Who was that pitcher and what did he do with Anibal Sanchez? That is the question surrounding the mind of every Detroit Tigers fan after the Tigers defeated the Cleveland Indians 7-4 on the first game of a doubleheader Saturday afternoon.
Sanchez pitched 6.1 innings, surrendering one earned run in the third inning following a Jason Kipnis sacrifice fly. He conceded two more in the seventh with a Lonnie Chisenhall RBI, who then came to score from a Carlos Santana home run given up by relief pitcher Daniel Stumpf.
Since recalled from AAA Toledo, Sanchez’s ERA is down to 3.16, an enormous step up his 9.82 ERA in April and 7.11 ERA in May out of the bullpen.
But what exactly happened to Sanchez? His numbers have steadily declined for years. Most Tigers fans thought they’d seen the last of him since he was sent down to the minors in May. Yet when the Tigers shipped SP Buck Farmer back to AAA in late June, it was Sanchez who once again received the opportunity at the next level.
Except this time, he wasn’t going to be coming out of the pen. He had to start. If he did not make some serious improvements, the Tigers might as well have penciled in every fifth game as a loss.
But somehow, Sanchez did make improvements. He’s nobody’s ace, but the last three games suggest that he may be able to hold down a spot in the Tigers’ rotation that neither Farmer nor Matt Boyd could secure.
Sanchez’s biggest downfall in recent memory is giving up the home run. In his glory years, Sanchez could venture an entire season allowing less than ten homers. But lately, his home run total has skyrocketed to about 30 per year. This is the biggest factor that lead to an ERA hike of 2.92 from 2013-2014 to 5.42 from 2015-2016.
So what has Sanchez done differently to cut down on the homers? According statistics from Brooks Baseball, one big factor is changing the way he uses his curveball.
Over the past couple seasons, Sanchez threw his curveball 9 percent of the time. But against righties, his curveball hung over the heart of the plate resulting in right-handed batters homering Sanchez’s curveball nearly three percent of the time he threw it. To put this in perspective, a good percentage would be under one.
Since returning, Sanchez has all but abandoned his curveball against right-handed batters. Against lefties, he’s managed to keep it low. He’s also slowed down his curveball, as he has with many of his breaking balls and off-speed pitches, causing a medley of early swings and misses.
The same is true for Sanchez’s fastball. In his prime, his fastball was typically in the low section of the strike zone. But over the years, it has soared higher and away, placing it right at the barrel of the bat. Since returning, he managed to keep his fastball down and inside, tying up batters while also showing the control to move around his heater, nailing every crevice of the strike zone.
Sanchez is also relying more heavily on his cut fastball. For his first two starts, he slowed it down by 4 mph. It also moved about five inches less vertically. With this, Sanchez better disguised his cutter and used the element of trickery to his advantage. He can also go upstairs with it for a brilliant strikeout pitch.
On Sanchez’s Saturday start, his cutter looked fairly typical to the way it did earlier this year, with higher speed and more vertical movement. But his control was much better. He crowded it inside batters and avoided throwing it right down the middle.
Most importantly, Sanchez has emphasized in all three starts his ability to bring the cutter into his regular pitch rotation.
Sanchez does not have the velocity to blow away hitters. But when he plays the way he has for the last three games, he can effectively deal six different pitches including the four seam fastball, sinker, changeup, slider, curveball and cutter.
This gives Sanchez the ability to keep hitters guessing. He uses disguise and deception to craft his trade.
This is the biggest key for Sanchez moving forward. Hitters will eventually learn his new trends and find ways to use it against him. This is why Sanchez must constantly update his strategy, as his entire game is surrounded by deceiving the hitter.
For Sanchez, pitching is a mind game. At 33, he cannot rely on sheer force and power to get the job done. But he does have experience, which he must continually use to keep himself one step ahead of the batter. His ability to do this will likely determine if he can remain in the Tigers’ rotation for the remainder of the season.