Everyone Wants Cristopher Sanchez to Start in the Playoffs, but is that the Phillies' Best Option?
Wednesday morning, Phillies manager Rob Thomson made his regular appearance on the WIP morning show when he was asked by host Joe DeCamara if the Phillies playoff rotation would be Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez and Taijuan Walker.
“I would think so, yeah, as long as everybody is healthy and everybody is pitching the way they are supposed to pitch, that’s probably the way we go,” Thomson said.
But might he have been a little bit facetious with that answer?
The Phillies set up their September rotation in such a way that it ensured that Cristopher Sanchez would get a chance to pitch against the Atlanta Braves – and not just once, but twice.
Might this be a two-game audition against the best offense in baseball to see if he, in fact, could find his way into that rotation?
If so, he passed the first test with flying colors.
Most people will look at Sanchez setting career bests in innings pitched in a game (7 1/3) and strikeouts in a game (10) as a mere footnote in a contest the Phillies lost to the Braves 4-1 and allowed Atlanta to clinch its sixth consecutive N.L. East crown which culminated with an anti-climactic celebration on the field at Citizens Bank Park.
But his performance didn’t slip past the watchful eyes of the Phillies staff.
“He was fantastic, he really was.” Thomson said. “That kid, I’m so proud of him. From where he’s come from – he just pitched. The changeup was electric. He filled up the strike zone. Sixty-six of 96 pitches were strikes. Twenty of 31 first pitches were strikes. He was locating his fast ball. All of his pitches were good. Going through that lineup, which is really good and really tough on lefthanded pitching with all those righthanded hitters, he just did a great job.”
It was high praise as well considering it was also the most hits he’s allowed in any start this season and the second-most earned runs.
But, when facing the Braves lineup, limiting them to just one home run and four runs total is pretty impressive.
Cristopher Sanchez, Dirty 83mph Changeup.👌
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 14, 2023
The key for Sanchez will now be to see if he can replicate Wednesday’s performance in his next start, which, although the Phillies haven’t announced it, will all but certainly be Tuesday in Atlanta.
If Sanchez goes out and has similar success against the Braves, facing them the second time in less than a week, then might the Phillies consider Sanchez as a starting option in the playoffs?
It’s unlikely that they would in the Wild Card round. In a three-game set, you are still probably going to see Wheeler-Nola-Suarez. But if the Phillies are still playing on the first weekend of October, it means they have advanced to the NLDS and it’s highly probable that the opponent will once again be Atlanta. Might we see Sanchez start a game then?
“That’s going to be a key arm for us as we keep going down the stretch,” said Kyle Schwarber.
The playoff schedule will be a little bit different in 2023 than it was in 2022. Once the NLDS rolls around, there’s an extra off day scheduled. It’s something done for television, and it alternates from year to year between the A.L. and the N.L.
As such, the Phillies might only need three starters if they reach the NLDS to get through five games.
The Wild Card Series is scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday October 3-5.
Let’s say the Phillies do, in fact, go Wheeler, Nola, Suarez for the first round. If they win in two games, like they did last year, Suarez would pitch Game 1 of the NLDS on Saturday October 7. But then Game 2 wouldn’t be until Monday, October 9, which means Wheeler would be available on five days rest. Game 3 wouldn’t be until Wednesday October 11, when Nola would be available on six days rest and then Suarez could come back for Game 4 on Thursday October 12 on regular rest (four days) and if the series went five games, Game 5 wouldn’t be until Saturday October 14, which means Wheeler would be available on regular rest (four days).
Now, if the Wild Card Series does go three games – and the Phillies survive – then they will need a fourth starter for Game 1 of the NLDS.
Going into Wednesday, Walker may have had the lead for that job. But coming out of Wednesday, Sanchez may have drawn even with him.
The final determining factor could well be how Sanchez fares the second time around against a potent offense in just six days. If he’s as successful as he was Wednesday, when he had the Braves swing and miss at 18 pitches – and that was just among his changeups – then they could turn to him, and not Walker, to face he Braves one more time on October 7.
I’m all-in on a Cristopher Sanchez postseason start. Wasn’t perfect tonight, but some good adjustments and execution as the game wore on.
If you’re doing this thing on merit, not sure how you keep him down.
— Bob Wankel (@Bob_Wankel) September 14, 2023
Bob’s right. He might deserve it. But…
Might the Phillies deem him more valuable pitching out of the bullpen in a multi-inning role, especially as a piggyback for a starter who might show some early signs of cracking in a start?
Nola’s showing signs of having that blowup inning? Get him out of there and go to Sanchez. Walker can’t throw strikes? Get him out of there and go to Sanchez. It’s a valuable option to have. Probably more valuable than being a starter once or twice the entire postseason.
With the schedule being different and more off days being built in, do you really want to limit Sanchez’s effectiveness by having him make starts here and there?
We are conditioned, as baseball followers, to believe in starting pitching to carry teams far in the playoffs, and while dominant starters still can certainly do that, in 2023, how many dominant starters are there, really? The game has wreaked havoc on pitching staffs this season. Fewer and fewer pitchers are finding as much success as they did in the past – especially pitchers who throw hard. The rule changes have made it such that pitchers who keep batters off balance are finding more success than those who try to blow you away.
Look at the Major League leader board for WHIP, for example. Among starters who have made 15 starts, Sanchez ranks eighth in baseball. A few of the names ahead of him are still fireballers (Gerritt Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Luis Castillo, and George Kirby) but the others are similar pitchers to Sanchez (Tyler Wells, Matt Manning, and Zach Eflin).
Although Glasnow throws hard, what makes him so effective is he throws a higher percentage of breaking pitches (52%) than hard stuff.
But among them all, Sanchez has the slowest change up and throws his change up more (32%) than any of them. (Wells is next closest at 18%).
And he should, because he has a 40% whiff percentage on his change up and batters are hitting just .161 against it.
The problem is, Sanchez doesn’t miss as many bats against his sinker. He only has a 10.5% whiff rate on his sinker, and batters are hitting .296 against it and slugging .522 off it.
It’s why the Phillies are a little reluctant to trot him out as a starter in a playoff game.
Instead, deploying him when it’s the most opportune time in a game, and having him dazzle with that change up after the batters have been seeing higher velocity from other starters in their first couple plate appearances, is a weapon the Phillies may want to have at their disposal more frequently.
So, maybe that’s the best strategy for the Phillies – throw him as often as they can in the situations that best call for it and not be beholden to starting him and then having him be unavailable for multiple days before and after his scheduled start.
If Cristopher Sanchez can improve his sinker/fastball next year, he could really take off. The changeup is absolutely sick. pic.twitter.com/Ik8VZ2q4Jn
— Jon Anderson (@JonPgh) September 14, 2023
No matter what they decide, Sanchez has been one of the most unexpected positive stories for the Phillies in 2023, and possibly beyond this season.