The San Francisco Giants threw Shawn Sanford into the fire. They disregarded him as a prospect and set him up to not only struggle, but fall flat on his face. But they underestimated Sanford after everything he’s gone through. Instead of faltering, Sanford viewed the Giants’ indifference towards him as an opportunity and took full advantage.
Sometimes it’s not the highly-regarded top prospects that catch your eye. Sometimes you see a pitcher you’ve never even heard of come out and simply dominate. The South Atlantic League features its fair share of top pitching prospects. Shawn Sanford will never be be added to that list. However, Sanford’s 2011 performance, arguably the gutsiest performance of any pitcher in the minor leagues this past season, merits him to be the number three starter on our S2S South Atlantic League All-Star team.
Name: Shawn Sanford
2011 Teams: Augusta Greenjackets (SFG)
Basic Pitching Stats: 10-10 record, 2.55 ERA, 107 strikeouts (5.7 K/9), 30 walks (1.6 BB/9), 10 homers allowed (0.5 HR/9), 1 game finished in 25 starts, 5 relief appearances, and 169.2 IP
We all say that we put family first. But how far would we stretch that? Shawn Sanford risked it all for his dying father. As this poignant article from an Atlantic City newspaper near Sanford’s New Jersey hometown states, Sanford was being recruited by some of the best colleges in the country as a right-handed starter but turned them all down to commit to the University of South Florida, an average baseball school, because his mother and his ailing father were going to move down to nearby Tampa, Florida by the time he was a sophomore. His father had been diagnosed with cancer 15 years earlier and was expected to live just 6 months, but instead lasted over 15 years. Sanford was also drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 43rd round of the 2006 MLB Draft and according to the same article, offered $350,000 to sign. But instead he turned them down to attend USF to spend time with his father. The time he could spend with his father was worth far more than any amount of money.
In three years at the University of South Florida, Sanford pitched well but not great, going 13-13 with a 4.21 ERA and 25 saves in 16 starts, 66 relief appearances, and 194 innings pitched. However, part of that was due to poor defense behind him as he struck out 8.0 per 9 innings, posted a 3.5 BB/9, and kept the ball in the ballpark for a 0.5 HR/9, amounting to a 3.33 FIP. That was enough for Sanford to be selected again, this time by the San Francisco Giants, in the 13th round of the 2009 MLB Draft, and this time he signed.
The Giants used Sanford almost exclusively in relief in his first two professional seasons, first with the Rookie-level Arizona League Giants, and then with Short Season-A Salem-Keizer and he did well, going 4-4 with a 3.18 ERA, a 10.3 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, a 0.4 HR/9, 12 saves, and 29 games finished in 39 relief appearances, 3 starts, and 62.1 IP. His FIP was very robust at 2.70. But in 2011, the Giants had gaping holes in their rotation at Low-A Augusta, and rather than continue to use Sanford in relief, they chose to not only convert him to a starter but also make him the workhorse of the staff. He hadn’t been a full-time starting pitcher since high school. But Sanford refused to let that faze him.
Shawn Sanford and C.J. Wilson have more in common than you think. Sanford is 6’0″, 200 while Wilson is 6’1″, 210. Sanford is a righty while Wilson was a lefty, but both were drafted by the Texas Rangers. Sanford was a 13th round pick while Wilson was a 5th round pick. Sanford is a finesse pitcher, and although many of us who haven’t watched him too often the past couple years still think of Wilson as a power pitcher, he has pitched with a lot more finesse since converting to a starter. And in 2011, Shawn Sanford was the C.J. Wilson of the minor leagues.
Among all minor league pitchers who threw a minimum of 150 innings, Sanford was second in ERA at 2.55. That tells you something. Sanford couldn’t over-power hitters, but he took the mound with his low-90′s sinker and an array of offspeed pitches and simply refused to be beaten. We see from Sanford’s ridiculously low K/9 of 5.7 in 2011 that he didn’t miss very many bats at all in 2011. Minor League Central tells us that when South Atlantic League hitters swung against Sanford, they connected on 68.0% of their swings compared to the league average of 59.2%. But Sanford didn’t let that stop him. He showed excellent control, walking just 1.6 batters per 9 innings, less than half of the league BB/9 of 3.3, and even though he was allowing contact, he was limiting hard contact very effectively. According to MLC, 51.2% of the balls put into play against Sanford were groundballs, quite a bit ahead of the 42.8% league average, but it wasn’t just that. He limited line drives, allowing a 15.6% mark compared tot he 16.4% SAL average, but more impressively, he simply did not allow flyballs. The league allowed a 36.4% flyball percentage (excluding line drives) with 29.2% being outfield flyballs and 7.2% being pop-ups. Sanford allowed just a 28.8% overall flyball percentage, with just 24.3% going to the outfield, although he did post just a 4.5% pop-up rate. Pop-ups may seem better than groundballs at first glance because they’re basically guaranteed outs, but pop-ups are often as little as a centimeter away from being a hard-hit flyball to the outfield and often an extra-base hit.
Shawn Sanford’s intangibles are absolutely off the charts. You just don’t see 18 year olds make the type of decisions he made and persevere through all the adversity he has experienced. In 2011, Sanford had to make the type of adjustment that you almost never see. Between his junior year at USF and his first two pro seasons, Sanford threw a combined 137.1 IP from 2009 to 2010. In 2011 alone, the Giants hung Sanford out to dry and threw him out on the mound for 169.1 IP. C.J. Wilson had a 130.2 inning increase from 2009 to 2010 for the Rangers. Sanford had a comparable 127.2 inning increase. But at least Wilson had gone over 130 innings in his life before (2002 between High-A and Double-A). Sanford’s previous career high was just 75 innings. But despite that, he turned in an incredible season. Shawn Sanford’s stuff is not exactly elite. He throws a nice sinker in the low-90′s, but his other pitches are mediocre at best. That didn’t matter to Sanford either. He just went on the mound and dominated opposing hitters and was the driving force behind a late season surge by the Augusta Greenjackets as they went from 31-39 in the first half to 39-29 in the second half to make the South Atlantic League playoffs.
FIP and SIERA are usually a couple of my best friends as they help give an inclination as to whether a pitcher can sustain his current level of performance. But right now, I absolutely hate them. Sanford posted a 3.38 FIP and a 3.82 SIERA in 2011, indicating that his performance was definitely a fluke to at least some extent. Especially considering the hitters get better as you go up through the minors, it would seem like Sanford will be nowhere near as good in 2012. FIP and SIERA attempt to show how well pitchers do independent of fielding. But sometimes pitchers slip through the cracks, right? However, there’s no way to deny that Shawn Sanford allowed a ton of balls in play in 2011 and needed good fielding behind him. 76.4% of plate appearances against him ended with a ball in play, well above the league average of 67.3%.
Shawn Sanford had an improbable season in 2011. He was absolutely incredible and it just makes his inspiring story a little bit better. But can it last?
Everyone is rooting for Shawn Sanford. His story is unbelievable. It’s incredible that he has persevered through every challenge he’s faced both on and off the field to succeed the way he has. Maybe it’s only transient. We see feel-good stories in movies and we see that such a story could never happen in real life. It’s kind of appropriate that despite Sanford’s herculean performance for Augusta in 2011, he was rewarded by his offense with just a 10-10 record. He really isn’t a great pitcher. His sinker is nice, but that’s his only pitch that’s a quality offering. But there are some things we simply can’t measure. Shawn Sanford’s intangibles are one of those things. If there’s anyone to defy the odds, it’s Shawn Sanford.
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