The Nationals made one big move to bolster their rotation in signing Patrick Corbin. Soon after, they traded rotation mainstay Tanner Roark to the Reds for a relief prospect in Tanner Rainey. The move was slightly curious for a team that clearly wants to remain in the window of contention; Roark has been a league-average starter for some time now. One week later, the Nationals have their Roark replacement in Anibal Sanchez. A year ago, nobody wanted Sanchez, but some changes to his pitch-mix revived his career, and now the Nationals have rewarded those changes and the upside Sanchez brings over Roark with a two-year deal worth $19 million, as first reported by Anthony Fenech.
Sanchez’s deal also includes up to $4 million in incentives and a $12 million option for 2021, with a $2 million buyout, which is part of the $19 million guarantee. Because it’s the Nationals, there’s also some deferred money, with $2 million from both 2019 and 2020 due in 2021. Back in 2012, Sanchez was coming off two and a half solid years with the Marlins and a half season with the Tigers, averaging 3.6 WAR per season. The Tigers rewarded Sanchez with a five-year, $80 million contract in free agency. Sanchez responded with the best season of his career, posting a 2.39 FIP and a 2.57 ERA en route to six wins above replacement. He followed that season up with a solid, three-win campaign in 2014, though he did have two separate stints on the disabled list. In the final three years of his contract, Sanchez was below average, but did manage to pitch 415.2 innings. For their $80 million, the Tigers received 11.4 WAR, a reasonable outcome even if the performance was front-loaded.
After Detroit elected not to exercise its option for 2018, Sanchez didn’t have a whole lot of choices and signed a minor league deal with the Braves. He made three decent starts in April, but hit the disabled list with a hamstring strain. He returned in late-May and ended up with his best season since 2014. Sanchez’s 24% strikeout rate and 10.5% swinging strike rate were the best he’d posted since 2013, with his 45% ground ball rate, his .99 home run rate per nine innings, 2.4 WAR, and his 3.62 FIP all the best numbers he’s posted since 2014. The home run rate was particularly encouraging; his 85 homers surrendered over the three previous season was the fourth-worst in baseball and his 1.84 HR/9 was the worst among pitchers with at least 300 innings.
The problem for Sanchez is pretty easy to identify.
As velocity around the league skyrocketed, Sanchez’s fastball went the opposite direction. Sanchez has always been a strike-thrower, getting a good amount of first-pitch strikes and pitching in the zone roughly half the time, but pitching in the zone with lower velocity against hitters getting used to higher velocity meant a lot of damage. As we can see from the chart above, Sanchez didn’t get his velocity back. But he did change his pitches. Sanchez’s changeup has been pretty consistent in its usage and results over his career, and it has allowed him to post as good or better results against lefties compared to righties. As Sanchez’s fastball dropped in velocity, the effectiveness of the slider against righties diminished. Sanchez’s slider peaked in 2013 with a 40% chase rate outside the zone and an overall whiff rate of 18%. The whiff rate dropped in 2014, and by 2017, hitters chased the pitch just a quarter of the time. He needed to make a change.
The most noticeable change Sanchez made was switching from a slider to a cutter, but it also came with another, less obvious change: significantly fewer fastballs. For his entire career, Sanchez threw a fastball, either a four-seamer or sinker, around 50% of the time. His fastball percentage was down under 38% last year. Sanchez threw even more changeups, which is good for him given that it is his best pitch, and then ramped up the use of the cutter at the expense of the slider.
The slider has more drop than the cutter but roughly the same horizontal movement, while the cutter has greater velocity. It proved to be a better pair with the fastball, as too many of Sanchez’s sliders were of the hanging variety, allowing hitters to tee off. The cutter is less likely to hang and therefore less likely to sit in the middle of the zone. The pitch stays up like a fastball, which causes hitters to swing under the pitch up in the zone inducing pop flies, but it still moves a little bit more than the fastball does so batters swing over the pitch low in the zone, inducing ground balls. It’s still not a great pitch for swings and misses, but it leads to a lot less damage. The decreased use of the fastball also caused greater confusion among batters looking for offspeed pitches. In 2016 and 2017, batters swung at roughly 60% of the fastballs Sanchez threw in the zone. That number dropped to 53% in 2018, which was more in line with numbers in his prime. Throwing fewer pitches that hurt you and more pitches that don’t is a fairly simple recipe for success as long as you have the repertoire to do so. It is working for Sanchez.
At 35 years old on Opening Day next year, Sanchez’s fastball from a few years ago is never coming back. There’s some risk of injury given his history, but in paying him just six million dollars this season (not including the deferred money), the Nationals saved about five million dollars and got a pitcher who could be better than the outgoing Roark. If hitters can adjust to Sanchez’s new arsenal and start pounding him again, the total dollars guaranteed to Sanchez isn’t onerous. If he can repeat the success of last season, he’ll be a bargain. The National League East looks to be a pretty fierce contest, and at least on paper, the Nationals are doing everything they can to get back on top. The team still needs a second baseman, but there are a lot of those available and they can probably go bargain-hunting there. With the incredible talent Washington has at the top of its rotation, it opted for upside and uncertainty over safety at the end of it. It’s hard to say that was a poor decision given how things ended up.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.