery of the Southern League, striking out 7.4 per nine-a dip from High-A-but maintaining command of his pitches with a BB/9 of 1.7. Though not as eye-popping as the previous year’s work, most pitchers in baseball would be envious of Sonnanstine’s 4.5 K/BB ratio, and since he still wasn’t giving up many home runs (0.7 per nine) he was able to post a 2.71 ERA over 28 starts, four of which were complete-game shutouts.

Baseball Prospectus 2007 understandably still liked Sonnanstine thanks to his success at the higher level, though not as any kind of star in the making:

We always grumble when promising minor league arms are brought up too quickly and the inning increase predictably proves to be too much. In Sonnanstine’s case, he logged the second-highest innings-pitched total in the minor leagues last year, and is very close to making a good, reliable addition to the major league rotation without any jarring workload owies. Like Shields, his raw stuff won’t win any NBA-style skills competitions, but he uses it all well. No, he doesn’t miss bats, but he doesn’t miss the strike zone, either; his K/BB ratio is what’s important here, and his command is major league-ready now. This isn’t a pitcher who projects to be star, but, if he can handle the International League in the first half of 2007, he’ll fit in as a back-of-the-rotation guy.

The Rays placed Sonnanstine at Triple-A Durham in the International League to begin the year, and he picked up right where he had left off at Double-A, posting a 2.66 ERA over 71 IP, with 8.4 punchouts per nine and 1.7 walks per nine. Homers were a little more of an issue this time around, as he gave up one per nine-living in the strike zone is great for your K/BB ratio, but isn’t always the best strategy against more polished hitters. All in all, it was still a great performance that showed he was ready to be tested as a major league arm.

The 24-year-old was promoted to the then-Devil Rays, and made his first appearance on June 5, 2007. His debut would go well on the peripheral side of things, with seven innings pitched, five whiffs, and no walks allowed, but he gave up six runs and a homer. His first win as a major leaguer would come the next time out, with 10 punchouts against the Marlins over seven, again without allowing a walk. At season’s end, the 130 2/3 innings he threw were more of the former type of outing than the latter; Sonnanstine posted an ERA of 5.85, but with a K/BB ratio of 3.7. His home-run rate of 1.2 per nine and his .329 BABIP (high considering his 18 percent liner rate) were to blame for much of this.

As previously stated, living in the strike zone becomes more difficult as you progress through the minors and into the majors; the opposition is better, and more capable of making you pay for your mistakes or even turning good pitches into runs. One of my favorite quotes on pitching comes from Curt Schilling, and fits well with the kind of path that Sonnanstine, with little stuff and a reliance on his ability to throw strikes, would take with his career:

It’s command. Control is the ability to throw strikes. In the big leagues, everybody has control. Command is the ability to throw quality strikes. And when you add preparation to command, good things will happen.

Schilling felt that quality strikes were pitches that were out of the zone, pitches that the opposition could not do anything with, but would still feel compelled to take a hack at and miss. As a guy who relies more on where he puts the ball and on his preparation rather than on raw stuff, Sonnanstine is a pitcher who understands the importance of this.

PECOTA felt that Sonnanstine would progress, and put him right around where his expected performance from 2007 was for a weighted-mean forecast. He would not disappoint either, as his season looked like one with better command and more quality strikes; his P/PA dropped from 3.8 to 3.6-if he faced as many hitters in 2007 as he did in 2008, he would have thrown an additional 180 pitches based on the rate difference. Sonnanstine’s actual ERA of 4.38 was 0.01 more than his weighted-mean forecast had suggested, and though he lost a bit on the strikeouts, he was able to reduce his homer rate (down to just under one per nine now), and keep his minuscule walk rate in check as well.

Part of the reason for his improvement was due to pitching better against left-handed batters. Sonnanstine had allowed them to walk all over him the year before, with a .318/.352/.517 showing over 267 at-bats; he toned that down significantly in 2008, with the lefties putting together a much less destructive .265/.303/.426 showing in 359 at-bats. Oddly enough, this improvement came with Sonny throwing fewer changeups, a pitch often employed by right-handers to deal with lefties. He also picked up steam as the season went on, holding opponents to a .254/.296/.423 line from July 1 onward, significantly better than the .298/.326/.467 that came before.

