Anibal Sanchez has endured a star-crossed career. The former Red Sox farmhand, picked up by the Marlins as part of the Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell/Hanley Ramirez mega-deal in November of 2005, punched out over ten batters per nine innings in the minors. In its 2006 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America remarked that while Florida desired Jon Lester in the Beckett deal, Sanchez was “a premium prospect in his own right.” And on September 6, 2006, Sanchez sat on top of the baseball world, no-hitting the Arizona Diamondbacks in the thirteenth start of his rookie season.
Over the next three years, however, Sanchez would spend more time rehabbing than trying to retire big league batters. While a Sox prospect, he overcame 2003 surgery to transpose a nerve in his right elbow. But injuries again crept into the picture — Sanchez underwent labrum surgery in May of 2007. After a near-15 month absence from a major league mound, he returned on trade deadline day of 2008. Unfortunately, shoulder woes derailed his 2009 season as well — he spent nearly four months on the DL. Over the 2007-2009 period, Sanchez logged just 167.2 MLB innings.
So far this season, it appears as though Sanchez is finally making good on those predictions of acedom. In 81 frames, the 26-year-old right-hander has a 3.22 ERA. That puts him in the same company as studs like Mat Latos and Tommy Hanson. Fantasy owners have been slow to get on board, though, as Sanchez is owned in just 38 percent of Yahoo leagues. Should more players be scrambling to the waiver wire to snag Anibal, or is that reticence well-justified?
During his first 13 starts of the season, Sanchez has 6.78 K/9, 3.44 BB/9 and a 44.3 percent groundball rate. If those numbers sound rather run-of-the-mill, that’s because they are — in 2010, the average MLB hurler has whiffed 7.02 batters per nine innings, with 3.45 BB/9 and a groundball rate around 44 percent. During his big league career, Sanchez has 6.64 K/9, 4.19 BB/9 and a 43.4 GB%. He’s issuing fewer walks than in years past, which is certainly a positive. But there’s nothing here that portends to a great leap forward.
Similarly, his plate discipline stats show some, though not a ton, of improvement. Sanchez’s rate of first pitch strikes is up, sitting at 59.4 percent (55.6% career average, 58% MLB average). Also, he’s getting swings on pitches out of the zone 29.6% (28.1% MLB average), the first time his O-Swing has surpassed the big league average. But his 8.9 percent swinging strike rate is right in line with his 8.7% career mark (8-9% MLB average), as is his 80.8% contact rate (80.2% career average, 80-81% MLB average).
So how is Sanchez’s ERA in the low three’s? Homers. Or rather, a lack thereof. When opponents loft a fly ball against Sanchez, it’s leaving the yard just 3.4 percent of the time. That’s the fifth-lowest rate among qualified big league starters. For comparison, the major league average is about 11 percent, and Sanchez’s career rate entering 2010 was 8.7 percent. Dolphin…er, Sun Life Stadium had a neutral HR/FB park factor over the past few years. There’s very little chance that Sanchez continues to see so many balls die at the warning track.
His xFIP, based on strikeouts, walks and a normalized HR/FB rate, is 4.34. That’s better than his recent work — 4.43 in 2008 and 4.64 last season — but not greatly so. Sanchez has essentially been a slightly above-average starter who has gotten some big breaks in the dinger department. I think Sanchez is certainly worth a roster spot in NL-only leagues, and he could be an option in deeper mixed formats. But keep in mind that, between his voluminous injury history and ERA drop based on a factor largely out of the pitcher’s control, Sanchez is far from a sure thing.
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