FORT MYERS, Fla. — Anibal Sanchez reportedly signed a non-guaranteed deal and will get a spring tryout with the Twins. Despite several bad years in the big leagues, the Twins are hoping they’ll be able to fix the veteran starting pitcher, who will turn 34 at the end of February.
And the key to unlocking Sanchez’s full potential, they hope, lies in the analytics.
“I know it’s not what everybody thought would be our first starting pitching move of the long winter months,” manager Paul Molitor said, in reference to the reports all winter that the Twins would be active in pursuing top-end starting pitching. He said that Twins staffers uncovered analytics that suggest that Sanchez might have more in the tank than his surface-level numbers would indicate.
“I think they feel that there are some things that they can try to build on that are still really positive,” he said, stopping short of saying the Twins will fix Sanchez.
First, let’s look at some surface numbers. Because while Sanchez comes at a low cost relative to some other back-end starting pitchers who’ve signed in recent days. in some cases you get what you pay for. (Sanchez will make $2.5 million if he makes the team, according to reports, and that could go up to $5 million with incentives.)
The longtime Marlins and Tigers starter had a 6.41 ERA last year in 105 1/3 innings with Detroit. Sanchez seemed like the kind of pitcher that would have to settle for a minor league deal this winter. Across the past 3 seasons, he owns a 5.67 ERA in 415 2/3 innings, primarily as a starting pitcher.
Last year, he gave up 26 home runs in just 105 1/3 innings, which was the worst home run rate in the Majors among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings.
“Some of our guys that did some studies on the pitchers that are out there, they say his analytics and some of the factors that they feel are significant were a lot better than his results,” Molitor said. “Obviously, the long ball bit him a lot. Some of it had to do with — our people think it has to do with pitch usage and some other things. But they really liked a lot of the weapons that he still has. They think he got away with doing things that would give him a better chance to be successful.”
The Twins hired noted pitching analyst Josh Kalk away from the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason. They’ve also added more brainpower to their front office by adding positions and full-time staff to the baseball research department. And Derek Falvey, the Twins CBO in his second year on the job, was a noted pitching guru with the Indians before taking over in Minnesota.
So perhaps they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt, even if on the surface Sanchez’s signing smacks of desperation.
The guess here is that the Twins identified that his secondary pitches are better weapons than his fastball. Hitters crushed his fastball in recent years, but they haven’t had as much success against some secondary pitches. Perhaps their line of thinking is that by fiddling with his pitch usage, the Twins will get better results from Sanchez than the pitcher that teams have hit around for the better part of 4 seasons.
Last season, opponents batted .319 against his 4-seam fastball and .327 against his sinker, according to Brooks Baseball. He used his changeup 20% of the time last year, and that pitch resulted in a batting average of just .209, per Brooks Baseball. Both of his breaking balls got crushed; that didn’t stop him from relying on his slider and curve a combined 20% of the time.
The Twins also could be using some sort of pitch modeling that attempts to predict effectiveness based on things like velocity and vertical and horizontal movement.
According to Mike Petriello, a writer for MLB.com, the quality of contact against Sanchez suggests he should have been more like a league-average pitcher, rather than a guy that the Tigers paid a $5 million buyout to take a hike after the season.
I only vaguely remember writing this but apparently I liked Anibal Sanchez at the beginning of the winter: pic.twitter.com/rNpQRpvmnf
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) February 16, 2018
Perhaps those numbers were enough to justify a spring audition.
Molitor said: “He’s just one of those guys, I’m not sure where he’s at in terms of where his talent is. He’s probably not progressing. Just try to get a feel for where he’s at. And see if some of the things we think he can do to maybe line up more with performance than last year. It’s kind of one of those deals where there’s a chance to bring somebody in here. ”
“Really good guy… We’ll see where it goes,” he said.