We've reached that most regrettable of points in the baseball season: bold prediction time. I feel obliged to chime in with one of my own that, while not terribly bold, you can all yell at me about if it doesn't pan out. If Anibal Sanchez is healthy, the Tigers will win the AL Central.
So far this spring, things had looked decidedly uninspiring on that front. Sanchez suffered a mild triceps strain early in camp, and with just two weeks left until Opening Day, had yet to make an appearance on the mound. Having watched last season, as Justin Verlander's muscle strain went from a short-term issue to a 10-week stay on the disabled list, Tigers fans can be easily forgiven for wringing their hands over reports that Sanchez's injury appeared of a less dire variety. Some relief finally arrived on Monday. The simple fact that Sanchez was able to take a spring training start so soon is a good sign that, at least so far, his arm is healthy and ready to go.
Even better, Sanchez tossed four innings of no-hit ball right out of the gate, racking up three strikeouts to one walk. While he faced one of the worst lineups in the game, his work on Monday was better than anyone had a right to expect. He appeared to have good command of his fastball, and Dan Dickerson and Jim Price were audibly relieved and impressed during the radio broadcast. But there's a long way to go until the fanbase starts feeling confident in the 32-year-old right-hander.
The angle in the video is about as poor as it gets, so make what you will of the footage. All that can be said is that his fastball appears to have good life, and the alteration Sanchez and pitching coach Rich Dubee are making to his delivery is apparent. As Sanchez explained, their goal is to limit the over-rotation of his shoulders that plagued him in 2015. The success of that change may have ramifications for his effectiveness, and for the health of his shoulder.
One of the main features of Sanchez's disastrous 2015 campaign was a seemingly unending supply of pitches left up in the zone. A pitcher who had allowed just 13 home runs total over the previous two seasons, saw that number skyrocket to an obscene tally of 29 bombs in just 157 innings. No one in baseball gave up more. In concert with that damage, was a distinct drop in the percentage of ground balls Sanchez induced. From totals just over 45 percent over most of his career, his ground ball percentage fell to just 40 percent in 2015.
The reasons for this are something of a chicken or the egg scenario. Over-rotating one's upper body is a recipe for leaving balls up in the strike zone. As a pitcher who depends on his ability to spot his full complement of pitches low in the zone and on the corners, consistently turning too far back makes it difficult for Sanchez' arm to catch up to his leg drive. As a result he often couldn't get on top of the ball the way he needs to in order to release it on a downward angle. Whether that issue in his delivery exacerbated his shoulder problems, or whether the reverse was true, will bear on how effective the adjustment is for Sanchez.
Sanchez and Dubee believe that by limiting his shoulder rotation and shifting his weight more cleanly along a line between second base and home plate, he'll also alleviate some of the stress on his throwing shoulder. Doing so should allow him to drive to the plate more effectively, throwing from a higher angle and on a more consistent downward plane. On Monday, that work was in fine effect, as Sanchez induced nothing but ground balls to the eight Phillies who put the ball in play against him.
The ramifications of this adjustment to his delivery are extremely important, both in terms of Sanchez's health and effectiveness. The Tigers appear to have the clear advantage in offensive firepower over the AL Central Division. Even the ongoing concerns over Victor Martinez don't change the fact that the Tigers should be one of the better offenses in the game. But, when one looks at the starting rotations teams like the Chicago White Sox and particularly the Cleveland Indians will be rolling out this season, the Tigers' will need a healthy and effective Sanchez in order to keep pace in that department. So far, so good.