As has been the case for what feels like forever, the Angels have struggled to get much in the way of positive contributions from their pitching staff in 2021. After being one of the worst units in all of baseball in each of the last three seasons, this group has once again struggled to the tune of a 5.04 ERA so far this year, which has been perhaps the main reason that the team finds itself in a familiar spot outside of playoff contention as we pass the halfway point of this season.
Despite this overall poor performance, there have been a few positives to take away from the pitching staff in Anaheim, however, most notably the re-emergence of Shohei Ohtani as a potential frontline starter for the first time since the May of his rookie season in 2018. Flying under the radar, however, is the development of third-year starter Patrick Sandoval, who has been quite good in 2021 after a couple of brief but unspectacular stints in the majors in 2019 and 2020. The 24-year-old wasn’t originally in the Angels’ preliminary plans for the rotation this year, but injuries to both Alex Cobb and Jose Quintana forced him into that role, and he’s responded by posting a 3.44 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 36.2 innings across seven starts.
This steady production that Sandoval has brought since becoming a full-time starter has been a much-needed boost to a rotation marred by inconsistency all year, and when you look at how he’s been able to do it, you’ll find that he might just be in this role to stay moving forward.
Last month, Sandoval managed to accomplish something that only a select few pitchers have in the last decade-plus when he recorded an outstanding 32 whiffs during his start against the Mariners on June 6. Those 32 whiffs were the most whiffs recorded in a single game by any pitcher this year — yes, even more than Jacob deGrom, who shared the previous high with Dylan Cease at 29 whiffs — and the fifth most in any start since whiffs became a trackable stat in 2008, behind only deGrom, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Danny Duffy.
This start in particular was the one that understandably started to open some eyes to Sandoval, and it served as a perfect representation of his ability to miss bats, which has been perhaps the biggest area of improvement for him in 2021. Prior to this year, Sandoval had flashed some decent whiff potential, but it had not manifested itself beyond just slightly above average results in that regard. Flip to this year, though, and you’ll see that he’s made some very significant strides in this area:
Sandoval has seen pretty notable jumps in all of the major plate discipline statistics, and in a few of them, he finds himself ranked near the very top of the league. His 17.4 percent swinging-strike rate is good for eighth-best in all of baseball, and his overall CSW rate is not far behind at 15th-best. These figures place Sandoval in the same range as guys like Gerrit Cole, Corbin Burnes, and Tyler Glasnow, which is some pretty good company for a guy who didn’t even make the Angels Opening Day roster and had to earn his way into a regular rotation spot.
Sandoval’s improvements didn’t appear out of thin air, however, as one pitch has served as the primary catalyst behind them — his signature changeup, which he has increased in usage by nearly 10 percent this year:
At first glance, Sandoval’s changeup doesn’t necessarily jump off the page. It doesn’t feature a crazy amount of movement a la Sandy Alcantara or Devin Williams (in fact, it is below average in both average horizontal and vertical movement), and at a slightly slower than average 84.6 miles per hour, it doesn’t sit at either of the extreme ends of the velocity spectrum. It does have some things working for it when you dig deeper, though, starting with the location in which Sandoval has been using it. The following GIF shows the heatmap for his changeup in his first two years in the bigs (first image) compared to 2021, and you’ll notice a pretty stark difference right away:
In 2019 and 2020, Sandoval sat in the strike zone with his changeup a good amount. It still got a sufficient amount of whiffs when thrown in this spot, but it also became somewhat damage-prone if Sandoval didn’t locate it exactly where he was trying to and leaked it toward the middle of the zone instead, evidenced by the .533 slugging percentage he allowed when throwing it last season. So far in 2021, though, Sandoval has switched up where he’s thrown his changeup, as he’s opted to lower his zone rate on the pitch to just 33.2 percent, one of the 20-lowest figures in the league on any pitch thrown at least 200 times.
The line that Sandoval has to walk in order to have success with this approach with his changeup is a thin one, but he has made it work beautifully so far this year thanks to his pinpoint control when using it. He may be throwing the slowball in the zone less often, but he has done a very good job at living just below the bottom and outside edge of it, locating it in a spot just close enough to get swings but just far enough off to avoid bats when hitters do offer at it.
This way of utilizing his changeup becomes even more viable for Sandoval when you consider the velocity difference between it and his fastball. As mentioned before, Sandoval’s change sits on the slower end of the spectrum at 84.6 miles per hour, but he runs his heater almost 10 ticks faster at 93.4 miles per hour, with the ability to hit up to 96 mph. This is a pretty significant difference between the two, which you can see in action in the following clip:
These two pitches, thrown in the same at-bat to Daz Cameron, illustrate very well how Sandoval makes things work. His fastball admittedly does not have the best results on the year, but it is the 10-mph difference between it and his changeup that allows the latter to thrive. The two look pretty similar out of his hand up until the point of commitment, and this fact makes it so hitters can’t fully commit to the slowball until it has already fallen off the table and away from their bat path.
The numbers behind Sandoval’s changeup back this up as well, as the results that he has gotten on it this year have been nothing short of stellar:
Sandoval’s changeup has been one of the best pitches in all of baseball this year, and his willingness to make it the centerpiece of his whole arsenal is the biggest reason behind his success. This pitch has been paramount to his development as a swing-and-miss getter, which has helped out all other aspects of his game and raised his ceiling immensely as a pitcher.
Sandoval’s time in the rotation in 2021 can still be classified as a pretty small sample size, so it’s hard to say for sure whether his strong performance will hold up as he continues taking the mound every fifth day for the rest of the year. What we can say is that he has at the very least looked intriguing during his seven starts, and the sheer excellence of his changeup provides him an x-factor that not many other pitchers around the league possess. His peripherals suggest that there might be a bit of regression coming his way, but there are also other areas of improvement that he could make to combat this, with one notable one being to put a greater focus on another pitch that I did not mention: his slider.
Like his changeup (though not quite on the same level), Sandoval’s slider is also very good at getting swings and misses. Unlike the change, though, his slider is good at getting called strikes as well, as it features a very respectable 15.3 percent called strike rate while only being used only 13.5 percent of the time. If Sandoval can gain more confidence in his slider as a bona fide strike getter with higher usage, it might allow him to use his admittedly unimpressive fastball more selectively, which would be a good thing in the long run when looking at how each of his pitches has performed. Even without this, though, Sandoval has definitely made himself someone that you should keep an eye on, as he may be on his way to becoming a legitimate starter in the league.