Anibal Sanchez: Embodiment of the 2015 Tigers

It’s not uncommon for a narrative to develop around a great team — nor, specifically, for it to develop around the particular player on that great team who best represents the collective identity. For a club that exhibits a lot of power, the most powerful player is the focus. When a team is full of idiots, the most idiotic player garners a lot of attention. For a young team, the youngest, a gritty team, the grittiest, etc. These portrayals might not be entirely accurate, but they help tell stories and mold perspectives about a club’s identity as they march closer to the end of the season and, subsequently, the playoffs. Repeating the exercise for a disappointing, mediocre team can be an interesting process. So it is with this season’s Detroit Tigers and the one player who most embodies their season: Anibal Sanchez.

Injuries to players like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander have played a role in Detroit’s disappointing 54-57 season, but Cabrera hit incredibly well for half a season and has already produced an above-average line. Verlander, a focal point for the club in the past, has barely pitched at all this season, lacking the requisite presence to represent the 2015 Detroit Tigers. Ian Kinsler has had an odd, but effective season. J.D. Martinez has had another great year, and Yoenis Cespedes had played very well before his trade to the New York Mets. The offense has not been the Tigers’s problem this season with one of the better run-scoring teams in the majors and a 109 wRC+ to back it up. The defense has been average overall so the onus shifts to the pitching.

The bullpen has been bad, ahead of only Boston’s and Texas’s while sitting at essentially replacement-level. If you are looking for someone to blame for the season, the bullpen is an easy target, having recorded just 27 saves against 14 blown saves — and their ranks for both Shutdowns and Meltdowns are near the bottom third of all bullpens. Simply being the weak link on the Tigers does not make the bullpen representative of the team at large, however. Despite the mess of a bullpen, the team is still close to .500 — and Detroit has succeeded in previous years despite similarly weak collection of relievers. So we move to the rotation. David Price was phenomenal, Alfredo Simon exceeded his projections, Justin Verlander has been bullpen-level bad, and none of the other starters had any expectations on them heading into the season, leaving Anibal Sanchez as both a player with decent expectations and a failure to reach them.

Heading into the season, Sanchez was projected for 8.0 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.55 ERA, 3.31 FIP and 2.8 WAR in 163 innings. Through 149 IP on the season, he is averaging almost exactly 8.0 K/9, and his walks are up some to 2.8 per nine innings, but his ERA is 4.82 and his FIP lines up with his poor ERA at 4.47 this year. His BABIP is a low .278, his velocity is not down, and other than experimenting with a cutter at the expense of his four-seam fastball, neither his pitch mix nor his general location have differed from last season.

The problem has been home runs: he’s allowed 25 of them after conceding just 13 the previous two seasons combined. He allowed 20 home runs each in 2011 and 2012, but had great success for Detroit. He has been hit hard both at home and on the road. He has an unusual reverse platoon split with righties getting much better results, but almost all of that difference is due to the 16 home runs against righties versus 9 against lefties. (His xFIP against both sides is nearly identical and roughly league average.) The source of the home-run problems, if there is anything other than noise, is not clear.

Neil Weinberg took a look at every one of the home runs Sanchez has allowed this season, did a deep dive into the issue, and could not pinpoint a reason for his troubles. Reaching essentially the same conclusion and unable to pinpoint any reason in particular for the severe spike in home runs, I looked for any differences in Sanchez this season. I did notice one minor change in Sanchez’s release point that happened during the season. The graph below shows Sanchez’s horizontal release point by month over the course of his career, from Brooks Baseball.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (7)

He changed in June of this year, moving more to the center of the rubber. Here is a shot from April:

Screenshot 2015-08-10 at 6.08.29 PM

Here is a shot from this month against the Royals:

Screenshot 2015-08-10 at 6.07.18 PM

After making the change, Sanchez’s strikeouts dropped, and his walk rate increased, but a very low BABIP got him good results almost immediately after moving on the rubber. The BABIP eventually moved back up and the strikeout and walk rates have moved closer to the beginning of the season, but they are not all the way there, and the home runs keep on coming. What motivated the change is not quite clear, and getting good results might have reinforced the move, but one pitch that might have been affected or changed simultaneously was the slider. Here is the vertical movement on the slider this season, from Brooks Baseball.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (8)

Sanchez’s slider has been a solid pitch for him throughout his career, but early this season, he was having trouble with it, getting just eight whiffs against right-handers while giving up three home runs, a triple, and a double despite throwing just 101 pitches, per Brooks Baseball. The slider actually got slightly better results with the movement on the rubber, getting a few more whiffs and leading to just one home run since the beginning of June. At this point, we are far short of anything conclusive, but I will note that the four-seam fastball, particularly against right-handers, got worse with the change both in terms of whiffs and isolated slugging. Whether the move on the rubber had any real effect or perhaps was the result of something else going on with his pitches is purely speculative.

