Starting pitching has been a weak spot for the Los Angeles Angels for several years. From weak offseason acquisitions to less than stellar prospect development to a plague of injuries, the issue has been the primary reason why the Angels have failed to sniff the playoffs since 2014 despite their consistently elite offense featuring the historically all-time great, Mike Trout. Now with the emergence of Shohei Ohtani as a legitimate superstar, there is even more pressure on the Angels organization to get over the hump, which starts with figuring out the rotation.
Angels fans have known for a while now that some hope is on the horizon in this regard, with the 2020 tenth overall draft pick Reid Detmers quickly excelling in AA and AAA, and top prospect Chris Rodriguez showing flashes of brilliance early in the 2021 season as a big-league bullpen arm with hopes of evolving into a big-league starter. One surprising development has been the production that the Angels have gotten out of 24-year-old LHP Patrick Sandoval, who has spent time in both the bullpen and in the starting rotation as a replacement for injured pitchers since his debut in 2019. Sandoval, who was acquired from the Astros in exchange for catcher Martin Maldonado in 2018, has taken a significant leap in his development, and people are starting to notice.
The Angels, hobbled by injuries and IL stints both in the batting lineup and the pitching rotation, have managed to remain afloat with a near .500 record all season thanks in part to a breakout year from Sandoval. The images above show Sandoval maneuvering a no-hit bid that he carried into the ninth inning in Minnesota, which ended up being a one-hit, thirteen strikeout win. Breakout stars come and go over the course of a season, but taking a closer look at the way that Sandoval has achieved success reveals some encouraging signs for Angels fans going forward.
On the surface level, Sandoval has a 3.39 ERA and 91 strikeouts through 82.1 innings pitched this season. This earned run average and his K/9 of 9.9 are both career-best figures despite a 3.94 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) which suggests he is slightly overperforming. In order to fully understand how good he has been in 2021, we will have to look even deeper to see how every aspect of Sandoval’s game stacks up against his own performance in 2020 and the rest of the league in 2021.
The Next Level
Looking at Sandoval’s peripheral stats, he has improved significantly across the board from his 2020 numbers. The chart below shows just how dramatically Patrick Sandoval has improved in diminishing the quality of contact that he has allowed this season. According to Statcast, his expected stats including xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, and xISO all jumped from being 25th percentile or lower to 75th percentile or higher in all of MLB. One other extreme jump worth noting is the steep improvement from a 5th percentile hard-hit rate allowed in 2020 to his 75th percentile hard-hit rate allowed in 2021. Improvements in these aspects of his pitching are a much better indicator of replicable success in the future than Sandoval’s surface-level improvements in run prevention.
It is clear that Patrick Sandoval has taken great strides in several aspects of his game, but there is one pitch in specific where he has made very specific and intentional improvements that should bode well for maintaining his success going forward: the changeup. The graph below indicates that the changeup has essentially become the primary pitch for Sandoval, which makes sense considering it is his best pitch. Sandoval’s fastball is near the bottom of MLB in spin rate and is around the 50th percentile in velocity; meanwhile, his changeup has been excellent across various metrics, touting a 52.1% whiff rate and an xwOBA of .220. His changeup also leads all of his pitches in BA, xBA, SLUG, and xSLUG.
In conjunction with this elite changeup, Sandoval’s slider has been almost equally as dominant in terms of inducing whiffs and weaker contact, so an increase in usage of the slider in the place of the fastball, sinker, and curveball could yield a further improvement in his results going forward. There is a lot to be satisfied with the way Patrick Sandoval has performed thus far in the 2021 season, and he could be even better with increased slider usage. Considering the lack of consistent and high-level starting pitching options that the Angels have had for the last decade (the Angels rank 28th in MLB in pitching fWAR since Trout’s first debut in 2011), this recent progress from Patrick Sandoval could mean a lot for how the Angels plan to construct a competitive rotation in the immediate future.