Will he be a shutdown arm forever? Probably not, but 2022 was good for Nick Sandlin.
By most metrics, the Guardians had an elite bullpen in 2022. They logged the fifth-lowest ERA and FIP, second-lowest expected FIP, fourth-highest fWAR and ground ball rate, and seventh-hights in strand rate. They were in a bulwark that made it a bit easier on a continually dented starting rotation, and for most of the season, Nick Sandlin was a key to that sturdiness.
Sandlin didn’t show off the power and flash of Clase, the giganticness of Sam Hentges, or the stoic confidence of Trevor Stephan, but with his myriad offerings, funky arm angle, and his ability to silence righties and at least manage against lefties, he was a valuable piece and another name from nowhere for Francona to go to. It was a great year. Was it real?
First, the good. Sandlin posted a 2.25 ERA over 44.2 innings in 2022, respectively a career-low and high. Sure, it’s over all of two seasons, but it’s good to see growth as Cleveland builds whatever we consider a Death Star in Ohio. On top of that, he discovered a splitter this year that he’s able to use on right-handed hitters, and they hit .083 off it with a matching slugging percentage. It likely had something to do with the near-14 point increase in his grounder rate to 55.4%.
So that all sounds nice, right? Grounders are good with a near-elite infield defense, and being able to develop a new pitch that can get guys out is just as valuable. The big worry here is, what’s happened between 2021 and 2022 with some of the leading indicators for pitchers. Behind the scenes Sandlin is trending in the wrong direction in some key metrics:
Amid all this, we saw his BABIP drop from .271 in 2021 to .227 in 2022. Some of this can be blamed on his boosting his grounder rate while Amed Rosario turned into a plus defender and Andrés Giménez won a Gold Glove, which would help explain the dazzling ERA. Looking forward though, with shifts being banned Sandlin is going to have a lot less defensive teeth to pitch into, and along with his diminished velocity and swing-and-missness, you have to worry about 2023.
That’s the thing about relievers. Some just howl at you that they’ll be good. Clase is a good example of that, and you could see someone like Hentges making a leap once he figured some things out. Raw physical tools are easy to project and more than anything else velocity speaks the loudest. Sandlin, at 5 foot 11 and 175, with his collection of pitches, never looked like that. 2022 could be his 2014 Marc Rzepczynski/2015 Jeff Manship/2017 Zach McAllister lucky stretch that gets exposed when the ball starts going the wrong way. Which is fine, he was still an important piece for Cleveland. I mean, he didn’t allow a single run in August, and even when he “dropped off” in September he still only allowed three earned runs over nine innings. And one of those was a post-clinch hangover game, so who knows what to take away from that?
Will Sandlin be good next year? That’s a question that we don’t need to answer right now. Fact is, Cleveland has made a name for itself by finding these weird nobodies that end up shutting down the world for a few months. Not only did Sandlin not allow a run in August, he only allowed two runs and eight hits in 17 games from July 1 to Aug. 31. Whether that was real, or the slightly less effective September version, we’ll have to wait and see. He has a whole off-season to bolster that sinker velo and refine the other stuff. If it doesn’t work out, they’ll find someone else. For one year though, he was one head of a mighty hydra. Which is pretty cool.
We’re reviewing (almost) all the Guardians players from 2022 now through November, starting with the top-10 MVPs as voted on by eight Covering the Corner staff members. Players were awarded points based on their one through 10 individual rankings and were ranked as such. You can find all the Year in Review posts here.