Coming into the month of July, this season was shaping up to be another rough one for Tigers’ former standout pitcher Anibal Sanchez. He had a 6.05 ERA, and the advanced metrics weren’t looking fondly on his prospects for a rebound, either; he had a 5.77 FIP and a 5.23 xFIP. His K/BB ratio was a disappointing 59/33, putting him at 7.14 K’s per nine and 4.oo BB’s per nine in 74 innings pitched. He had given up 1.94 HR/9 with a poor GB% (40.3%). Needless to say, all of those statistics put Sanchez firmly below the average major league pitcher. At the time, Sanchez was toiling in the bullpen after having been banished there deservedly. However, with the injury woes of Daniel Norris and Jordan Zimmermann, the Tigers had a hole to fill in their rotation. Thus, Sanchez was given another shot.
Upon his return to the rotation on July 5th, something changed. While his ERA since then hasn’t improved much (5.76), almost everything else has. He’s struck out 51 and walked only 15 in 45 and a third innings, good enough for above average marks in those areas: 10.13 K’s per nine and 2.98 BB’s per nine. His homerun rate, while still higher than average, has shrunk to a more palatable 1.39 HR/9 as a result of his previously exorbitant HR/FB ratio regressing to the mean. He’s thrown some real gems in this stretch, with multiple 10-strikeout games and an almost-no-hitter his last time out against the Royals. The reason for the discrepancy between his peripherals and his ERA is that his strand rate during that stretch was only at 64.6% (His career is 72.3%, league average this year is 72.9%) and his BABIP was at .350 (.298 in his career, .297 league average). Also, if you take out his worst start from the stretch (an 8-run thrashing against the heavy hitting Rangers), his ERA shrinks to 4.57. However you look at it, the bottom line is this: Sanchez has pitched much better of late, regardless of what his ERA thinks. Why? I was set on finding out.
Here is his pitch usage before the beginning of July:
Sometimes, pitch classifications are tough to make between a slider and a cutter. However, it seems to me that Brooks Baseball is right here, as Sanchez seemed to have two distinct pitches. Before July, the cutter came in at around 89 MPH on average, and the slider came in at 84.28. The cutter had good rise (8.01 inches), the slider clearly did not (1.64). The slider had slightly more horizontal movement as well (3.52 versus 2.58). After July began, the two pitches seemed to morph into one. The new cutter/slider averaged 85.5 MPH, 2.25 inches of vertical movement, and 3.63 for horizontal movement. The horizontal movement actually improved. While the whiff percentage hasn’t improved, the ISO against has literally evaporated. This is probably just regression to the mean because the ISO was incredibly high beforehand, and the new pitch has a flyball tendency.
I’m also glad that Sanchez has been using his four-seamer more. The pitch has excellent rise: PITCHf/x data on FanGraphs has it in a tie for the 8th best rise amongst fastballs for pitchers with at least 110 innings pitched this year. It’s no wonder that Sanchez has the league’s third best pop up percentage (he’s at 16.6%, league average this year is 9.6%). This leads me to believe (even more than I already do) that Sanchez’s BABIP will come down.
However, none of this tells me why he has been getting more strikeouts. Has the whiff rate improved on any of his pitches?
Before the beginning of July:
There’s definitely some improvement here for his fourseam, sinker, and change. I have also looked at the before and after for pitch velocities and movements, and there’s nothing else worth mentioning there. However, there is one more thing that can give us a read on why and how pitchers change: plate discipline.
At first glance, it seems that Sanchez has been more wild, since his zone% is lower. However, he’s getting people to fish out of the zone and also getting people to look at strikes in the zone better than before. This is a great skill to have–I talked about how Josh Tomlin uses this skill a couple of weeks ago. This has led to hitters making less contact in general, but more contact on pitches outside of the zone. This is good because generally you make weaker contact when you’re swinging at balls (another reason that his BABIP should come down). Because of a higher swing% and higher swinging strike percentage, his walk rate since July is actually better than it was in the beginning of the year, despite pitching with a lower percentage of strikes. He’s had 2.98 BB’s per nine innings since July as opposed to a 4.00 figure beforehand. Plus, he can clearly throw a strike when he needs to or wants to, as evidenced by the almost 8% uptick in first pitch strike percentage.
In conclusion, the change that I think has led to all of this is the uptick in fastball usage. I talked about it with David Phelps and with Masahiro Tanaka, but I’ll say it again for those of you who haven’t read my other articles: establishing a good four-seam fastball can be crucial (especially when paired with a two-seamer, like the one Sanchez has). I think that the increase in first pitch strike percentage is showing that Sanchez is trying to establish his fastball early, and it’s working. This helps to set up his other pitches very well, since everything works off of the fastball.
Data from FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, and The Hardball Times. Thanks for reading!
Written by Alex Eisert
Photo Credits: Rich Schultz/Getty Images North America, Alan Diaz | AP, Al Bello, Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports