Anibal Sanchez got absolutely mauled by the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday night. Three consecutive home runs in the third inning led to his night ending in the fourth. For a pitcher who's been among the top starters in the game the previous two seasons, it's been a shocking start to the 2015 campaign. And quite obviously it's been the home run ball that has cost Sanchez over the first quarter of the season.
Sanchez has now allowed nine home runs this season, the same amount he allowed in his entire 2013 campaign combined. Even odder, six of them have come from right-handed hitters. Sanchez has allowed a .293 average / .301 OBP/ .525 slugging line against right-handed hitters this year. While he's always been a pitcher with even splits, this is just an astounding amount of damage coming from the right side of the plate.
When a pitcher gives up these kinds of crooked numbers, there are all sorts of potential concerns. Has his stuff declined? Has his pitch selection changed drastically? Is he nursing an injury, or tipping his pitches?
Sanchez is throwing his fastball a bit more than he did last year, and his velocity is down a bit, as well, about an average of a single mile-per-hour. That's not much, especially early in the year and doesn't give off any warning signs that his shoulder issues last season are still bothering him. Likewise we've seen nor heard nothing to indicate that as a potential problem. The movement and velocity on his repertoire of pitches is very much in line with what we've seen throughout his two and a half years in a Tigers uniform. Likewise, he's posting his usual excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio. There's nothing to indicate that his arsenal is the problem.
Where things are going very wrong is his control. His dramatically reduced ground-ball rate is a key indicator of the main issue he's having. He isn't consistently keeping the ball down, particularly with runners on base, and not only is that wasting the dramatically improved Tigers' infield defensive, it's getting Sanchez crushed. If you can stand it, take a look at those three home runs by the Brewers, and focus on where catcher Bryan Holaday is calling for the ball as compared to where it's actually thrown.
The reason he's giving up these home runs is plain as day. He's badly missing his spots over the plate and right at the top of the strike zone. All three of Tuesday's home run balls came on pitches that were supposed to be low, or even at the bottom of the strike zone, and all three instead were thrown belt-high and over the heart of the plate. They ended up in the seats as a result. Looking back over several of the other home runs allowed by Sanchez, the story is much the same.
Detroit Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones have both spoken several times about the mechanical issue plaguing Sanchez' delivery. With terms like "spinning out" or "hurrying his delivery", essentially they're describing the same thing. As he delivers a pitch, Sanchez is getting his torso turned to the left and down nearly horizontal to the ground more quickly than the delivery we're familiar with. The difference is slight to the eye, but does show up in his release point and results. Unfortunately, in a dynamic throwing motion requiring a superbly timed chain of movements, that small exaggeration leaves his throwing arm lagging behind. He's unable to throw the ball on the downward plane he intends. Pitchers and coaches often speak of "getting on top of the ball" to throw it accurately and with power. When Sanchez hangs one like the examples above, he's essentially too far ahead of his own arm to pull the ball down, and instead is blocking his arm motion with the pull of his upper body.
One of the causes of his delivery getting out of sync may be pitching from the stretch, as Ausmus mentioned in his post-game press conference. The shortened delivery used with runners on base can cause a pitcher to get ahead of his arm. When you compare Sanchez's line with no one on base, .212/.262/.364, to his line with men on base, .346/.391/.603, there certainly is an issue there. Most pitchers are worse with runners on, but not to this degree, and Sanchez has typically been much better than average with runners on base in recent years. Last year he allowed a .636 OPS in those situations. But even from his full wind-up Sanchez is allowing more home runs than normal, even though his other numbers look solid.
Knowing what's going wrong is the first step to fixing it. However, the Tigers identified this issue a month ago and it's still not something Sanchez has been able to correct consistently. What makes it extra frustrating is the fact that with the defensive improvements the Tigers' have installed, Sanchez should be having a banner year. No one on the Tigers' staff is better suited to take advantage, and I still expect that he will. But right now, the Tigers' have a real problem on their hands and there's nothing to do but hope that it's resolved soon.