Washington Nationals Anibal Sanchez will rely on cutter and continuity
By Blake Finney
When the Washington Nationals gave Anibal Sanchez $19 million, it raised some eyebrows. But the right-hander is confident he can maintain his success.
It’s now over a week ago since it was first reported, but the Washington Nationals signing of Anibal Sanchez was certainly an interesting one. There are going to be plenty of question marks around whether the right-hander can maintain his 2018 success moving forward.
Last season with the Atlanta Braves, Sanchez finished with a 7-6 record to go with an impressive 2.83 ERA in 25 appearances. That was a huge change from the previous three seasons where he combined for a 20-30 record and 5.67 ERA.
So that begs the question about what changed to cause the sudden bounceback season. Well, the former Detroit Tiger believes it was down to reduced use of his fastball and elevated use of his cutter and changeup.
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“I see that it’s not important for me to throw harder because I can locate better,” Sanchez told Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports. “And my changeup took the players out of balance most of the time. That helped me to get the season that I wanted last year.”
This makes a lot of sense, as his fastball percentage dropped from 48.8 percent in 2017 down to just 38 percemt last season, with his cutter jumping from 8.7 percent to 22.5 percent. The increased use of the cutter showed, as the wRC+ against his cutter went from 195 in 2017, all the way down to a 57 in 2018
Sanchez was also able to keep his cutter lower in the strike zone, which helped to improve its effectiveness. When you look at Sanchez’s cutter FanGraphs heatmap in 2017, you can see that it frequently was sitting at a nice hittable height compared to the heatmap from 2018, which was down and away and helped to not only generate swings and misses, but also induced more soft contact with the paint on the corners.
Then, as Sanchez says, it allowed his changeup to play up and keep hitters off balance in the batter’s box. While the usage had a slight uptick last season, the wRC+ dropped from 76 in 2017, to a measly 20 last season as the cutter-changeup combo threw off the other team’s timing, inducing a lot of weaker contact overall.
As well as the effectiveness of his offspeed pitches, Anibal Sanchez seemed to pitch a little better to Kurt Suzuki than the other catchers on the Braves’ roster last year. In his 16 games that Suzuki caught, hitters had an OPS of just .620, compared to a .650 OPS when pitching to other catchers in the remaining nine games.
Speaking of that relationship, Sanchez also told Zuckerman“That’s a big thing for me. Especially because of the way I pitch in 2018; Suzuki was involved in everything. In every change that I made, every sequence that we worked for, Suzuki was really involved.”
Obviously, with Suzuki now in Washington and likely to be in a relatively even timeshare with Yan Gomes, that relationship can continue. Overall, it’s difficult to tell whether Sanchez can keep defying the odds in D.C., but he’s set himself up about as well as he possibly can to succeed in the short-term with a new pitch mix and familiar backstop.
The Washington Nationals front office clearly believes that Anibal Sanchez wasn’t a flash in the pan last season. Hopefully, he will be able to be a productive starter again moving forward and help the Nats’ rotation be one of the best in baseball.