Nationals gambling Anibal Sanchez can extend 2018 success into 2019 and beyond


Here’s what we know: Last year was a lightning bolt for newly signed Nationals starter Anibal Sanchez. Not the norm. Three years of mediocre-to-downright-bad pitching preceded a launch into a 143 ERA+ and 2.6 WAR. 

A change in how he pitched brought him to those numbers. Down went his fastball usage, up went his cutter and changeup. Sanchez decided location was key. He was throwing 91 miles per hour after all, so why not pivot to accuracy over power?

“It’s not important for me to throw hard because I can locate my ball,” Sanchez said Thursday on a conference call. “I took the players out of balance most of the time .. That helped me get the season I want last year.”

Here’s what we don’t know: If what Sanchez did in 2018 can last. The change was that dramatic. He came through year-over-year with reliever-level volatility.

What did Sanchez’s winter and spring look like last year? He was spring training. The Minnesota Twins cut him loose when they signed Lance Lynn. So, the Braves called him in with a minor-league deal and an invite to spring training. That was all after Detroit paid a $5 million opt-out to send Sanchez onto the market and out if its rotation following a three-year run with an average ERA of 5.67.

"Just to get a look and see where he's at," Braves manager Brian Snitker said at the time. "As a depth piece, I don't know. Who knows, he might make our club, I don't know. We'll evaluate. He's in shape, and just kind of see where he's at."

Then, voila, Sanchez is one of 47 National League pitchers to make 24 or more starts, and one of just seven in that group to have a sub-3.00 ERA. Here’s the list in that lot with a lower ERA than Sanchez: Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Aaron Nola, Clayton Kershaw. The end. 

Which frames what a gamble this is for the Nationals. They dropped $19 million (plus an option) on last year. On Sanchez’s realization he doesn’t need to -- and physically does not -- throw hard, an epiphany delivered in his age-34 season. They know he won’t make more than 25 starts. His history tells us that. They hope his regression is mild. If it is, he’s a viable fourth starter. If he reverts to the pitcher he was for his final three years in Detroit, betting on a late-career sudden change will turn out to be bad choice.


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