WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Watching Aníbal Sánchez pitch is like seeing a replay on loop, over and over again: a small rocker step, his right foot pivoting against the rubber, his glove glued to his right hip as they turn together, the ball hiding behind the width of his body — and hiding, and hiding — until, like a quarter in a magic trick, it appears from behind his right ear.
It’s the same motion for every pitch, in a bullpen session, on the mound in a crowded stadium, or in the middle of the Washington Nationals’ spring training clubhouse, earlier this month, where Sánchez threw invisible baseballs with a smile stuck to his face. Because the fun part is what happens next, when everything changes, when Sánchez throws one of six pitches that have kept him going at 35 years old. He uses a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a cutter, a slider, a curveball and a change-up. He actually has two change-ups, one that cuts and another that drops, and it all helped him revive his career with the Atlanta Braves last year.
And that led him to the Nationals, on a two-year deal worth $19 million, as the fourth starter in a rotation that also includes Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Jeremy Hellickson. Corbin was the marquee addition, coming for six years and $140 million in December, but Washington has raved about Sánchez all spring. He is a veteran mentor for the organization’s Latin players. He felt his ability slip, his command go, his fastball velocity diminish, and made the adjustments to float, then swim. He is coming off his best season since 2013, with a 2.83 ERA in 136⅔ innings, and the Nationals believe there is more where that came from.
Deception doesn’t have an age limit. At least that’s what Sánchez is out to prove.
“I showed myself what I can do on the mound, and I think I needed to be reminded,” Sánchez said. “Especially when everybody thought that I was done.”
Last winter, before Sánchez signed with the Braves, he wasn’t sure about pitching again. He wanted to, there was no doubt there, but he was coming off a third consecutive down season with the Detroit Tigers and his phone was quiet. The Minnesota Twins signed him to a one-year contract and released him within a month. Then the Braves offered a minor league deal and Sánchez took it, making one more bet on himself, and that’s when everything clicked.
He started to reshape his pitch usage in Atlanta, and veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki played a big part. Suzuki, now with the Nationals after also signing a two-year deal this offseason, saw a way to stay multiple steps ahead of each hitter. Sánchez noticed the same opportunity. He threw fewer fastballs than ever, almost ditched his slider altogether, made the cutter a prominent part of his arsenal and upped the use of his change-up, if only marginally.
But it wasn’t just varying the frequency of each pitch. Sequences mattered most, and Sánchez spent two hours a day between starts preparing for the hitters he’d soon face. In numbers from Brooks Baseball, a pitching analytics site, it’s clear that Sánchez’s approach was extremely diverse throughout last season. He favored first-pitch four-seam fastballs, first-pitch curves, a cutter with two strikes against right-handed hitters and a change-up with two strikes to lefties. After that, he had few traceable tendencies from one count to the next. Baseball has been boiled into trends and tabular data in recent seasons, as part of an ongoing analytics movement, but Sánchez is sidestepping that microscope.
“The point, really, is to make sure the hitter has no clue what’s coming at all times,” Suzuki said in February. “Aníbal also throws every pitch the exact same way, same delivery, same arm slot, so that makes it even tougher. You don’t know what’s coming until it’s well out of his hand.”
That’s why Nationals Manager Dave Martinez recently called Sánchez “the man who throws the invisiball.” Martinez has also referred to him as a craftsman and, when asked in March if anyone has stood out in camp, he immediately mentioned Sánchez. Martinez wants to keep Sánchez and Suzuki paired as much as possible, with Suzuki and Yan Gomes splitting starts, so they can further build on what worked last season.
The manager saw some of the results firsthand. Many of the Nationals have in recent years. Sánchez had a 1.50 ERA in 18 innings against Washington last season, and he has a 10-1 record with a 2.08 ERA in 26 career appearances (25 starts) against the Nationals. His numbers at Nationals Park, 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA in 10 starts, are another reason for the Nationals to be glad he is in the home dugout now. And Washington is betting — with $6 million invested this season, $7 million in 2020 and $6 million deferred to 2021 — that 2018 showed his new normal.
“If you can keep the hitter guessing, or throw multiple pitches to both sides of the plate in any count, I mean, that’s the hardest thing for us,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We try to eliminate pitches and game plan on things that the other pitcher doesn’t do well.
“And when you throw all of your pitches well, it’s hard for us to get rid of any of those pitches and focus in on one other pitch. So it’s a continual guessing game.”
Zimmerman and Sánchez both came up in the mid-2000s, back when Sánchez could throw mid-90s heat for the then-Florida Marlins. Sánchez has since had to evolve two, three or four times over, just as all veterans do. But he wouldn’t call it a reinvention. It’s the same pitcher in there, he insists, even if he throws many fewer fastballs and has turned facing him into a never-ending riddle.
He will keep searching for any edge. He will keep scribbling in the notebook tucked in his locker, full of thoughts on how to pitch next. He will keep waking up in the dark of morning, hitting the treadmill before sunrise, because he is really just happy to still be on a mound.
“No, no, no, no, you never reinvent anything,” Sánchez said. “You just try to be smarter with whatever you got, you know? You just try to be smarter every day.”