Jays From the Couch looks into whether Anibal Sanchez would be a good addition to the Toronto Blue Jays
Anibal Sanchez was once a very good major league starter. From his rookie year in 2006 through to 2015, he generated the 25th most wins above replacement (24.2 WAR) among all MLB starters. His success earned him a five-year, $88 million deal with the Tigers in 2013. According to Fangraphs, Sanchez was worth $87.4 million over those five years—fair value for his contract. On the other hand, half of that value came in the first year of the deal, a career-best 6 WAR performance in 2013.
That deal came with a team option for 2018. The Tigers could’ve either hung onto him for one more year at $16 million or bought him out for $5 million. They chose the latter.
At this point, the Toronto Blue Jays have four very good starters signed up for 2018. Ideally, they will spend money on a higher floor option like Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb to fill the last spot in the rotation. However, starting pitching depth is useful, a fact that has now been permanently burned into the psyche of Blue Jays fans. So, with Sanchez now a free agent, it’s fair to ask whether he is a guy the Jays should give any consideration to.
Let’s start with the bad. As pointed out to me by fellow JFtC writers (and watchers of far more non-Blue Jays baseball than me) Wade Black and Roy-Z, Sanchez kinda sucked this year. In particular, he was finding too much of the plate in spite of the fact that his velocity is noticeably down from his 2013 peak. His 94mph four-seamer sits at 91mph now. Ditto for his sinker. Even his off-speed stuff has lost about three miles per hour. Based on Pitch Info pitch values, everything but his change-up was a well below-average pitch.
Put this all together and you can start to make sense of his much worse than average ERA and opponent batting average. So far, this doesn’t seem like the kind of pitcher the Jays should be looking at.
Obviously, I wouldn’t have wasted your time on a post saying that this bad-seeming free agent pitcher is, in fact, bad. Instead, let me waste your time in a more constructive way: offering reasons why I find him to be an intriguing buy-low candidate.
Take another look at the table above. Both Sanchez’s ERA and FIP are above league average. But his FIP isn’t that much more than league average. In fact, Sanchez has the eighth highest ERA-FIP difference among 163 starters who pitched 70+ innings this season.
This gap points to the possibility that part of his struggles may be chalked up to bad defence. And boy did the Tigers have some bad defence this year—their -62 DRS was second worst in the majors. For comparison, the Jays’ defence was nothing to write home about and they were 39 DRS better than the Tigers.
For further clarification, let’s look at the Statcast data and compare his actual results to the typical outcomes that result from the launch angles/exit velocities he was giving up this season. Sanchez’s xBA suggests that he was middle of the pack in terms of giving up contact that results in base hits. His xwOBA suggests that he was better than average when it came to giving up the kind of contact that leads to extra base hits.
Finally, his very negative xBA-BA and xwOBA-wOBA scream bad luck and crappy defence. Essentially, while the contact he gave up may not have been any worse than average, the outcomes of that contact certainly were. These numbers, using a completely different methodology, tell us pretty much the same thing that his ERA-FIP did.
Digging deeper, we can see how Sanchez generated those respectable xBA and xwOBA marks. He gave up barrels at a below-average rate (the typical SP gave up barrels to 4.5% of the batters he faced). He struck out batters more often than the average starter (20.6%). And he gave up walks much less often than the average SP (8.1%). In fact, his strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.10, a career best) was 17th highest among SP.
Anibal Sanchez is no longer a highly reliable starting pitcher. But he also doesn’t seem to be done either. The knocks on him (in particular the falling velocity across the board) are enough to ensure that he won’t get a big, guaranteed contract. But the bounce-back potential is there, potentially making him a nice depth signing for the Blue Jays (especially on a minor league deal).
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.