Desperation and innovation are often intertwined. For anyone tasked with maintaining a very high level of skill in any endeavor, making major changes is a terrifying proposition. In baseball, when a player starts over, it’s often when they’re at their lowest point, as in the case of J.D. Martinez, for example. After two years of tinkering with his mechanics, and continuing to give up home runs like party favors, Anibal Sanchez seems to have finally embraced the need for a real change. The problem is that it’s probably too late for him to turn things around.
Over the past week, after an atrocious series of spring outings, Sanchez and Tigers’ pitching coach, Rich Dubee, talked about a new set of adjustments they’re working on. There appear to be two parts to these changes. The first, involves adapting Sanchez’ secondary pitches to better fit his diminished velocity with the fastball. According to Dubee, Sanchez needs to take a little more velocity off his slider and changeup to recreate his old velocity gaps.
“The biggest part is, he has to understand he probably doesn’t have 94-95 anymore,” Dubee said. “I haven’t seen it yet, so I don’t know if it will ever come back. But he’s got to create more separation between his pitches.”
This makes perfect sense in theory. Typically, wider gaps between these pitches make them much harder to adjust to mid-swing. There’s also less chance of a hitter guessing fastball and still managing to catch a piece of a slower pitch if the gap in velocity is increased. Sanchez is on board with Dubee’s ideas.
"He sees something that I needed, an adjustment that I have to make to continue pitching," Sanchez said. "He saw something, and we're working on that, and I'm trusting in everything he's saying right now."
The problem, is that all the evidence we have suggests that Sanchez has already done this, with no resultant success.
The pitches in question were actually well separated in 2016. Sanchez’ velocity with both the slider and changeup sat near 84 mph last season. With his fastball, Sanchez averaged just under 92 mph. That difference, around eight miles per hour, was basically the same as it was in Sanchez’ best years in Detroit. Generally speaking, the velocity on his pitches has mirrored his fastball throughout two seasons of misery.
As Dubee claims, Sanchez has to accept that his fastball velocity isn’t coming back. In that case, taking a little more off the slider and changeup will be in order. Sanchez’ secondary pitches have been the real source of the home run problem that has plagued him. But the velocity differentials seem unlikely to have been the issue these past two seasons. Command and movement seem closer to the crux of the home run problem. But perhaps the key here, is that he’s unable to set hitters up with the fastball the way he used to.
When most of us think of the classic Anibal Sanchez’ fastball, it’s typically a sinking two-seamer, or a four-seam fastball with some run into a right-handed hitter. But that hasn’t been the case in recent years. In fact, Sanchez’ fastball has largely been a straight pitch with quality rise. The two-seam still has some run on it, but the four-seam has almost none.
And yet Sanchez has used the four-seam far more of the two varieties. And even with his two-seam version, there is no “sink” to be found, and Sanchez’ groundball rate has declined in concert with his velocity. What once may have worked as late action at higher velocities, just doesn’t seem to get the same groundball rates any longer.
We suggested last year that he may just have to adopt more of a high fastball approach to succeed with that heavy four-seam profile, and he did so to a degree, but it didn’t help him avoid getting crushed when he went to his secondary pitches. You can also see that of all fastballs Sanchez threw in the strike zone, the highest amount in any quadrant went right through the heart of the plate. Not good.
The real oddity, is that the overall movement on Sanchez’ fastballs hasn’t changed all that much. And yet even a casual observer can see that he doesn’t have the same bite that he once did. The ball just isn’t moving off the barrel the way it used to. Presumably, Sanchez, as you’d expect, has lost some spin along with the velocity. The total movement is the same, but it’s only because the pitches are moving more slowly to the plate. Unfortunately we don’t have spin rate data from Sanchez’ prime years to compare.
It’s possible that Sanchez’ spin rate and movement on his pitches played differently to the eye at higher velocity, and perhaps move too early now without the initial velocity to keep the ball straight further into its flight. Unfortunately we don’t have the same amount of data going back to his prime years to investigate such changes over time. What we can say, using Baseball Prospectus’ pitch tunneling metrics, is that Sanchez’ pitches still have more late movement than average. However they look less similar to one another coming out of his hand than average. Hitters may well just be getting an early read on what he’s throwing based on his release point varying too much from pitch to pitch.
Dubee and Sanchez’ second change, is to move Sanchez’ arm slot further from his head, both in the hopes of getting better extension and, presumably, to add more horizontal run to his fastballs. This is similar to the work Dubee and Matt Boyd put in last season in lowering his arm slot. But all pitchers are different, to say nothing of the age difference, and while Boyd saw increased velocity and more horizontal movement, the odds of things working so well for Sanchez are slim. A little more extension will get the ball on the hitter more quickly, but by such a small margin it’s hard to say it will make a difference. Perhaps the best hope is that the delivery changes make his pitches less recognizable out of his hand, and help improve his command.
When a good pitcher starts having a single, identifiable issue, there are usually solutions. We prefer to focus on one key in previewing players, and yet it’s just impossible in Sanchez’ case. He’s had issues upon issues. Instead of correcting one mistake, he’s trying to piece together adjustments to his rhythm, mechanics, command, and all four of his primary pitches. Plenty of pitchers are more successful with less pure stuff than Sanchez still has at his disposal. But command and deception make up for a lot, and on those fronts, Sanchez appears thoroughly lost.
Sanchez has already tinkered with his delivery heavily in recent years, without any noticeable change in results. It’s very difficult to believe anything will make a difference now. It’s also disconcerting that, after a full offseason, Sanchez and Dubee are just now embarking on another set of changes. Clearly, whatever the plan was for offseason work, it didn’t help matters. The Tigers have less than three weeks to see if anything clicks in a sustainable way for Sanchez. With the Tigers facing an extremely difficult decision whether or not to release him, and the $21 million still owed to him, it’s just as difficult to know what outcome to root for.