How the mighty have fallen.
Few would recognize Anibal Sanchez as the same man that won an ERA title in 2013. Ever fewer can understand how he is still in the majors, as the Tigers may be the only team in the MLB with a bullpen bad enough that a 9.82 ERA pitcher can remain in the big leagues.
To Sanchez’s credit, his legacy will not be as disgraceful as it seems now. One day, he will be revered for being a strikeout machine that was key component of an AL pennant run.
Perhaps this legacy is one reason why Sanchez is still given opportunities to succeed. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus refuses to believe the 33-year old has nothing left in the tank.
But there is another reason why he remains in the majors. In fact, there are 80 million reasons why. In 2012, Sanchez signed a massive 5-year deal with Detroit, and Ausmus is determined to avoid throwing that money down the drain.
Sanchez’s contract suggested to be worthwhile in 2013, where he recorded an AL leading 2.57 ERA and 202 strikeouts. He also had a solid 2014 with a 3.43 ERA. But it was all downhill from there.
Since 2013, Sanchez lost velocity on his fastball. This is expected as pitchers age, but some are able to make up for it with excellent ball placement and control. But Sanchez has been unable to excel in these regards.
His hanging breaking ball over the plate has scorched the Tigers. His fastball is located in the mid-upper section of the strike zone, and batters have capitalized, hitting an array of homers against the righty. In fact, the amount of home runs given up is really only area in where Sanchez has lost control.
In 2013-14, Sanchez gave up 264 hits. He also gave up 84 walks, along with collecting 304 strikeouts. In 2015-16, Sanchez gave up 323 hits, 102 walks and got 273 strikeouts. Sanchez’s numbers have certainly degraded with time. But these stats do not fully account for an ERA change that went from 2.57 in 2013 to 5.89 in 2016.
That is until you look at the amount home runs given up.
In 2013-14, Sanchez gave up just 13 home runs. But in 2015-16, that number has jumped to a whooping 59. In 126 innings of work in 2014, Sanchez gave up 4 homers. But Sanchez has already surpassed that in 2017, with six home runs given up in merely 14.2 innings.
This is Sanchez’s biggest issue. Statistics show that Sanchez’s fastball has changed location since his golden years. He used to work the ball in the mid-lower region of the strike zone, where he was most comfortable. Lately, they have been higher.
This year, Sanchez’s fastballs continue to be high, but also outside. This is the biggest difference between 2013 and 2017. His fastballs were once reaching 94 mph in the low levels of the strike zone. But now they are 4 mph slower, higher and right at the barrel of the bat. The outcome? A home run-fest.
The Tigers are not giving up on Sanchez. His former dominance combined with a massive contract and lack of new talent keeps him in the bullpen. Sanchez also shows occasional flashes of his old self. In his last four starts in spring training, he gave up only three hits and racked up 15 strikeouts.
Sanchez is also useful in long-term situations. If a starter only lasts a few innings, Sanchez has the stamina to take over a game without depleting the entire bullpen.
That said, much work needs to be done in order to save Sanchez’s career. He wants to prove he is still useful in the major leagues. But every time he fails, his leash gets shorter and shorter. One day, it may snap.
So much of the Tiger’s success in 2017 will be dependent on the bullpen. If they could be so much as decent, the Tigers would be one of the scariest teams in all of baseball.
With this, Ausmus needs to do some serious thinking moving forward regarding Sanchez’s role to give his team the best possible chance at competing for October baseball.