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Anibal Sanchez’s home run problem is worse than you think

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It’s bad. Freakishly bad.

Detroit Tigers v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

I have to start this off with a disclaimer: I find Anibal Sanchez fascinating.

He's an intriguing pitcher. A perplexing pitcher. He is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Is he, in fact, Russia? Maybe. (Apologies to Winston Churchill.)

Last year, I saw him strike out everybody except the mailman in a game I took in on a warm summer day in Detroit. And you’ll see flashes of dominance for a few innings, here and there: he will shut down a team. He will own batters. He will make them look foolish. For a while.

And then... the home runs. Oh, those home runs. The turnaround has been nothing short of astounding, as in 2013 he led the American League in home runs per nine innings. Go ahead, read that again. I'll give you a minute.

I don’t need to tell you the following statistics, but I will anyway. Here are his HR/9 numbers since coming to Detroit from the Marlins.

Anibal Sanchez HR/9, 2013-17

Year IP HR/9
Year IP HR/9
2013 182.0 0.45
2014 126.0 0.29
2015 157.0 1.66
2016 153.3 1.76
2017 69.1 2.47

His 2014 stat is even better than his league-leading 2013, but he only had 126 IP in the 2014 season, so he didn’t have enough innings to qualify and overtake the leader, Garrett Richards. Even if you go on pure rate and disregard the low numbers of innings pitched, Sanchez would still have finished second, 0.29 HR/9 to 0.27 for Richards. For the record, Jose Quintana finished second among qualifiers, with 0.45 HR/9.

While Sanchez’s HR/9 has gone up dramatically since his prime, I had a feeling that the situation is actually worse than the above numbers suggest. In 2013, his ERA was 2.57, his FIP was 2.39 and his WHIP was 1.15, so by a lot of measures he was a good pitcher all around. With nine home runs given up amongst the 156 hits he surrendered that season, that means just 5.8 percent of the hits he gave up went for four bases.

As we'll see in a minute, that is good. Very good. Bizarrely good, even for a pitcher who's having an overall good year.

While listening to the Tigers’ radio announcers, Dan Dickerson and Jim Price, during Sanchez’s August 11 start against the Twins —- yes, he gave up two home runs in six innings, thanks for asking — either Dan or Jim remarked that Sanchez seems to have a bizarre talent these days for having his mistakes hit over fences, instead of just hit for singles or doubles. That got me thinking...

Does Sanchez give up an extreme number of home runs per hit that he surrenders? And how does this compare with pitchers who are otherwise having...

  • a good season?
  • a bad season?

To that end, I compiled stats for Sanchez’s entire stay in Detroit, including the partial 2012 season which was split between the Marlins and the Tigers. I calculated the standard HR/9 stat, but also figured out Home Runs Per Hit (HR/H), and saw it worked best as a percentage. I did this for doubles and triples too, but the triples turned out to be not terribly useful as there just aren’t that many of them hit, even pitching at Comerica half the time. The stats for 2017 don’t include the August 11 start wherein Sanchez gave up two home runs in six innings, out of eight hits.

Anibal Sanchez HR/H, 2012-17

Year IP H H/9 HR HR/9 HR/H 2B 2B/H 3B 3B/H
Year IP H H/9 HR HR/9 HR/H 2B 2B/H 3B 3B/H
2012 74.7 81 9.76 8 0.964 9.9% 11 13.6% 1 1.2%
2013 182.0 156 7.71 9 0.445 5.8% 26 16.7% 8 5.1%
2014 126.0 108 7.71 4 0.286 3.7% 27 25.0% 3 2.8%
2015 157.0 152 8.71 29 1.662 19.1% 32 21.1% 3 2.0%
2016 153.3 171 10.04 30 1.761 17.5% 25 14.6% 2 1.2%
2017 69.3 90 11.69 19 2.468 21.1% 17 18.9% 1 1.1%

Here’s where the data tells the real story. If you compare 2013 (arguably his best full season) and 2017 (even though it’s not complete yet), his HR/H is 3.66 times higher this year than in 2013, and his 2B/H is “only” 1.13 times higher. One would think that, if you’re making mistakes, you’re going to have them hit for extra bases — doubles are generally more common than home runs. But, yes, it appears as if his mistakes are turning into souvenirs much more frequently.

