Anibal Sanchez is a pitcher who has overperformed his peripherals each of the last two years (unless you believed he genuinely had a way to suppress homer runs last year). But this year the opposite has happened: Sanchez has greatly improved his peripherals, but has—due to some bad BABIP luck—an ERA 0.87 higher than his 3.10 xFIP. In other words, he certainly seems like a natural candidate for positive regression and a potentially nice buy-low target.
Of course, such a strategy relies upon Sanchez being able to keep up his improved peripherals, which involve striking out more than two extra batters per nine while also walking nearly a batter less per nine innings. We’re talking about career best in both of these and a strikeout rate increase that seems out of the blue. (His walk rate did improve last year from 2009, so this would seem more logical on the surface.) Could this improvement be real?
Sanchez throws five pitches:
A four-seam fastball that has a good deal of cutting action but doesn’t sink like many other cutters.
A Two-seam fastball that has a decent amount of tail (but a good amount compared to the four-seamer) but basically without any sink at all.
A slider with good velocity and okay movement.
A change-up with okay velocity and good sink relative to the fastball.
A curveball with an 11-5 movement that doesn’t drop or tail an exceptional amount.
Most of his pitches haven’t changed over the last three years, but there have been a few tweaks.
Sanchez’s slider has increased from 83.3 MPH in 2009 to 84.5 MPH in 2010 to now 85.4 MPH in 2011. His two-seamer has increased by 1.0 MPH per year also during this span, while his four-seam fastball has increased by around 0.5 MPH per year each of the last two years. The change-up’s movement has also become more like the two-seamer, but the pitch is hard to distinguish from the slider at times, and this could just be an illusion.
Other changes and the results
Sanchez has a set strategy of throwing mostly fastballs against both types of batters, with the change-up being the primary offspeed pitch against lefties and the slider as the primary off-speed pitch against righties. However, three of every five fastballs he threw previously were four-seam fastballs. In 2011, he’s dropped his two-seamer use dramatically (now his fastball use is essentially 80 percent four-seamers).
The result is that Sanchez has increased his usage of a pitch that gets more swinging strikes—and thus more Ks—which is the reason why his swinging strike rate is up. That’s a pretty good explanation for why Sanchez’s whiff rate has increased.
Sanchez’s improved walk rate, on the other hand, is not easy to explain. He’s hitting the zone less often than previously, yet he’s getting called for slightly fewer balls than last year. The only pitch that’s improved in accuracy has been the four-seamer, but that alone isn not enough to explain the better results. In other words, while the walk rate improvement last year was easily trackable to an improvement in accuracy, that’s not the case this year.
So our conclusion on Sanchez is a mixed bag. His great improved in swinging strikes seems real—the result of going more frequently to his cutting four-seam fastball instead of his two-seamer. Thus, we should expect his strikeout rate to remain high. But his improved walk rate isn’t explained by anything really.
So what to expect? Anticipate Sanchez’s K rate to stay high around nine, but expect his BB rate to drop closer to last year’s than this year’s walk rate. He’s not a fluke, but he’s not completely for real, either.