The Nationals rotation is headed by Max Scherzer with fellow aces Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin falling neatly in line. Yet, when the Nationals take on the Cardinals tonight, Aníbal Sánchez will get the start. A hard-fought Division Series against the Dodgers saw Scherzer and Strasburg start the fourth and fifth games of the series with Corbin pitching in relief on Wednesday. With those three unavailable, Washington turns to their fourth starter in Sánchez.
Sánchez, who put up a six-win season with the Tigers in 2013, developed some home run issues from 2015 through 2017 before having a bounceback season in 2018 that continued into this year, as he’s been a solid, slightly above-average starter. He’s lost about three mph off his fastball since his career year, but he throws a mix of pitches to keep hitters off balance. He has three offerings he uses most of the time in a 90-mph four-seam fastball, a slow change, and a cutter. He also mixes in a splitter, and he got two strikeouts using that pitch against the Dodgers (both against Russell Martin). He throws the fastball outside to both lefties and righties. While Sánchez throws the change more often against lefties, he does use it a decent amount to come inside against righties, and that pitch is the 35-year-old’s only real swing-and-miss offering. Against the Dodgers, Sánchez got five strikeouts on the change, including this one against Cody Bellinger.
The four-seam fastball usage bodes well for the Cardinals, in theory, as they have feasted on the pitch all season long. However, the Cardinals have put up terrible numbers against both the cutter and the change. Potentially providing more trouble, the Cardinals won’t be able to try and get ahead in the count and expect the fastball, as Sánchez’s usage of the pitch actually goes down when he’s behind in the count. The righty threw his four-seam fastball in a 0-0 count 42% of the time this season, so if the Cardinals are going to look for that fastball, it needs to happen on the first pitch.
The main concern for Sánchez and the Nationals is how deep he can go in the game. In the NLDS, Sánchez had a tough first inning after a 10-day layoff between starts, but he settled down and made it through four scoreless innings. He almost made it through the fifth inning unscathed, but he tried to sneak an 0-2 fastball by Max Muncy.
In that fifth inning, Sánchez threw four fastballs. The first one was an 87-mph pitch on a 3-1 count against Hyun-Jin Ryu. The next two were 89-mph fastballs to Joc Pederson and Muncy. Check out this 0-1 fastball to Muncy:
That pitch is executed well in on the hands and gets the foul tip, but he had to throw the pitch under 90 mph to put it there. When Sánchez reared back to get something extra for the next pitch, he lost his location and still only threw the pitch at his average fastball velocity. This is not a new problem for Sánchez, and one he is likely aware of as he changes his pitch mix as games go on. In the first two innings of games this year, Sanchez used his four-seam fastball roughly 36% of the time and it averaged 90.5 mph. In the third inning and later, Sánchez’s four-seam fastball velocity dropped to 90.0 mph and the usage fell to 27%.
Against the Dodgers, getting through the third time in the order was a problem that carried over from the regular season. Sánchez had a very good 3.63 FIP against batters the first time through the order, nearly identical to his teammate Corbin’s 3.61 mark. Of the 90 pitchers with at least 100 innings going twice through the order, Sánchez’s FIP ranked a solid 29th in the game. Out of 93 pitchers with at least 25 innings against batters a third time through, Sánchez’s 7.15 FIP is the worst in baseball.
Sánchez’s difficulties as games go on presents Washington with a problem. In the NLDS, Dave Martinez pulled Sánchez after the fifth inning despite giving up only the Muncy solo shot and having a 2-1 lead. It was the right move at the time, particularly with Sánchez’s spot coming up in the bottom of the fifth, but disaster ensued. Martinez brought in Corbin and the game immediately got out of hand. It’s fair to expect better results out of Corbin in relief, but that isn’t likely to even be an option tonight.
With the Nationals’ better starters presumably off limits, Martinez is going to have some tough choices in the best-case scenario where Sánchez pitches five strong innings. He can gamble with Sánchez for another inning, or he can gamble with bullpen options he doesn’t completely trust. Twelve outs is a lot to ask from a struggling bullpen, but 18 outs might be too many for Anibal Sánchez. If this game is close, the sixth inning could be key for Washington’s pitching, and Cardinals hitters might need to capitalize if they want to take an early lead in the series.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.