The last line in the table above has a number that, frankly, astonished me: 21.1 percent of Sanchez’s hits this year are going out. Put into context, consider a game in which the starter gives up eight hits in six innings. It’s not his best day, but probably not his worst, right? On such a day, if we round up a bit, Anibal Sanchez can expect to give up two home runs. That was his August 11 start, bang-on: six innings, eight hits, two home runs.

As Jim Price might say at this juncture: oy-yoy-yoyyy.

To answer question No. 2 above, I combed through the Tigers’ team pitching stats for the past several full seasons and picked out some that looked particularly good and particularly bad. Some I remembered offhand, some I didn’t.

“Good” Pitching Seasons, HR/H

Pitcher/Year IP H H/9 HR HR/9 HR/H 2B 2B/H 3B 3B/H
Pitcher/Year IP H H/9 HR HR/9 HR/H 2B 2B/H 3B 3B/H
Verlander 2011 251.0 174 6.24 24 0.861 13.8% 31 17.8% 3 1.7%
Verlander 2016 227.7 171 6.76 30 1.186 17.5% 35 20.5% 4 2.3%
Scherzer 2013 214.3 152 6.38 18 0.756 11.8% 36 23.7% 5 3.3%
Scherzer 2014 220.3 196 8.01 18 0.735 9.2% 49 25.0% 2 1.0%
Fulmer 2016 159 136 7.70 16 0.906 11.8% 27 19.9% 1 0.7%
Fister 2013 208.7 229 9.88 14 0.604 6.1% 33 14.4% 3 1.3%

Ah, Doug Fister, what a 2013 you had. Gave up a lot of hits, but kept ‘em in the yard. Even had the lowest percentage of hits that went for doubles in this list, too. Surrendered almost 10 hits per nine innings, but a good chunk of those were singles.

“Bad” Pitching Seasons, HR/H

Pitcher/Year IP H H/9 HR HR/9 HR/H 2B 2B/H 3B 3B/H
Pitcher/Year IP H H/9 HR HR/9 HR/H 2B 2B/H 3B 3B/H
Pelfrey 2016 119.0 160 12.10 15 1.134 9.4% 22 13.8% 3 1.9%
Simon 2015 187 201 9.67 24 1.155 11.9% 47 23.4% 10 5.0%
Verlander 2014 206 223 9.74 18 0.786 8.1% 51 22.9% 9 4.0%
Penny 2011 181.7 222 11.00 24 1.189 10.8% 45 20.3% 6 2.7%
Bonderman 2010 171 187 9.84 25 1.316 13.4% 25 13.4% 8 4.3%
Galarraga 2010 144.3 143 8.92 21 1.310 14.7% 30 21.0% 5 3.5%

Yep, all sorts of unfortunate messes here... you too, Mr. Verlander! I think we can agree that this is a decent list of bad performances. But, compare the HR/H and 2B/H stats for both tables — they’re not too different, are they? I calculated the mean and standard deviation for each group, and I was blown away at how similar they were:

Good vs. Bad Seasons, Mean and SD

Type Mean HR/H SD Mean 2B/H SD
Type Mean HR/H SD Mean 2B/H SD
Good 11.7% 3.9% 20.2% 3.9%
Bad 11.4% 2.5% 19.1% 4.4%

Admittedly my criteria for “good” and “bad” seasons is somewhat eyeball-ish, and the sample size makes the standard deviation a little suspect... but at first blush, those numbers are shockingly similar, aren’t they? I didn’t cherry-pick seasons, either, other than throwing a few into either category. Needless to say, I found this result most surprising.

Doug Fister’s 2013 season looks unusually good. Anibal Sanchez’s 2015-17 stretch looks unusually bad. And Justin Verlander’s MVP season of 2011 looks... well, by this metric it looks alright, but not stellar: He did give up 24 home runs that year. He made his share of mistakes that got hit out. That doesn’t mean he should give the MVP back or anything, of course. When you only give up 6.24 hits per nine innings, that means more of those over-the-fence mistakes are going to be solo shots. Sanchez’s H/9 is almost twice that, so they’re bound to be anything but solo dingers.

In conclusion, I’m not sure if HR/H is worth anything. Obviously it doesn’t tell the whole story, but maybe it adds a little extra dimension — one in which Sanchez appears to be particularly vulnerable.