The Aníbal Sánchez you don’t know #Nats

Sure, you all know that yesterday, the free agent signing became official for Anibal Sanchez with the Washington Nationals. What you probably did not know is what happened a year ago and a dozen years ago. A year ago, Sanchez was desperate for a deal coming off of back-to-back horrific seasons that usually end a career for a 34 year old when your last piece of data that hits any G.M. is a 6.41 ERA.

Sanchez’s best offer for the 2018 season came from the Minnesota Twins who signed Sanchez to a non-guaranteed contract for $2.5 million then cut him loose in Spring Training and paid him off 1/6th of his deal which was a little over $400,000 as he hit free agency again. The Braves picked up Sanchez just in time for the final days of the Grapefruit League schedule as he replaced Scott Kazmir who suffered a jaw injury. Sanchez dazzled in his Braves’ spring debut in the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. He must have thought he was facing the Nats who he “owned” in his career with a 10-1, 2.08 ERA record, however on that day, Sanchez would face the other team that calls FITTEAM their spring training home, the Houston Astros, who at that time were the reigning World Champs. He beat the Astros on that day in West Palm Beach after making that long trip from Orlando with a bunch of non-roster players, and he earned the praise of his new manager and eventually Kazmir was released with Sanchez being named the fifth starter.

“I like his pitchability and what he brings,” Braves’ manager Brian Snitker said of Sanchez before finalizing his 2018 roster. “Probably the arsenal isn’t what he had [earlier in his career], but he understands that, and he has the ability to use what he has now effectively.”

From the fifth starter spot, the veteran pitcher climbed to the ranks of the tops of the Braves rotation in 2018.  Here we are a year later, and another new start for Sanchez which was fine for him and his family because now he has some stability again in his career with this new 2-year deal with a third year team option, and in a stark contrast to last year, he got to choose a team from the many that wanted him.

For many, Christmas is a time of celebrating. For Anibal Sanchez, it is a time of sorrow mixed with joy. He has a young daughter Anabella and a baby son Anibal Jr., and wife Ana to celebrate Christmas with, but this is also the same day Anibal memorializes the baby son he lost on that day in 2007 at just 3-months old after Alan Sanchez was bit by a mosquito in his native Venezuela and contracted dengue fever and passed away.  On Anibal’s right throwing shoulder is a tattooed image of Alan.  This week is bittersweet for the soon-to-be 35 year old and veteran of well over a dozen years in baseball — some great, and some awful. The low point of his life was losing Alan, but he has taken that pain to put his life in perspective and try to help others along the way. Sanchez and his wife Ana have hosted hundreds of families over the years to bring smiles to others, especially children. They have given their time and their money to families in need. When their daughter Anabella was born, she had a cleft lip and palate which led the Sanchez family to create even more charitable efforts especially in the Children’s Hospital networks in cities where he has played in Miami and Detroit.

For Sanchez, his son Alan was born on the exact one-year anniversary of the day he threw his rookie no-hitter on September 6, 2006 against Arizona. It was in Sanchez’s MLB debut that he threw a combined shut-out against the Yankees in the Bronx. He would also have many close calls on future no-hitters because his “stuff” was that good. After that great rookie campaign, he suffered a shoulder labrum tear months later in Spring Training of 2007 which was confirmed on the dreaded visit to Dr. Andrews who had to deliver the bad news — Sanchez did not know if he would ever pitch again to his previous success or at all. The road back was not easy, but some pitchers never get a second chance after a labrum tear in their pitching shoulder, and Sanchez took advantage of his second chance. The incision marks from the labrum surgery are also a reminder on the same shoulder as the tattoo image of Alan Sanchez. “Every day I pitch, my son is with me,” Sanchez says. From adversity can also bring great strength.

Sanchez began his career with the Red Sox as an international signing from Venezuela, and he became part of an unbelievable and deep prospect pool for Boston.  He could not even rank in the top-3 of Red Sox prospects given that the team had top tier talent in Hanley Ramirez, Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester all ahead of him. It was shortly after that when the Red Sox traded for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell sending Hanley and Sanchez to the Marlins in 2005.

In 2012, Sanchez was traded to the Tigers for top prospect Jacob Turner before the July 31st trade deadline. Sanchez joined a pitching staff loaded with talent with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister. That Tigers team went all the way to the World Series and Sanchez was a big part of that throwing a 7.0 inning shutout in the ALCS against the Yankees. After the season, Sanchez signed a multi-year deal with the Tigers on the success of his postseason, and the Tigers reaped quick dividends as Sanchez had the best season of his career in 2013 with a league best 2.37 ERA and a 2.39 FIP and a scant 0.4 HR/9. In some years, Sanchez would have won the Cy Young, but in that season it went to a guy named Scherzer.

Unfortunately for Sanchez, it seemed like he hit some age regression as his fastball lost some velo and his slider did not have the same bite. During those next four years in Detroit, he saw his ERA rise year over year from 3.43 to 4.99 to 5.87 to 6.41 as he rode out the rest of his contract with Detroit. Maybe the issues started in 2013 when he threw 12-games at 110+ pitches that season including single game pitch counts of 121, 125 and an eye-popping 130 pitches under manager Jim Leyland. It was the most pitches Sanchez had thrown in his career, and he was injured for a good part of the following season in 2014.

