Remember the good old days when Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer were dominating in the same starting rotation? Unfortunately, those times are long gone for the Detroit Tigers and their fans, but the Washington Nationals might be trying to rekindle some of that magic. The Nats agreed to a two-year contract with Sanchez on Thursday, according to a report from Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press.
The Nats will pay Sanchez $19 million over those two seasons, a price that rankled some of their fans. Not only is Sanchez a bit of a regression candidate, but he is actually more expensive than righthander Tanner Roark was projected to be in his final year of arbitration. Roark was traded to the Cincinnati Reds last week, presumably because of his pending 2019 salary obligations. Roark, 32, is nearly three years younger than Sanchez, and has comparable stats over the past two seasons.
Sanchez earned his new contract thanks to a stellar 2018 season with the Atlanta Braves. He only made three starts in April and May, but was able to lock down a spot in the Braves’ rotation in June. He stayed hot all year long, managing a 2.83 ERA in 136 2⁄3 innings before he was knocked around a bit in his only postseason start.
Sanchez’s peripheral numbers weren’t quite as flashy as the sub-3.00 ERA, but he was still a well above-average pitcher He maintained solid strikeout and walk numbers yet again — something he was even able to do in his worst years in Detroit — but finally figured out how to cut back on the home runs allowed. This helped him manage a 3.62 FIP and 3.81 xFIP in 25 appearances, good enough for 2.4 fWAR.
One of the big reasons for this massive improvement? A change in his pitch mix. Brandon dove deeper into Sanchez’s 2018 season earlier this winter.
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.
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.
It’s tough to say how sustainable Sanchez’s newfound ability to miss barrels will be. His two-seam fastball was a problem for his final three years in Detroit — he mysteriously used it more from 2015 to 2017 than he had from 2012 to 2014 — but he dropped that while throwing his cutter nearly three times as often last season.
The result? Sanchez’s highest ground ball rate since 2014, which also happened to be the last time he managed an ERA under 4.99.
Sanchez could also benefit from pitching in Washington’s top-heavy rotation. While the 5 2⁄3 innings he averaged per start in 2018 were a big improvement from his 2017 numbers, he is still a ways off from the 6 1⁄3 frames (or so) that he averaged during his heyday with the Tigers. Washington’s bullpen was only a middle-of-the-road outfit last year — they may not strand as many runners as Atlanta’s ‘pen was able to for Sanchez in 2018 — but they might be at their strongest on days Sanchez starts. Thanks to the three-headed monster atop that Nationals rotation, the bullpen should be well-rested when Sanchez and [insert fifth starter here] take the mound.
Is it a lot of money? Yeah, I think so, especially for a team still presumably in the hunt to retain Bryce Harper’s services for the next decade. But whether Harper returns or not, the Nationals have other holes on their roster to fill. If Sanchez has figured things out yet again, he’s a decent bet to provide some quality innings for a Washington ballclub still looking for postseason glory.