Anibal Sanchez’s new repertoire features a cutter

Some of the best stories in sports are when veterans turn back the clock and find success. In baseball we see older pitchers tweaking their repertoire and suddenly are back to being relevant. Anibal Sanchez is the latest player that seems to be rejuvenated with Atlanta.

At 34-years of age, he was released by the Minnesota Twins in spring training then quickly signed a minor league deal with the Braves. This move has proved to be a perfect fit for both sides, but much of the credit has been on his ability to adapt and figure out what has worked and what hasn’t. Now in his 13th MLB season, the pitch usage is very different, and the results have been fantastic. We’ll take a look at his last five seasons with Detroit to see how far he’s come.

Year Team IP W L K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP
2013 Tigers 182 14 8 9.99 2.67 0.45 0.307 78.20 2.57 2.39
2014 Tigers 126 8 5 7.29 2.14 0.29 0.277 63.50 3.43 2.71
2015 Tigers 157 10 10 7.91 2.81 1.66 0.278 70.00 4.99 4.73
2016 Tigers 153.1 7 13 7.92 3.11 1.76 0.317 64.70 5.87 5.06
2017 Tigers 105.1 3 7 8.89 2.48 2.22 0.354 67.10 6.41 5.33
2018 Braves 59.2 4 2 8.45 2.87 1.06 0.232 81.50 2.72 3.88

Before Detroit, Anibal Sanchez played seven years with the Miami Marlins compiling a 44-45 record with a respectable 3.75 ERA in 794.1 innings pitched. He was traded to the Tigers in 2012 and decided to stay, signing a five-year, $80 million deal. While the first two years were great, the last three were not. He doesn’t strike out many batters, but has showcased good control as his walks per 9 was under three in four of the past five seasons. He has also seen his ground ball percentage decline each season while his home runs per 9 ratio skyrocketed.

Fast forward to this season and he has a nice 2.72 ERA with his strikeouts per 9 increasing to 8.45. His walks per 9 is 2.87, which is okay, but is up from 2017. Other improvements he has made are to his ground ball rate and home run to fly ball ratio. His GB% has increased back into the 40’s while his HR/FB% has settled back down to the low double digits. We can clearly see how all these factors equal a great rebound season, though the FIP and left on base percentage screams some regression will hit. Let’s see if his plate discipline is that much different from his past seasons.

Year Team O-Swing Z-Swing Swing O-Contact Z-Contact Contact Zone F-Strike SwStr
2013 Tigers 31.60 64.50 46.70 56.00 82.80 73.00 45.80 61.50 12.60
2014 Tigers 33.00 64.80 47.60 70.20 86.60 80.50 45.90 60.30 9.30
2015 Tigers 30.90 63.60 45.40 69.20 85.70 79.40 44.30 65.50 9.30
2016 Tigers 30.30 66.90 46.70 68.50 86.90 80.30 44.70 66.60 9.20
2017 Tigers 28.40 65.10 45.40 61.90 86.80 78.50 46.60 61.40 9.80
2018 Braves 30.60 65.80 45.00 74.70 82.90 79.60 40.80 65.40 9.20

His plate discipline is more of the same until we look at his contact rates. Batters are making less contact in the zone than in previous years. At 82.9%, it’s his lowest since 2013 when he had an 82.8%. Unfortunately, this year he is not throwing in the zone as much as before, and at a rate of only 40.8% – that’s very concerning. Even though he is missing the zone, batters are making more contact with balls off the plate at a career-high 74.7%. Not all contact is equal, but it is interesting if players are making more soft contact outs because of it. To see if he’s made strides in that department we’ll look to his batted ball profile.

Year Team GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB HR/FB IFH Pull Cent Oppo Soft Med Hard
2013 Tigers 1.39 21.90 45.40 32.70 11.60 5.80 5.10 42.80 33.20 24.00 18.20 54.50 27.30
2014 Tigers 1.31 19.50 45.70 34.90 7.00 3.10 8.30 41.20 32.70 26.10 17.90 57.80 24.30
2015 Tigers 1.02 21.00 40.00 39.10 12.70 16.00 3.20 44.90 30.90 24.20 18.60 54.20 27.10
2016 Tigers 0.96 19.10 39.60 41.30 15.50 15.50 5.40 42.90 33.10 24.00 18.30 49.90 31.80
2017 Tigers 0.9 24.70 35.60 39.70 9.60 19.30 9.10 38.60 35.70 25.80 16.80 45.80 37.40
2018 Braves 1.05 16.90 42.50 40.60 7.70 10.80 2.90 40.10 29.60 30.20 24.10 50.00 25.90

Earlier we established ground balls have gone up, but what wasn’t said was that fly balls have also gone up. He’s allowing fly balls at a 40.6% rate which could be trouble. Line drives are down to 16.9%, and what is interesting is that soft contact is up at 24.1%. Hard contact is down to 25.9% so maybe that’s why those fly balls are not turning into home runs. He’s getting fly ball and ground ball outs at almost equal rates, leading us to wonder what he’s throwing to get these results.

Pitch Usage
year team fourseam sinker cutter slider curve change
2013 Tigers 34.80 12.04 0 6.80 22.09 24.27
2014 Tigers 37.19 9.77 0 8.12 23.36 21.38
2015 Tigers 38.72 13.20 5.83 8.52 15.77 17.92
2016 Tigers 40.85 16.56 2.88 8.82 14.22 16.67
2017 Tigers 32.27 17.24 8.41 9.86 11.31 20.85
2018 Braves 27.54 10.27 20.55 9.18 9.95 22.51
Batting Average Against
Year Team fourseam sinker cutter slider curve change
2013 Tigers .224 .360 0 .162 .400 .202
2014 Tigers .262 .143 0 .225 .237 .224
2015 Tigers .292 .168 .289 .278 .255 .226
2016 Tigers .310 .238 .409 .267 .333 .265
2017 Tigers .319 .327 .318 .469 .447 .209
2018 Braves .297 .296 .151 .158 .200 .159

Sanchez’s pitch usage has changed quite a bit, and the biggest pitch for him has been the cutter. He never threw the cutter before 2015 and now it’s at the point where he can throw it confidently. Hitters are batting .151 against the cutter, a big decrease from previous two tires. With the increase, he is now throwing the cutter, fourseam, and changeup in the 20 percentage range while his sinker, curveball, and slider come in at an average of 10 percent. That’s six different pitches that batters have to look out for, but hard to guess what he’ll throw.

Batters are hitting .297 against the fourseam and .296 against the sinker, so he has made an effort to decrease those in favor of better pitches. Velocity is not a concern as he has hovered around 91 MPH for the past two years. Since the start of May he has touched 91 MPH consistently except in one game so that’s good. Without the high velocity he relies on trying to outsmart batters and not blowing past them with heat… and it’s working.

Anibal Sanchez has introduced a new weapon. His cutter is his best pitch and he’s throwing it very often and has decreased his bad pitches. There are some warning signs such as throwing the ball in the zone at a mere 40.8% rate. I’m surprised that his walk rate isn’t higher, but that is also because batters are making contact at balls off the plate at a career-high 74.7% rate. This could also be a reason for his great soft contact rate. His fly ball rate is high so he’ll have to continue inducing soft contact for the balls to stay in the yard.

It’s hard to imagine him keeping his ERA under three, but he looks good out there and perhaps he has figured out what works with his repertoire. Atlanta is a perfect fit and he is on his way to a rebound season.

 

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Jordan Lyn

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