With New Deals, Aníbal Sánchez and Vince Velasquez Aim For Comeback

Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve had some titanic trades that lived up to the hype of a post-lockout pandemonium, but it’s always nice to acknowledge the smaller signings as well. On that note, here are two pitchers who, despite their modest contracts, should be familiar to baseball fans. A few days ago, Aníbal Sánchez agreed to a minor league deal with the Nationals. He’ll be paid $2 million if selected and can earn up to $1.5 million in performance bonuses, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post. And on Tuesday, the White Sox announced that they had signed Vince Velasquez to a one-year, $3 million pact.

Maybe it’s because of a global pandemic that warped our sense of time and space, but it seems not too long ago that Sánchez was making starts for a championship team. A lot has happened since then: The veteran righty’s numbers plummeted in 2020, and he spent the following year away from baseball as the Nationals began their teardown.

Sánchez is now back, but for a different purpose. Instead of serving as a fourth starter for a contending team, he looks to offer some stability to a fractured rotation. Its ace, Stephen Strasburg, has thrown just 26.2 innings in the past two seasons due to injury. Patrick Corbin still has potential, but he’s shown signs of precipitous decline. Erick Fedde isn’t great, and Joe Ross will be sidelined for six to eight weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a bone spur. Maybe Josiah Gray takes a step forward, but that’s hardly a guarantee.

How might Sánchez try to accomplish his mission? For one, it may be time to ditch the four-seamer. The pitch averaged an alarmingly low 89.2 mph in 2020, and without enough movement to make up for such a shortcoming, hitters feasted against it. Thankfully, the rest of his repertoire is still brimming with life. His cutter features an ample amount of late vertical drop; it’s basically a mini slider, but with the velocity associated with a fastball. The signature split-change still induced whiffs last time it saw action. To Sánchez’s credit, he made an attempt to rely on his offspeed stuff more often two years ago. But pitching doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and a handful of poor fastballs were all it took to undo those efforts.

Above all, though, Sánchez’s normally solid command vanished; look at his pitch heat maps from 2020, and you’ll observe the haphazard contours which outline his sudden decline. There’s a good chance he doesn’t even make the big league roster; at age 38 coming off a one-year hiatus, the odds are stacked against him. But he’s made the leap of faith, and from the Nationals’ perspective, this a low-risk method of potentially fortifying a questionable rotation. Let’s hope Sánchez earns a proper sendoff to his memorable career. Besides, how could you say no to seeing this pitch again? Meet the cambio to end all cambios:

Maybe it’s because of a global pandemic that warped our sense of time and space, but it seems not too long ago that Velasquez was starting games for the Padr… oh right. That was recent. My bad. Anyhow, the story goes like this: For several years, Velasquez had been a decently effective albeit sporadic starter for the Phillies, but his inconsistencies became all too frequent in the second half of last season, necessitating a move to the bullpen. By August, the Phillies had enough, designating him for assignment, though the Padres soon signed him and slotted him into the rotation after a Blake Snell injury. It didn’t work out, as Velasquez allowed 12 earned runs in 12.3 innings with San Diego, ending his 2021 season on a sour note.

Unlike Sánchez, whose fastball is his greatest weakness, Velasquez is synonymous with his heater. Once upon a time, when he was gazed upon with starry eyes, he tossed a complete-game shutout with 16 strikeouts on the back of his fastball (against the Padres, no less). To this day, it remains a quality pitch even by modern standards. While he doesn’t overwhelm with velocity, he coaxes an elite amount of ride out of his fastball, much to the chagrin of opposing hitters. On a list of fastball swinging-strike rate leaders, he’s ahead of notable names like Tyler Mahle and Dylan Cease, and for good reason.

But also unlike Sánchez, his non-fastballs leave much to be desired. As a direct consequence, Velasquez in his career has allowed a .332 and .330 wOBA the first and second time through the order, respectively, but has crumbled when allowed to face hitters for a third time (.387). One pitch doesn’t cut it no matter how good it may be, and this lack of arsenal depth is the biggest reason why Velasquez has failed to progress past mediocrity.

Therefore, even though he’s been a starter for a large portion of his career, it makes sense for the White Sox to use Velasquez in a bullpen role, or perhaps as a swingman of sorts. The current rotation quintet of Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Cease, Dallas Keuchel, and Michael Kopech is good as it is; additionally, Velasquez’s primary characteristic tracks with Chicago’s own inclination for certain relief arms. Here’s a graph showing the average fastball vertical movement of each team’s bullpen last season. Check out the bar in yellow:

Why did the White Sox ‘pen rank second in WAR last season? It’s partially because they threw the highest rate of four-seamers (50.3%) that came first in average velocity (96.0 mph) and third in vertical movement (8.9”). Velasquez is a bit slower by this standard, but he nevertheless fits the overall mold. With most of its members still on board and the introduction of Joe Kelly, the White Sox are poised to dominate the late innings yet again.

As for how Velasquez can better himself, moving away from the burden of starting means he could stand to simplify his repertoire. His changeup and sinker are easily the weakest links, two extraneous offerings intended to lessen the blow of a third time through the order. The Liam Hendriks blueprint of about 60% fastballs and a mixture of sliders and curveballs seems appropriate here. While Velasquez’s own slider is inconsistent, he’s at least flashed plus command of his curve throughout the years. These aren’t the best options, but they’re the ones at his disposal.

It’s hard to say when a career is over. There’s a moment, for sure, when a player feels at ease with his accomplishments. But more often than not, it’s a question of whether teams are still interested. In Sánchez’s case, this could very well be a final opportunity, one to pitch at the major league level and potentially mentor the upcoming generation of Nationals pitchers. In Velasquez’s case, his days as a starting pitcher might be at a close, but with a fastball not everyone can wield, there’s a reason why the White Sox offered him a contract. While the comeback trail is arduous, there is indeed a path for both right-handers.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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NATS Fanmember
6 months ago

My Nats really do like Anibel Sanchez. I’ve never fully understood why.