A deeper look at Sanchez’ denial of an intentional walk

Unlucky is not the way one would describe Gary Sanchez‘ 2016 season. Yet, the 23 year-old catcher might have lost out on his 14th home run in 33 games on Saturday. If you haven’t seen the play yet, you’ve almost certainly heard about it. Rays’ southpaw Enny Romero attempted to throw an intentional ball to the 23 year-old backstop, and this happened:

During intentional walks, we’ve become accustomed to a batter standing idly with his bat on his back shoulder. The four pitches are supposed to be a formality. Yet, some have decided to swing before (Miguel Cabrera, perhaps most famously), although those are extreme exceptions. Unlike most to be intentional pass recipients, Sanchez was ready in this instance, waiting to pounce just in case a meatball came his way. And wouldn’t you know it, Romero’s offering drifted back toward home plate. It was still out of the zone, but that was no matter. It came in so slow that Sanchez had plenty of time to adjust. Even though this deep drive didn’t disappear over the fence, we’ll see this highlight periodically for as long as Sanchez plays. Perhaps longer.

After being dumbfounded in the stands and later watching the highlight repeatedly in amazement, I started to wonder if Sanchez was actually unlucky here. What happened was so unusual that wondered what circumstances would’ve allowed the ball to carry a tad further. Pretty cool Saturday night I had, I know. Anyway, thanks to Statcast and physics, I think I resolved my question.

First, the details of Sanchez’ hit: Romero’s lob came in at 51.8 MPH and Sanchez sent it back at nearly twice the speed, 100.9 MPH at a 29.5 degree launch angle. Like any of Sanchez’ fly balls since August, this one looked like it had a chance to leave the yard off the bat. But, with it directed toward death valley in left-center, Kevin Kiermaier ran it down 407 feet from home plate.

On Baseball Savant, I filtered for all batted balls in the Statcast era (2015-) with a launch angle between 29 and 30 degrees and a hit velocity between 100 and 101 MPH. There have been 92 such batted balls in the past two seasons. 45 times, a batted ball under those parameters has been a home run. There’s been 8 doubles, 5 triples, and 34 outs recorded. I actually expected to see more home runs than that, but the fact that only 34 outs were recorded certainly points to some degree of bad luck for Sanchez. Narrowing the parameters, of all the fly balls hit 407 feet or further (same as Sanchez or further) with the same velocity and launch angle, only Sanchez’ fly ball stayed in the park. The other four were home runs.

Alright, so Sanchez didn’t fare as well as some of his peers, that much is clear. But was he robbed of a home run? Not in the sense of an outfielder reaching over the wall to bring one back, but perhaps. External factors must be considered too, such as the weather, ballpark, and pitcher. After all, Sanchez seemingly did everything right. Put this batted ball in a smaller stadium or on a windier day and Sanchez might have been rewarded with a trot around the bases. What about laying some blame on the pitcher? University of Illinois’ Dr. Alan Nathan can help us with this question:

Simply put, the batter has nearly total control of batted ball velocity and hit distance. The notion of letting a pitcher supply the power is essentially a myth. So Romero’s off the hook, right? Not in this case. Considering how close this was to a home run, changes in pitch velocity matter much more than your typical can of corn. Romero’s 51.8 MPH pitch was incredibly slow for an intent ball. This year, the average/median/mode for intent balls is 73/75/78 MPH. I think you can see where I’m going here. Another 5 or 6 MPH on Romero’s pitch probably means a home run for Sanchez (and that’s still a slow intent ball). This Sanchez guy just can’t catch a break.

I know, I know. Nobody really cares whether or not Sanchez should have had home run. What’s awesome about this was Sanchez’ rejection of a free pass and his intensity during a typically nonchalant play. But it sure would have been fun to see that ball sail over the fence.

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