Despite the unexpected lopsidedness in the first two games of the World Series, anyone that pays attention to baseball would have trouble seeing a mediocre starter, like Anibal Sanchez, could have success against a historically great lineup, like the Astros, on the biggest stage.
Anibal Sanchez will certainly be the worst starting pitcher to the take the mound this World Series, as his 3.85 ERA, 4.44 FIP, and 18.8 percent strikeout-rate stand among a sextet of fantastic starters in this World Series. To Sanchez’s credit though, in 2017 it looked like his major league career was cooked, putting up a 6.41 ERA and 5.33 FIP in 105 1⁄3 innings with the Tigers. He latched on to a depleted Braves pitching staff last year though and reinvented himself, throwing more cutters and less sinkers, resulting in him being one of baseball’s most improved pitchers (2.83 ERA, 3.62 FIP).
The new-and-improved Sánchez signed a free agent deal with the Nationals the following season, filling the role of a back-end starter in a loaded rotation. Though he regressed, the results were still serviceable and his postseason efforts (12 2⁄3 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 14 SO) have made his deal worthwhile.
Tonight will be Sánchez’s biggest challenge yet, facing an Astros team that cumulatively put up a 125 wRC+, far-and-away the best in the major leagues this season. With the very above-average Zack Greinke on the mound for the Astros, conventional wisdom would suggest that this home match-up is an unfavorable one for the Nationals.
With the unpredictably of a single game, this could very well be the case, but it should be noted that there are some possible strengths for Sánchez in this contest.
For starters, perhaps the most noticeable thing about Sánchez’s strategy on the mound is his vast arsenal. He has been registered with seven different pitch types this season, five of which he throws at least five percent of the time. He throws fastballs a very high 63.3 percent of the time, averaging a mere 89.3 miles per hour. He varies with it though, throwing four different types, a four-seamer, a splitter, a cutter, and a sinker.
Where Sánchez racks up most of his success is in his splitter (.260 xwOBA) and his newly-introduced cutter (.283 xwOBA). These pitches make up a 47 percent of the pitches he throws, which ranks first out of 83 starting pitchers with at least 1,000 pitches thrown.
This is where the issue for the Astros comes in. Among the rare weaknesses in the nearly unstoppable offense is... those two subsets of fastballs, the splitter and the cutter. The league-average xwOBA against splitters/cutters comes out to be .304. The league-average exit velocity is 87.0 miles per hour. The Astros this season put up a .295 xwOBA against the same pitch types, 23rd in all of the majors this season. Their average exit velocity of 86.1 miles per hour ranked 24th.
Worst team offensive production against cutters/splitters
Also among the worst performers against cutters and splitters was the Cardinals, the last opponent that Sánchez faced. In that outing, he threw a combined 43 cutters and splitters out of his 103 total pitches. The Cardinals weren’t able to get much going off of either pitch, allowing Sánchez to take a no-hitter into the eighth inning.
It seems unlikely that the Astros will struggle at the level the Cardinals did, but the match-up has some interesting details. But if he can get anything that comes close to his last performance, he’ll give his team a good chance of being one win away from a championship.