Anibal Sanchez: A Strikeout Rate To Believe In?

Among qualified starters, right-hander Anibal Sanchez has arguably been the best pitcher in all of baseball. His 1.45 FIP leads Major League Baseball, and if you’re one who favors SIERA over FIP, his 2.50 SIERA still ranks third. It’s the type of pitcher the Tigers hoped he could become when they inked him to a five-year, $88M contract over the winter.

Sanchez’s rate statistics have been beautiful this season, but perhaps the biggest story for fantasy owners is the significant uptick in strikeouts. His 31.3% strikeout percentage is by far the best of his career. Prior to 2013, his career-high K% was 24.3% in 2011. The massive jump has left many owners wondering if it’s sustainable.

His swinging-strike rate suggests his current strikeout rate is buoyed by plenty of swings-and-misses from opposing hitters. In fact, he ranks fifth in the league in SwStr%.

Player SwStr%
Yu Darvish 15.4%
Ryan Dempster 13.2%
Max Scherzer 12.9%
Matt Harvey 12.7%
Anibal Sanchez 12.2%

A strikeout rate always feels more sustainable when it’s backed with a higher swinging-strike rate. Pitchers such as Mike Fiers — who compiled a strikeout percentage of 25.1% last year with only an 8.3% SwStr% — do not seem to deliver repeat performances very often. And we’ve seen that in a very extreme way this year with Fiers, who pitched so poorly to begin the season that he was demoted to the minors.

While Sanchez’s strikeout and swinging-strike rates have improved dramatically this season, it doesn’t appear the uptick in whiffs has been triggered by improvement in a specific pitch. His swinging-strike rate has increased from last year on his each of his three primary pitches: fastball, slider, and changeup. Though it should be noted that his swinging-strike rates on his changeup and slider have been much higher than his career norms, while his fastball is roughly even.

All good things. His swinging-strike rate is up, his changeup and slider are missing more bats than ever before, and his fastball has missed more bats than last season. Despite this, there’s an elephant in the room that must be addressed. The vast majority of Sanchez’s starts this year have come against teams with above-average strikeout rates.

Team K% Rank
Houston 1
Washington 3
Minnesota 9
Atlanta 2
Los Angeles (AL) 17
Oakland 15
Toronto 13
Minnesota 9

He has feasted against teams who have shown a propensity to swing-and-miss quite often this year. In fact, the only team he’s faced who doesn’t rank in the top half of the league in strikeouts, the Los Angeles Angels, only struck out three times against Sanchez on April 19.

This doesn’t necessarily discount the improved strikeout rate the right-hander has shown this season, but it does place the information in some interesting context. And wouldn’t you know it? His upcoming start on Saturday will come against the Texas Rangers, who have the lowest team strikeout rate in Major League Baseball. Obviously, one start doesn’t mean much in terms of predictive value, but it will be intriguing to see if his newly-discovered strikeout tendencies can continue against the Rangers.

There’s a lot to like about Sanchez and his strikeout rate in 2013. He’s not only racking up the Ks, but he’s missing bats, featuring more velocity, and his offspeed pitches have shown marked improvement. But until he can display this ability against non strikeout-prone teams, as well, fantasy owners should caution themselves against believing this is a wholly new Anibal Sanchez.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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Great analysis. As an owner, I’m hoping it’s not just the competition. How long do these rates usually take to normalize? And is usual normalizing time include competition?