How can Anibal Sanchez improve on 2010?

Here was an interesting tidbit on Anibal Sanchez from Joe Frisaro’s latest mailbag piece.

Anibal Sanchez finally stayed healthy and had a great year in 2010. What can we expect from him this year? He logged a lot of innings. Is his shoulder sound?
– Gary S., Flint, Mich.

<snip>

…So what can we expect in 2011? The hope is he will build on what he accomplished in ’10. He will turn 27 in late February, so the right-hander from Venezuela is reaching the prime of his career. He was in better physical shape last year, watching his diet. He has always had a feel for pitching, and a tough competitive drive. After adding Javier Vazquez, the Marlins expect Sanchez to compete with Chris Vostad for the fourth and fifth rotation spots. If Sanchez stays healthy, the right-hander could very well improve on his 2010 numbers.

Frisaro implies that there is optimism that Sanchez can improve on his numbers from last season. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I agree with that sentiment. Sanchez looked great last year, but there were a number of things that broke his way that are unlikely to do so next year. It all starts with Sanchez and the long ball.

Home run suppression

Sanchez was a monster at home run suppression in 2010, allowing only 10 dingers in 195 innings pitched. This comes, however, along with no significant improvement in his ground ball rate, which stood at 45.1% in 2010 compared to a career 43.9% mark. Sanchez’ fly balls simply weren’t leaving the park (4.5% HR/FB%), which is not a trend that is likely to continue at such a pace.

Having said that, Sanchez is also unlikely to regress to the league average in terms of home runs allowed. Sanchez averaged a 7.0% HR/FB% for his career (477 IP, 2085 batters faced), so it is entirely possible that he has a skillset that allows fewer home runs than the average pitcher. The fact that his FIP has outperformed his xFIP for his career and in all but one of his seasons only helps to support that theory. Still, some regression means that, instead of expecting a season in the 4.50 ERA range from Sanchez due to an increase in home runs, we’d expect a year closer to a 4.00 ERA range.

Age and improvement

Frisaro mentions that Sanchez is “entering his prime” at age 27. However, there is evidence that says that we cannot use the traditionally recognized aging curve for position players (steady increase with a peak at around 27-29, depending on who you ask, followed by steady decline) for pitchers because of the different skillsets involved. MGL of the The Book Blog looked at aging for pitchers and found that pitchers do not really improve as they age, and in fact decline after a steady plateau from their age 21 to 26-27 seasons. Essentially, pitchers remain as they good as they have been for their careers. This means that guys like Sanchez aren’t likely to simply improve because they have another year under their belt, because any possible improvement due to increased experience is offset at this point by decreases in skill and ability due to age.

The good news

Sanchez did have a bit of good news last season. As Dave Cameron points out in this FanGraphs piece, Sanchez’ velocity was surprisingly trending upwards last year.

This can only be a positive, as it means that there may be some “improvement” left in Sanchez in terms of health. If Sanchez can improve anywhere in his game, it is in his health; his shoulder issues of the past two and a half seasons before 2010 were significant enough to suspect that he had never been fully healthy before last season. If he is now at his finest, it is possible that Sanchez may be at his current level of talent, and that last season’s 3.32 FIP was close to his true talent. The current projections have Sanchez at around a 3.95 ERA, and while that performance would be worse than the one he put up in 2010, it would be a far cry from the half-injured pitcher the Marlins had from 2007 to 2009. Given the club’s acquisition of a hopefully effective Javier Vazquez, Sanchez only needs to be a strong fourth rotation starter for the team to have a good rotation to compete for the Wild Card. No, it will not be an improvement on 2010, but it should be an improvement for the Fish as a whole.

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