When the Braves added Anibal Sanchez, there wasn’t an expectation for a long-term stint with the team. He was supposed to be a fill-in piece to bridge the gap before Luiz Gohara and/or Mike Soroka were ready to contribute. That is certainly not the case anymore. After a dozen games – and eleven starts – over the season’s first half, Sanchez is giving the Braves a consistent starter in a rotation that sometimes seems to struggle to find consistency.
Will that continue? We’ll loop back to that, but how we got here is the bigger question. When the Braves signed Sanchez, it was after the Twins informed the righty that there wasn’t room on their staff for him. The Twins, by the way, are almost a carbon copy of the Braves as far as starting staffs go so far this year. I just thought that was an interesting tidbit. So, Sanchez came cheaply and without much fanfare.
The lack of interest was due to a career that looked like it was in a steep decline. After two solid seasons with the Tigers – which includes a 17-K game against the Braves in 2013 – Sanchez began to fall off in 2015. His slider, formerly a devastating weapon, became more hittable and less reliable. Without it, his fastball became more vulnerable and his home run rate exploded. He still had a good changeup and a decent curveball, the latter of which kept lefties at bay. But without the slider, Sanchez was getting brutalized by righties.
His fWAR – which had been as high as 6 just two years before – fell to 1.0 in 2015. The next year, the wheels came even more off. He finished with personal highs in FIP, xFIP, and ERA and went into the offseason with a 0.9 fWAR on the year.
In 2017, he tried some new things – including using his cutter, sinker, and changeup more. But the results still looked worse as his ERA ballooned to his worst mark since a six-start 2007. A big reason was that his HR rate skyrocketed to close to 20%. It’s hard to be successful when every fifth flyball becomes a souvenir. Unsurprisingly, the rebuilding Tigers balked at bringing in Sanchez and he landed with the Twins before getting pushed out there. Again, we weren’t all that excited as Braves fans to add Sanchez. He was just another veteran starter to plug a hole during a rebuild. Another Lucas Harrell or Roberto Hernandez.
But two things have happened in 2018. One, nobody told the players on the Braves that this year was supposed to be a rebuild. And two, without Sanchez, that might not have mattered.
In 12 games, including eleven starts, Sanchez is rocking a 2.60 ERA. While his FIP suggests regression, at 3.64, it’s plenty low enough for Sanchez to be a valuable asset. He’s not 2013-esque Anibal, but he’s a good deal better than 2015-17 Anibal and that’s been a Godsend. There are no notable changes in his K% or BB%. He’s given up fewer homers than he did the last couple of years, but it’s right at his career norms.
But it’s been one pitch that has made a world of difference for Sanchez. A few years ago, another pitcher down on his luck – C.C. Sabathia – found a new best friend in the cutter. Sanchez this season has done the same. Sanchez actually introduced the cutter back in 2015, but over three seasons, he used the pitch sparingly – 377 times or around 5% of the time. In 2018, Sanchez has gone to the pitch 204 times – or about 20%. It’s gone from his sixth favorite pitch to his third.
What it’s given him – more than anything – is finally a new weapon against righties. I mentioned earlier that his slider, one of his best pitches during his prime, is no longer a pitch he can rely on. Enter the cutter, which is also vastly improved. Hitters were slugging over .500 against it coming into 2018. Now? They are managing a .233 slugging – third lowest among his six pitches. Sanchez can also use the pitch with effectiveness against lefties, which makes his curveball even better as he doesn’t have to flash it too often.
The results are simply in the numbers. In terms of quality of contact, Sanchez’s soft-hit rate on balls put into play is nearly 24%. It’s been over 20% just once in his career (discounting an injury-riddled season). In terms of exit velocity, the average has trickled down 3 mph with a launch angle of 5 degrees closer to the ground. As a result, his hard-hit rate is 10% lower than it was in 2017. After finishing 2017 with a .380 opposing wOBA – in the bottom 3% of baseball – his opposing wOBA this season is .275. That’s not far off the expected wOBA of .293.
A Little More About the Cut Fastball
Mariano Rivera made a career out of throwing the cutter and it’s only grown in popularity in recent years. Guys like Roy Halladay and Dan Haren swore by it. More recently, Kenley Jansen has made millions of the pitch. But for guys like Sabathia and Sanchez, who came to the pitch later in their careers, why does help to create such a big difference in the quality of contact?
Sabathia learned the pitch from former Yankee Andy Pettitte. Like Sanchez, it took Sabathia a few years to grow both confident and super successful with the pitch. And there’s a reason for that and it’s why not everyone utilizes the cutter – it’s a difficult pitch to master. Certainly, any new pitch is, but the cutter appears more difficult than most pitches. Sabathia took two seasons to learn the pitch before changing his style completely in 2016. The result on contact that is graded Soft was immediate. Sabathia was around 16% from 2012-15 in soft contact. Since utilizing the cutter as one of his go-to pitches three years ago, his soft rate jumped 8%.
Before statcast and other data showed us otherwise, stat guys pushed a belief that a pitcher only really had a lot of control over the famed three true outcomes – walks, strikeouts, homers. But we know now that a pitcher can have some element of control when it comes to quality of contact. It depends, of course, on the selection of options a pitcher has to throw and their effectiveness with that pitch. A cutter, especially a good one, has a tendency to generate a lot of weak contact based on late movement. It’s difficult to suggest that the results are repeatable, though many pitchers have sustained higher rates of weak contact who also throw a cutter.
For the Rest of 2018
Can Sanchez’s success continue? Well, maybe not to this elite level. There are a few red flags suggesting regression. I mentioned FIP, but his BABIP is .240 – sixty full points below his career average. Even in his best years, he was rocking a .270-.310 BABIP. Of course, getting a lot of softly hit balls will affect that mark, but it would reasonable to assume that his BABIP will climb. On the other hand, his LOB% of 81.4% should decline a tad moving forward – closer to his 72% career rate. That will push his ERA up.
But don’t get your “sell high” trade ideas working just yet. Even if he does regress some, that’s not to say he won’t be productive. I’ve talked enough about the cutter and the wrench it throws into the idea of focusing on career numbers for expected regression. Sanchez has never induced this level of weak contact and if that’s sustainable, it might help explain a lower BABIP. One more thing – the defense is really good and I went over that recently. That will help his marks moving forward. And finally, it’s not like the Braves don’t need Sanchez right now. He’s fourth on the team in pitcher fWAR behind Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, and Dan Winkler. He’s been better than “trusty vets” like Brandon McCarthy and Julio Teheran and more consistent than young arms like Max Fried and Luiz Gohara.
To tie this together, the smart money is that Sanchez will see some regression in the second half, but that regression could be minimal and Sanchez is the Braves’ best starter behind their two top young guns in Folty and Newk. That might not be the case for the entire second half, but for now, you gotta ride with your best-performing arms.