Is it possible that, 500-plus innings into the career of Anibal Sanchez, we only know as much about his true talent level as your typical sophomore starter? It’s something worth pondering, because, despite showing the same traditional statistics as ever, there are some underlying changes to his game this year, and he’s not your typical vet.
Those changes might be less exciting if he had amassed as many major league innings as most other six-year veteran starters — we’d call back on the larger sample of his past career and call for a coming regression. In the case of Sanchez, though, it seems that his current level of production might not only be sustainable, but it might represent a true story of triumph over massive obstacles.
First, we know why he hasn’t put up those innings totals. He’s had injury problems. He’s hit the 60-day DL twice for right shoulder strains and even had surgery on his throwing labrum. He’s officially missed 196 games, but more telling is that before last year, he had not thrown more than 110 innings in a full year since before his shoulder surgery. Shoulder surgeries are tough to come back from — just ask Erik Bedard and Brandon Webb. If throwing 195 innings last year was impressive, doing so to the tune of a 3.32 FIP and 4.04 xFIP was doubly so.
To make it triply impressive, Sanchez did not just have fraying of the rotator cuff – his surgery was for a labrum tear, the most fearsome injury in baseball. In fact, labrum surgery has been the nexus of much scientific attention. According to Dr. Anthony Romeo, who was recently awarded a grant to further test the procedure that he performed on Jake Peavy, torn labrums are the most common career-ending pitching injuries involving the shoulder. Romeo has also shown that at least 1/3 still have pain after labrum surgeries, and many others never get their velocity or stamina back.
So Kudos to Dr. James Andrews, not that he needs more ligament trophies on his wall. Not only has Anibal Sanchez recovered his velocity (up last year to 91.3 MPH from a career average well below 91 MPH), but he managed those 32 starts last year and hasn’t complained of any shoulder or arm woes this season either.
All that being said, a healthy amount of skepticism should remain in place whenever a pitcher adds two strikeouts per nine to his career rate after 500-plus major league innings. Without some corresponding changes in his deeper, underlying statistics, you might look the other way.
But Sanchez does have those underlying changes on his resume so far this year, and they might even be reliable considering he’s faced 179 batters already. He’s showing his second-best contact rate (77%, 79.5% career), best first-strike percentage (58.7%, 56.3% career), and best in-zone contact rate (82.1%, 86.1% career). Perhaps most importantly, Sanchez has by far the best swinging strike rate of his career – 11.3%, compared to 9.1% career. That’s pretty much a clean sweep of the per-plate-appearance numbers.
The change is even evident on the per-pitch level. His fastball velocity is up another .5 MPH over last year’s career high and it looks like his changeup and slider are moving a little more than they did last year. According to Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch F/x tool, he’s getting more whiffs on his changeup than last year and he’s using it more. In the end, it might just be a healthy shoulder throwing a fastball at full velocity. Take a look at how gradual and organic the increase in rapidity seems:
Sure, you can take a look at Sanchez’s 2011 ERA, FIP and xFIP (3.46, 3.42, and 3.32) and decide that his performance so far has looked legit. But then your eyes might hover over that 9.29 K/9 for a little while, especially since he owns a 7.06 career number in the category. You might not believe. Don’t forget that this is a pitcher with pedigree — he struck out double digits per nine in the minor leagues and was a major piece of a huge trade before having major shoulder surgery. Maybe, just maybe, he’s finally healthy and firing on all cylinders. This could actually be the second healthy post-surgery year in his career.
Sometimes it’s refreshing to open up the book on a fast start and find a real story of triumph over great obstacles.
Thanks to colleague and DL Dude Jeff Zimmermann for the links on labrum surgery.