Anibal Sanchez left Detroit without much fanfair after the 2017 season as one of the last remnants of better times for the franchise. Always overshadowed by Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, Sanchez played a vital role in the rotation during the team’s heyday from 2012 to 2014. He was the diabolical off-speed pitch between the power stuff of Detroit’s two aces, the favorite of his infielders, who sauntered around the diamond profiling on a steady diet of routine ground balls. The intervening years were unkind to memory, but at his best, Sanchez was one of the elite pitchers in the game when the Tigers needed him most.
Had the Tigers won a World Series in those years, perhaps the decline years of his somewhat burdensome contract would have sat more easily with the fanbase. Instead, frustration and anger gave way to downright apathy during the righthander’s final three seasons in Detroit.
The issue for Sanchez was a common one for pitchers in those years. Starting in July 2015, home run rates across Major League Baseball spiked dramatically, and only finally leveled off in 2018. As hitters started to put the ball in the air more often to take advantage of a seemingly juiced baseball, sinkerballers, who had ruled the first half of the decade, went into a modest decline.
Still, Sanchez continued to throw his sinker. He did this despite plummeting ground ball rates and balls leaving the yard at an alarming rate. As early as 2016, we identified the sinker as the main source of his woes. We hypothesized that Sanchez would do better simply ditching that pitch in favor of more high four-seam fastballs. The change never came, and he suffered through the worst season of his career in 2017, allowing a frightening 2.22 home runs per nine innings. The situation couldn’t have been much worse as Sanchez entered free agency.
The Atlanta Braves acquired Sanchez on a minor league deal in late March after the 2017-2018 offseason cold war started to thaw. He was just filler, an arm to throw middle relief and perhaps make an occasional spot start at best. Sanchez got out to a nice start, and then went down with a hamstring strain. The sense that he was just too snakebitten by wear and tear to ever be effective again was palpable.
Yet somehow, Sanchez completely flipped the script from that point on. He seized a starting role in June and was effective all summer long as he helped power the Braves to an NL East title. It was a stunning reversal from a 34-year-old pitcher nearly everyone had given up on.
Sanchez’s key to success
Put simply, Sanchez figured out a way to induce ground balls again. His ground ball rate was at 45 percent for the first time since 2014. He hadn’t topped 40 percent once in the previous three seasons. He kept the ball out of the air, and finally got the home runs under control as a result.
Specifically, Sanchez altered his pitch mix. His finally went away from the sinker, and largely shelved his curveball and slider as well. He used his cutter in their place, and along with a four-seam and his lethal changeup, went out and dominated the National League. In particular, both his slow 70 mile-per-hour changeup and mid-80s split-finger fastball were unhittable.
Seriously, check out the slow change (at 68 mph at 00:22 of this video).
Sanchez was finally able to smother the hard contact that had characterized his recent seasons. The change was striking. He allowed an average exit velocity of just 83.7 mph off the bat. No starting pitcher in the major leagues posted a lower number in 2018. He kept hitters off balance all season, and allowed less hard contact than any starter in baseball.
Moving to the National League — where he didn’t face designated hitters, and where hitters weren’t familiar with him — was probably a contributing factor, but Sanchez spun 136 1⁄3 innings with a 2.83 ERA. He was undeniably good for the final four months of the season.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that teams will be clamoring for his services this offseason. The velocity on Sanchez’s fastball held steady at 91 mph, but this is still an older pitcher with a very shaky track record of both health and success over the last four years. A final decline is imminent, and the question is whether a team can squeeze another good season or two out of him.
It doesn’t seem impossible that the Braves would bring him back on a one-year deal. On the other hand, MLB Trade Rumors predicts that Sanchez will sign with the San Francisco Giants for two years and $22 million. That seems a bit excessive, but a team with a pitcher’s park who fully buys into the weak contact Sanchez generated this year might be willing to go that far.
Are the Tigers interested?
We don’t know, but maybe they should be. The organizational fit is probably still a good one. Relations between the Tigers and Sanchez never seemed strained beyond frustration with his performance. He still fits their needs, albeit at a more palatable price than they paid the first time around. The question is whether he could bring the success he found in Atlanta back to Detroit.
The Tigers have a core of three starters right now. Jordan Zimmermann, Matthew Boyd, and Michael Fulmer will all start the season in the rotation. Daniel Norris will join them as long as his spring goes well. That leaves at least one spot to fill with a free agent, something Al Avila has all but confirmed to the media already.
The Tigers have some decent young starters in Spencer Turnbull and Kyle Funkhouser at the Triple-A level, and they too will get their chances in 2019. Other candidates may present themselves later in the year as the Tigers’ crop of young pitching prospect ripens. But for the time being, they need at least one inexpensive starter on a short-term deal to give them innings, and Sanchez makes as much sense as Mike Fiers did a year ago.
With their payroll at its lowest level this decade, it’s certainly reasonable to hope that the Tigers go after a starter with a little more upside than Sanchez this offseason. From Sanchez’s perspective, he seems likely to look to sign with a club that can contend, potentially with the security of a two-year deal. However, a reunion could still function as a decent backup plan for both parties should demand for his services fall a little short of what he expects. If Sanchez goes unsigned well into the new year, the Tigers should probably get in touch.