Historically, Sanchez’s poor season is pretty rare occurrence for a pitcher of his ability. From 2011 to 2014, Sanchez’s 16.1 WAR sat right behind Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke and just ahead of Chris Sale, James Shields, and Madison Bumgarner. Much of Sanchez’s value came on the back of a six-win season in 2013, but he managed to exceed 3.0 WAR in five straight seasons before this one.

From 1975 to 2012, there were 43 pitchers with 14-18 WAR during their age-27 through age-30 seasons. Eliminating those pitchers with 2.5 WAR or under during their age-30 season leaves us with 35 players. Some of those of 35 players had considerably greater success than Sanchez in their age-30 season, but overall the list shows some decently comparable players ahead of their age-31 season. As we would expect from a group of pitchers who experienced success from age-27 through age-30, the group produced mostly successful age-31 seasons, as well. The group averaged 3.4 WAR per player, not too far from the FanGraphs Depth Charts 2.8 WAR projected at the beginning of the season for Sanchez. Fifteen of the 35 players had at least four wins above replacement and another eight posted at least 2.5 WAR in their Age-31 season.

There were 11 players with Age-31 seasons like Sanchez’s current season — i.e. featuring two wins above replacement or fewer on the season. Of those players, only four of those players qualified for the ERA title, as Sanchez is likely to this season. Sanchez’s season has been so unusual that just four of the 35 comparable players have had seasons similar to his 2015 season. Those four pitchers were Scott Erickson, Bartolo Colon, Andy Benes, and Charles Nagy.

Of those four players, Bartolo Colon rebounded with a four-WAR season at age 32 and Nagy posted a solid season as well. Benes and Erickson could not get things back together the next year, with Benes pitching slightly below average and Erickson coming up with 16 replacement-level starts before needing surgery on his elbow. He missed the entire 2001 season and never got back to his former pitching self. Benes’ struggles were even more pronounced at 33 years of age and his age-34 season was his last after producing 30 WAR through his age-30 season. Nagy and Colon each had poor seasons at 33 years old. Nagy held on for a few more years while Colon recovered to post above-average seasons from Age-38 to Age-42.

There is nothing definitive to indicate Anibal Sanchez is done, nor is there a lot of evidence to say that this season is merely a blip to ignore heading into next season. Sanchez still has two more seasons on his five-year, $88 million contract and up to this point the Tigers have received decent value on that deal, getting more than 10 WAR in the first three years of the contract. Sanchez’s six-win season in 2013 looks to be the outlier in his career up to this point. If his strikeouts and walks remain exactly the same as they are right now, and his home runs go down even a little bit without returning to his previous levels, he can still be a successful pitcher.

Not unlike the Tigers, Anibal Sanchez’s problems are easy to figure out after the fact. For the Tigers it was injuries to key players, a rotation lacking in depth, and a bullpen that could not finish games. For Sanchez, it was the home runs. Those problems were not expected at the beginning of the season — at least not at this magnitude — when the Tigers were projected for 85 wins and wild-card spot. Those problems turned an expected above-average season into a mediocre one, and the team from buyer to seller. Forecasting both the team and the player heading into next season seems equally murky.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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TresF
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TresF

Interesting piece. I wonder why exactly he moved on the rubber. Has to have been a conscious decision. I’m reminded of the year Ervin Santana gave up 39 dingers. The year before and the year after he only gave up 26 and he ERA of course was down dramatically in both the sandwich years. Hopefully this year is just a fluke like Santana’s appears to have been.

Incidentally, I would not call JV bullpen level bad. He hasn’t been and won’t be MVP quality again, but he has shown enough flashes in this season to believe he can be a solid starter in the future.

Andropov4
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Andropov4

Those flashes would probably be there a lot more often if he only had to pitch an inning or two at a time.