The move last year to Atlanta, and the use of advanced analytics turned Sanchez’s career around. He had his second best season of his career and was not relied upon as a workhorse. In fact, the Braves and the 2018 Manager of the Year, Brian Snitker, went the opposite of Leyland, and went easy on the then 34 year old Sanchez. It was also credit to the tutelage of Braves’ general manager Alex Anthopoulos who had just spent two years with the Dodgers and understood that going easy on starting pitchers via the “Dodgers Way” approach would pay dividends. Sanchez would only pitch over 100 pitches one-time in all of 2018 and that was of course was in a key game on July 20th against the Washington Nationals. Of course. Sanchez was also pitch efficient and only pitched past the 6th inning in 5 appearances but never over 100-pitches.

“Throughout the process of free agency, we were very focused on who the catchers were on each club’s roster,” Sanchez’s agent Gene Mato said.  “Anibal realizes how pitch sequences can really keep hitters off-balance and wanted to make sure he had a veteran presence in the backstop who he can align with. The Nationals filled every box he was looking for.”

This becomes one of the great lessons of analytics for the Nationals and for manager Dave Martinez to follow the tracks set by Snitker and not by Leyland. While much was written yesterday by the beat writers about Sanchez’s success with catcher Kurt Suzuki during the 2018 season, he also had about the same or possibly better success when Tyler Flowers caught him depending on how you look at it. With Suzuki catching Sanchez, he had a 2.82 ERA. In a sample size of 7 games, Flowers caught Sanchez to a 2.97 ERA — but if you remove just 1 earned run from that sample size for a comparison, the ERA drops to 2.74. With Flowers catching, Sanchez had a .196 BAA and a .217 BAA with Suzuki. Most baseball stats in small sample sizes will distort the big picture and the good news is that Sanchez believes he can continue the success he found in 2018. Of course, Suzuki will be one of Sanchez’s catchers for the Nationals.

Before Sanchez’s successful season with Atlanta, there is some truth and analytics to look at because there are batteries that click in baseball and a reason for what is referred to as  personal catchers for good reason, but something the Tigers never figured out. Sanchez always had his best success with Alex Avila catching him in Detroit but he was often paired up with other catchers. In a strange irony, the other Nationals new starting pitching acquisition, Patrick Corbin, had issues with Avila (3.34 ERA 86 1/3 innings) last season with Arizona but clicked to great success with Jeff Mathis (1.83 ERA 73 2/3 innings). It just goes to show you how some catchers click with a pitcher while others do not. With regards to Corbin’s catchers statistics, maybe D’Backs manager Torey Lovullo and the Arizona analytics department did not realize the disparity, but how could you not in this day and age of analytics?

If we look at Sanchez’s time in Detroit, Avila caught him for over 350 innings and a 3.81 career ERA versus James McCann for over 265 innings and a 5.83 ERA during his Tigers tenure. Those are not small sample sizes, but yet the Tigers never paired up Avila and Sanchez as a battery staple with an ERA differential of over 2.00.

Most of Sanchez’s 2018 success can be seen in the analytics with the change in pitch usage. Sanchez threw his four-seamer less and his cutter and change-up more often and in many games in almost equal proportion at about 25% each. With those 3-pitches comprising 77.6% of his arsenal, the curveball was used 9%, the sinker 8% and the slider just 5.4% of the time to much success. With shorter outings, Sanchez was also able to average just over 91 mph on his fastball while concentrating more on locating that pitch that was hit out for home runs too often near the end of his Tigers’ tenure.

“I see that it’s not important for me to throw harder, because I can locate better,”  Sanchez said yesterday. “And my change-up took the players out of balance most of the time. That helped me to get the season that I wanted last year.”

With six pitches in his repertoire, Sanchez is able to keep the opposing batters off-balance and especially working in those off-speed pitches where the soft stuff gets the most swing & miss with the change-up giving him a 22.08% s&m percentage which is by far the most of any of his other pitches which were all below 10%. Oddly, his sinker has higher velo than his four-seamer, but it’s the curveball and the sinker that the opposition hit with most success last year which could prompt some further work this off-season. With a deeper look at Statcast™ exit velocities showed Sanchez gave up the best quality of contact last season in the Majors with the lowest exit velo.

The Minnesota Twins were on the right track when they signed Sanchez a year ago until they cut him loose which was clearly the wrong move unless you do not believe Anibal would have had similar results there. What the Twins conceptualized was actually put into motion in real-time by the Braves as they took advantage of the analytics on Sanchez, and it worked by changing his mix of pitches.

“His analytics on some of the factors [our evaluators] feel are significant were a lot better than his results,” Paul Molitor said at the time when he was the Twins manager. “A lot of people think it has to do with pitch usage and some other things. But [we] really liked a lot of the weapons he still has. [Our evaluators] think he got away from things that would give him a better chance to be successful.”

Sanchez is also considered a great teammate as players often sing his praises. He has played with so many Nationals players like Scherzer, Suzuki, and Jordan Zimmermann that it was easy for Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo to do his due diligence on his character.

“He’s just a good teammate,” former teammate Shane Greene said. “He likes to see other players succeed as much as he wants to succeed. So just having that environment with him around is good.”

“The last couple years [in Detroit] weren’t indicative of his pitching,” said former teammate Michael Fulmer. “Plus, he’s just a great human. He loves his teammates. He’ll do anything for anybody. For him to just still be able to pitch, it’s awesome. He had a lot of influence on me.”

Sanchez joins a Big-3 rotation with the Nationals with Scherzer, Corbin and Stephen Strasburg to create what is already rated as one of the best behind just the Indians and Mets in pre-season projections, and it would not be a stretch to think Sanchez can beat the FanGraphs projection which has him at a rather pedestrian 4.28 ERA.  It just gives Sanchez a goal to prove the nay-sayers wrong…once again.

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