There are a number of reasons Sanchez makes sense for the Nationals. He had a 2.83 ERA in 24 starts last season and will only be relied upon as the fourth arm in a rotation that includes Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Cobin. His contract, with $6 million deferred to 2021 and a club option that year for $12 million, gives the team short-term financial flexibility to chase a full-time second baseman and another arm or two. He has punished Washington in the past and has great career numbers at Nationals Park. He excelled when pitching to catcher Kurt Suzuki with the Braves last season, posting a 2.82 ERA in 16 starts, and the Nationals signed Suzuki to a two-year deal this offseason.
But Sanchez only really works as an effective replacement for Tanner Roark if he is more like the pitcher he was last season than the one who stumbled through the three years before it. The Sanchez from last season thrived with an altered approach that featured his cutter like never before. It seems like a trend worth continuing, and it seems like Suzuki can help.
“That’s a big thing for me,” Sanchez said on a conference call with reporters Thursday, speaking of reuniting with Suzuki in Washington. “Especially because the way I pitched in 2018, Suzuki was involved in everything, in every change that I made and everything that we worked for.”
There was one undeniable truth for Sanchez heading into last season, his first with the Braves: Whatever he was doing was not working.
With the Detroit Tigers, as he sunk from a career-best ERA in 2013 to 20 losses across 2016 and 2017, he leaned on a mid-to-low-90s fastball and a slider as his primary breaking pitch. But his fastball velocity dipped and dipped until it settled right around 90 mph by the time he left for Atlanta, and that’s when Sanchez knew he had to make a change. The most noticeable adjustment was with his cutter, which accounted for 22.5 percent of his total pitches, according to FanGraphs. He had never thrown it more than 8.7 percent of the time and didn’t even have the pitch in his arsenal for most of his career.
After that, his fastball usage fell to 38 percent after ballooning to 57.2 percent with the Tigers in 2016. He threw his slider at a rate of 5.4 percent — that had never been in the single digits and peaked at 25.2 percent in 2010 — and he sprinkled more change-ups into the mix. He was a totally different pitcher. He tied the second-best ERA of his career and, according to Statcast, allowed hard contact less often than any other starter in baseball.
“I just prepared my games better. I see that it’s not important for me to throw harder, because I can locate [my pitches] more,” Sanchez said. “And by using my change-up, it took the players out of balance most of the time. On every at-bat with every hitter, that helped me to get the season that I wanted last year.”
And perhaps it’s most important for the Nationals that Suzuki was involved in Sanchez’s game-planning. When the 35-year-old catcher joined the team in November, he described a late-career commitment to analytics as a reason for his sustained offensive success. Sanchez did the same, referring to his preparation for each start as a “one-day job.” He also noted that Suzuki already knows what pitches he wants to throw and that they have a “really good relationship between pitcher and catcher.”
Manager Dave Martinez has not indicated how he will balance Suzuki’s starts with playing time for Yan Gomes, the all-star catcher the Nationals traded for just 12 days after Suzuki signed. But it feels safe to assume that Suzuki will catch Sanchez for a bulk of his starts. Suzuki was behind the plate as Sanchez reimagined himself into a savvy veteran who does not, and cannot, overpower hitters with a fastball. He is fit, maybe more than anyone else, to handle Sanchez’s evolution from here. He knows how important it was to up the cutter usage, go away from the slider and place a bit more trust in the change-up, and all that gives him keen insight on the next adjustment Sanchez will need to make.
The top of the Nationals staff is set with Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin, all pitchers who could be the ace for many teams. But it is Sanchez, rounding out the group, who may determine just how good the rotation can be.