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Tigers’ Anibal Sanchez struggled with runners on base in 2016

Sanchez’s location fell apart when he pitched from the stretch this season.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Anibal Sanchez had one of the most enigmatic seasons in recent history. For large stretches of the games he pitched in, Sanchez had the ability to look highly competent — even dominant at times. Yet, the end result was almost uniformly the same: Sanchez gave up a few runs (or more), and the Tigers took the defeat. How is it possible that he could look so not-bad and yet be so very bad?

Interestingly, Sanchez did not do a poor job of controlling strikeouts or walks. His 2016 strikeout rate was 20.2 percent, which is not eye-popping in today’s world, but it is more than sufficient. For comparison, Michael Fulmer had a strikeout rate of 20.4 percent. Sanchez also did a fair job at keeping runners from walking, too. His 7.9 percent walk rate was right in line with his career averages. By those two peripherals alone, it would seem that he has massive bounceback potential in 2017.

On the other hand, everything in baseball these days comes back to home runs. A pitcher can only survive if they keep the ball in the ballpark, something that Sanchez did not do in 2016. His 1.76 home runs allowed per nine innings trailed just Jered Weaver and James Shields for the worst among all MLB pitchers with 150 innings, marking the second consecutive year he fell into the bottom three of that category. That is not elite company to be in.

Of course, not all home runs are created equal. What’s truly horrifying about Sanchez’s homer problem is that he has a propensity to give them up with runners on base. Fourteen of his 30 home runs allowed this year came with men on, including a whopping seven (!) three-run homers. Teammate Justin Verlander also allowed 30 home runs, but only seven of them came with runners on, and only one was a three-run shot. That alone illustrates the struggle Sanchez has found in getting out of trouble.

A deeper dive into the numbers shows that Sanchez did not just get unlucky with runners on base. He basically became an entirely different pitcher, and not in a good way.

Situation K% BB% HR/9 FIP
Bases empty 22.6 7.8 1.62 4.61
Runners on 16.7 8.2 1.96 5.7
RISP 14.7 7 2.09 6.91

The key to a useful Sanchez is clear: make him better out of the stretch. The first thing to fix is his location. Here is where he threw the ball in 2016 with nobody on base.

Via Baseball Savant

The location is not great here, but there are some encouraging signs. For one, he showed a clear commitment to staying on outside part of the plate against righties, and the inside part against lefties. This makes sense when you consider that Sanchez used his two-seamer and slider each about 15 percent of the time. Those are pitches that you want to get out on the left side of the plate.

It gets a lot worse with runners on base.

Via Baseball Savant

That is essentially a bullseye right where left-handed hitters want the ball. Pitchers will not get away with throwing right there unless they are named Aroldis Chapman.

It didn’t used to be like this, though. Here’s Sanchez’s location with runners on base in 2013.

Via Baseball Savant

Sanchez held opposing batters to a .284 wOBA with runners on base en route to his 2013 ERA title. This clearly would not work with the fastball/slider combo that Sanchez has featured recently, but it worked quite well with his old variety, which included a deadly changeup.

The evidence suggests that Sanchez has made a conscious effort to move away from the middle of the plate and throw inside to lefties, but some sort of hitch in his mechanics prevented him from being effective at doing so from the stretch. Perhaps Sanchez should change his approach in 2017, and when runners are on base he should lean on a pitch that is better thrown on the other half of the plate. The obvious candidate would be to resurrect the old changeup of his past. It is a pitch that has slowly begun to fade from his repertoire over time.

In 2013 Sanchez’s changeup was his most valuable pitch, rating at 12.2 runs above average according to FanGraphs’ pitch values. As all of his other pitches have declined in effectiveness since then, the changeup has remained Sanchez’s only better than average pitch, netting him 0.6 runs in 2016.

The changeup may just be the key to reviving the sinking career of Anibal Sanchez. Hopefully he and pitching coach Rich Dubee work on emphasizing it once more in 2017.