As a result, he’s a better pitcher than he was on Opening Day, which is good news for the Rays, and understandable given the kind of pitcher he is and the approach he takes on the mound. Down two games to one, the Rays will need Sonnanstine to be at his best tonight against the Phillies in order to even up the series. He’s just the kind of guy you want on the mound against a patient team, as he doesn’t hand out free passes or waste pitches, and with the right mix of quality strikes, he’s capable of tearing up this lineup on any given night. He may not be an ace, but he’s more than capable of filling in as a mid-rotation guy, and is a large part of the reason that the Rays are here in their first World Series ever.-Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

Every now and then, certain pitchers will surface whose run-based metrics, such as ERA, will exceed their controllable-skills measures, like FIP. Javier Vazquez is a prime example of this type of pitcher, given that his strikeout and walk rates, as well as his home-run prevention skills, have historically been very solid, yet his ERA is almost always higher than his FIP. Though Andy Sonnanstine has only pitched in two seasons, his statistics to date suggest that he may be on the fast track to Vazquez-like status, where his ERA exceeds what controllable skills suggest that he’s worth.

In 2007 Sonnanstine posted a very good 4.26 FIP that was over a run and a half lower than his 5.85 ERA. This FIP was due in large part to a 4.0 K/UBB ratio, derived from a 6.7 K/9 and 1.7 UBB/9. The low walk rate is extremely impressive, and makes up for the somewhat low rate of strikeouts. The 5.85 ERA was primarily due to a near-average 1.35 WHIP meeting up with a 60.6 percent rate of stranding baserunners. For reference, the league-average strand rate is around 72 percent, so Sonnanstine was not necessarily allowing a plethora of baserunners, but he was awful at preventing them from scoring.

This season, his K/9 fell to 5.8, but his UBB/9 dropped to 1.6, resulting in a lower but still very solid 3.5 K/UBB ratio. With a HR/9 of 0.98, much lower than the 1.24 he posted in 2007, Sonnanstine saw his FIP decrease from 4.26 to 3.91, bringing his success with “controllable” skills right in line with teammate James Shields, as well as such notables as Matt Cain, Mark Buehrle, and Mike Pelfrey. Andy’s ERA improved significantly from 5.85 to 4.38, yet the 4.38 still exceeded the FIP expectations. His strand rate rose from 60.6 percent to 66.3 percent, still well below average, and a drop-off in BABIP from .329 to .312 helped reduce the WHIP from 1.35 to 1.29. Essentially, Sonny allowed fewer baserunners on average, and prevented many more from scoring.

Of those with 180 or more innings pitched in the junior circuit, he ranked 16th in terms of the Quality of Opposition OPS at 752. Though his competition was stiffer than several others, the added marginal lineup-value faced did not truly increase his support-neutral statistics that much: via SNVA, Sonnanstine was actually a below-average starter in 2008, but with the lineup value introduced, he improved from -0.6 to 0.0, meaning that he became the definition of average this season. While I’ve noted before that teammate Matt Garza was the recipient of more bullpen support than anyone else, Sonnanstine’s support was -1.41, meaning that the Rays’ relief corps saved him about one and a half more total runs for him than the average bullpen would have.

Most of the improvements this season were merely the result of regression, as his BABIP was not going to stay in the .330 range, and he could not possibly sustain his 60 percent strand rate. There was one notable change other than regression, however, to be found in his repertoire. Last season, he threw fastballs 51 percent of the time, complemented by sliders 24 percent of the time, cutters six percent, curves nine percent, and 10 percent of his pitches were changeups; he was one of the only pitchers to throw five different pitches at least five percent of the time. He shook things up this year, relying on the cutter much more often; his fastball usage dropped to 32 percent as his frequency of cutters jumped to 30 percent. He also cut back on changeups, throwing them only four percent of the time, keeping his mix of curveballs and sliders essentially intact.

Slotted into the fourth spot of the Tampa Bay rotation, Sonnanstine did a very good job this season simply by being average. Baseball is a zero-sum game, as Keith Woolner has noted, so even average players contribute, and teams will feel much more comfortable with an average pitcher at the bottom of the rotation than, say, an Adam Eaton or Kyle Kendrick. Andy will get the ball tonight in Game Four, and his ability to keep runners off the basepaths will a key factor; the last thing you want to do in a game as important as this is to give the opposition extra baserunners.-Eric Seidman

Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.

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