On Thursday, the Washington Nationals and free agent right-hander Anibal Sanchez reached an agreement on a two-year, $19 million contract with a club option for 2021. The 34-year-old bolsters the back-end of a star-studded rotation, which features Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and offseason prize Patrick Corbin at the top.
Sanchez essentially replaces Tanner Roark, who was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds last week. On its face, this looks like a typical move by a team trying to bolster its rotations in the hopes of returning to the National League postseason. With Sanchez, it’s much more than that.
Anibal Sanchez should probably be out of Major League Baseball. Entering 2018, it looked like he would soon hang up his cleats and call it quits on a long, successful career. With the Detroit Tigers, Sanchez saw his season ERA get higher and higher until the Tigers declined his club option and bought out his contract after the 2017 season.
After leading the American League in ERA in 2013, posting a 2.57 mark in a 14-8 season during which he finished fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting, Sanchez fell rapidly, having progressively worse seasons as time went on. In 2014, he saw his ERA rise to a still respectable 3.43, then a 4.99 mark in 2015, then a 5.87 average in 2016, and an absurd 6.41 ERA in 2017, his last season in Detroit.
The Tigers tried to extract value from the vet by moving him to the bullpen, and even down to the minor leagues, but the results were no better. In 2017, a season he described as a “roller coaster,” Sanchez developed intense hamstring trouble that landed him on the disabled list, and also got nailed with a batted ball.
His career should have been over, and an exclamation point on the case for giving up was his early spring training performance. After the Minnesota Twins inked him to a minor-league contract, the club released him after acquiring Lance Lynn late in the offseason; Sanchez had allowed six runs on five hits in his two spring training starts with Minnesota. Not good, Bob.
Yet, the Atlanta Braves gave him a shot. A minor-league contract with an invite to major-league spring training was the offer, and Sanchez agreed. At the time, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said the move was “Just to get a look and see where he’s at…who knows, he might make our club.”
Sanchez ran with the opportunity, made the club with force, and excelled all through 2018. The righty finished the season at 7-6 with a team-leading 2.83 ERA in 136.2 innings of work, compiling 135 strikeouts and posting his best ERA+ since his dominant 2013 at a team-best 143.
Sanchez did it by more effectively mixing his pitches, and doing it the way he did as a Tiger in his memorable 2013 run. It helps when you can throw five pitches, but at 34, Sanchez is hitting the age where his potency in pitch versatility should be falling. His 2018 defied all the odds and all the conventions of what a 34-year-old pitcher should be performing like.
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He has never had blazing speed on his fastball, but with age, his average four-seamer velocity sits at 90 mph. For him to stay formidable on the mound in the wake of decreasing pitch power, he has to mix things up. In 2017 and before, he did an awful job at it, and became far too predictable on the mound. His ERA over six in 2017 didn’t come solely by virtue of bad luck; he was pitching poorly.
Instead of trying to throw his fastball into the zone to induce grounders, he is throwing his newfound cutter more than ever before, and much more than the average pitcher. While he didn’t have his cutter in 2013, his best season, Sanchez threw over 52% breaking balls that season, a number he tried to replicate in 2018.
His resurgence is thanks to his willingness to adapt to what works for him, which is now over 60% breaking balls, is the main key to his impressive revival. As opposed to tossing 57.2% fastballs and trying to overpower hitters, he has worked more into deception and the benefits that come with it.
Sanchez transformed himself to revive a seemingly dead career in the early parts of 2018, and if the Nationals get what Atlanta got this year out of the former ERA title winner, then this move will go down as one of the biggest steals of the offseason. He may not be his 2013 self, but he is a unheralded prize as a fourth-starter in a stacked rotation.