Before the 2016 season got underway, if you had to pick two things the Tigers needed to catch a break on, most would have chosen the health and success of Anibal Sanchez and Victor Martinez. Fortunately, Martinez has been superb, and once again an absolute pleasure to watch hit. But while Sanchez has been basically healthy, he's also been horrendous.
An Anibal Sanchez start these days too often ends not just with a whimper, but with a bang. Once Sanchez gets beyond 70 pitches, he's a ticking time bomb. Whether he simply tires sooner than he used to, or his stuff has been diluted by time, once hitters have seen him twice they hit him like batting practice.
Sanchez has shown improvements in his recent starts, but not enough to pitch the way the Tigers need him to. Meanwhile, the season is already uncomfortably close to the breaking point. The Tigers have problems offensively that should fix themselves, but something is going to have to change in the starting rotation for the Tigers.
Is there hope Sanchez can improve?
We don't know right now if Sanchez's work on his mechanics will eventually find better results. But so far his performance has been a mirror image of his disastrous 2015 campaign. The one notable exception is his walk rate, which I can buy as the one place where Sanchez can make a big improvement. A seven walk outing against the Oakland A's in late April is still skewing the numbers there. But even throwing that out, his command of the strikezone is still only a part-time thing.
When a pitcher's mechanics are wildly inconsistent, it's particularly difficult to predict whether his results will improve. Fundamentally, since his late season injury in 2014, Sanchez gets fewer groundballs, and gives up way more home runs than his did during his 2010-2014 prime. The days of 45 percent groundball rates appear to be gone for good. Sanchez was consistently one of the best starters in the game at suppressing home runs, but now we're two seasons into a complete collapse of that ability.
There is some evidence that groundball pitchers just don't age as well as those who induce a lot of flyballs. Perhaps the strain of throwing to the bottom of the zone more often is worse for the shoulder or elbow. It's also possible that pitchers tend to move toward a two-seam/sinker, groundball-hunting approach as their stuff declines. Causation is hard to prove. Either way, Sanchez's "sinker" doesn't sink like it used to. In fact, he gets more spin on it than his four-seam or cut fastballs.
As a result, the bottom of the zone, both in and out of the strikezone, is now a death trap for Sanchez. This is not the profile of a guy with a great sinker who gets a ton of groundballs. Instead the elevated fastballs are actually producing better results.
So, there are a lot of things working against hope that Sanchez can find his way back to his old approach. Without a lot more groundballs, it's hard to see how his home run rate is going to decline enough to be the guy the Tigers need this season. And if you pitch to the bottom of the zone, but don't have the movement to get groundballs anymore, you're going to give up home runs by the bushel to the army of low-ball hitting thumpers in the league. Sanchez can certainly be better without a radical change, and repeated reps with his new delivery give something to cling to for hope. But, a change in his approach seems warranted if he's ever going to be a legitimately above-average starter again.
Put the rising fastball to work
Perhaps, what really needs to happen is for Sanchez to stop thinking of himself as a groundball pitcher. He's simply not able to work at the bottom of the zone the way he used to with his two-seamer. It still has good tailing movement, but it's not the groundball machine it was several years ago. I also can't help wondering, though proof will take time, if the proposed raising of the strike zone next season isn't already having an effect on umpiring, making things even tougher for groundball heavy pitchers. Getting the low strike called is not a strength of the Tigers' catcher corps.
I wouldn't call the above charts definitive evidence, but those low inside pitches to right-handed hitters from 2014 are scarce nowadays. Sanchez inconsistent command makes it tough to say whether we're seeing intent or inaccuracy, however.
Sanchez's four-seam fastball has good vertical movement. It's pretty straight, but it "rises" 10-11 inches on average. That is borderline elite rising action, and, were Sanchez to start using the four-seamer high in, or above, the strike zone more regularly, he might be able to augment the groundballs with more weak flyballs and give hitters much more to think about at the plate. At this point, even Sanchez two-seamer registers solid rising action, and that is not good at all for a guy trying to paint the bottom of the strikezone.
If he could start adapting to a new identity as more of a balanced groundball/flyball pitcher, and combine that with his diverse array of breaking balls and changeups, perhaps he can yet find new life. Changing a hitter's eye level to watch for high fastballs may make his secondary offerings more effective as well. There's also the possibility that a bit less strain on his shoulder could help him hold up just a little deeper into games, while getting him a few more quick outs.
The Detroit Tigers don't have a whole lot of time, nor margin of error left this season before a major change in the starting rotation is going to be necessary. Anibal Sanchez' next few starts are likely to be the deciding factor in that calculus. A pitcher with his track record deserves time to try and sort it out. If he can, perhaps the need for less side sessions and bullpen work will give him a bit of a boost of in-game stamina. But there is plenty of evidence now to suggest that Anibal Sanchez isn't going to succeed the way he used to. It seems an ideal time to try something new.