In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5: Francisco Rodriguez | #4: James McCann |#3: Nick Castellanos
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that Anibal Sanchez’s 2013 season was a career year, but the thing about career years is they demonstrate a player’s potential. From late 2012 into early 2014, Anibal Sanchez pitched like one of the best pitchers in the entire league. And even in an injury shortened 2014, his 89 ERA- and 71 FIP- put him firmly in the league’s top tier.
He missed less time in 2015, pitching a total of 157 innings, but the results were dramatically worse. His 123 ERA- and 117 FIP- were his worst marks since becoming a full-time starter during 2009. And you can trace the problems easily; he gave up too many home runs. In fact, he gave up 29 HR in those 157 innings (1.66 HR/9) despite allowing just 33 total HR from 2012 to 2014 in 503.2 innings (0.59 HR/9).
Here’s the thing about home runs, they’re bad. Sanchez allowed essentially one full home run more per nine innings than he had during his previous three seasons, and while home runs surrender a minimum of one run per occurrence, they quite often happen with men on base. On average, a home run is worth about 1.7 runs more than an out. So if he gave up 17 more dingers than he would have if he met his 2012-14 levels, that’s an extra 30 runs or so. That accounts for essentially the entire increase in his runs allowed numbers in 2015.
There are two sides to this story. The first is that Sanchez was probably unusually lucky/successful when it comes to preventing home runs in 2012-2014 while being unusually unlucky/unsuccessful at preventing them in 2015. Sanchez was never truly as good as he looked during his peak and isn’t truly as bad as he appeared last season. Baseball is highly random and home runs are particularly random for pitchers.
This isn’t to say that pitchers don’t influence their home run totals, it’s merely that the difference between a ball that’s caught in the deep outfield and one that clears the fence are essentially the same, but they yield very different results. So some of this is just noise and you can probably infer Sanchez didn’t totally lose his skills because we had an inflated view of his previous skills and a deflated view of his current ones.
But leaving the basic regression aside, as I wrote a number of times last season, Sanchez seemed to have a tendency to throw exceptionally bad pitches at bad moments last year. Overall, I believed his stuff looked pretty normal, but he just threw some really bad pitches at times and hitters didn’t miss those at all. What I was unable to say at the time was whether or not that was stupid, dumb luck or if it was based on some sort of flaw in his delivery or approach.
After the season we learned he was dealing with shoulder issues that he hadn’t really disclosed. Without being his doctor, it’s impossible to know what exactly the impact of that injury was, but arm fatigue, no matter the cause, can lead you to take a pitch off and wind up serving a hanging slider.
If we take this at face value, we can say that Sanchez’s problems were in part caused by health issues and he didn’t just become a much worse pitcher. But that doesn’t necessarily bode well. Maybe he’s all better and can get back into a 3 WAR season, or maybe he’s entering the phase of his career when he’s going to routinely deal with these injuries and never have a chance to pitch at full strength. We just don’t know.
For this reason, Sanchez is the second biggest bellwether on the Tigers roster this year. There’s a world of difference between a 1 WAR starter in the middle of the rotation and a 3-4 WAR starter in that same spot. Now that we know Daniel Norris isn’t going to be at full strength to start the year, the Tigers margin for error is even smaller. As I’ve said all along, the AL Central is going to be very close and Sanchez offers one of the widest ranges of possible outcomes of anyone on the team.
It seems entirely possible that Sanchez muddles through 2016 as a below average starter and gives the Tigers 130 or 140 mediocre innings. But it’s also very possible that he’s healthy and gives them 180 great innings. Normally I roll my eyes when people talk about ceilings and floors because anyone can suck and most anyone can have one great season, but I think Sanchez’s probabilities for each are quite high. Maybe call it a 25% chance of disaster, 25% change of greatness, and 50% chance of average. For most players, I would personally predict a much narrower distribution.
Wins are going to be very precious for the Tigers and Sanchez offers one of the clearest paths to greatness of anyone on the roster. If Sanchez returns to form, the Tigers have a great chance to get back to the postseason.