On Saturday afternoon, the Florida Marlins’ Anibal Sanchez dominated the Washington Nationals, throwing eight shutout innings. In his last two starts (both, as it happens, against Washington), Sanchez has thrown 15 innings without permitting a run, giving up just five hits and two walks while striking out 20, dropping his ERA to 2.90. His FIP (fielding independent pitching, an approximation of what his ERA “should” be attempting to remove luck and defense from the equation) during those two starts is approximately 0.93.
If you had to guess who on the current Marlins roster could produce such a dominant number, it’d probably be Josh Johnson. Which, given his league-leading 1.63 ERA (and his league-leading 2.30 ERA in 2010), is perfectly understandable. But Sanchez, so far in 2011, has been almost as good as Johnson. He’s gotten a few more strikeouts, permitted a few more walks, and has given up two more homers.
Johnson has been a better pitcher than Sanchez, but Johnson has been a better pitcher than almost everybody. While Sanchez has had a few off outings -- he gave up 13 hits to the Astros on April 10, and walked six Cardinals on May 3 -- his overall performance so far suggests that, at just 27 and coming off the first injury-free season of his career, Sanchez might be developing into a No. 1A to Johnson’s No. 1.
Sanchez was good enough in 2010 (with a 3.55 ERA and 118 ERA+ in 195 innings), but he appears to have taken another large step forward this year. The biggest difference is the strikeouts. His 9.4 strikeouts per nine thus far in 2011 has beaten his previous, relatively pedestrian career mark by 2.5 strikeouts, and his 2010 mark by more than two. According to Fangraphs, entering Saturday night’s start, Sanchez’s fastball was up nearly half a mile per hour from last year, his slider was up more than one and a half, and his curve was down just a tick, all good things for making a pitcher less hittable. Over on Fangraphs, following his last start, Eno Sarris gave some additional good reasons to believe the jump in strikeouts was real.
Sanchez has now had eight starts in 2011, and has racked up at least as many strikeouts as innings pitched in five of them (with two very off starts and one in which he managed four strikeouts in five innings). It’s not just a matter of one or two good games, or of dominating one or two bad teams -- Sanchez has, so far, been a different, better pitcher. He has managed many more strikeouts than he ever had while keeping his walks down at roughly his 2010 level, which is basically the perfect recipe for becoming a star.
And here’s something scary: With Ricky Nolasco (last seen holding the Phillies to just one earned run in 6.1 innings on Wednesday), the Marlins essentially have two Anibal Sanchezes. Nolasco has been a favorite of the sabermetrically inclined for several years now, putting up impressive FIPs of 3.35 and 3.86 in 2009 and 2010 while being saddled with ugly ERAs of 5.06 and 4.51. After two seasons like that, you might start to think that Nolasco wasn’t just unlucky, but is one of those rare players who seems to confound the metrics, actually pitching less effectively than the metrics suggest. So far in 2011, though, he’s been almost exactly the pitcher the advanced metrics have expected him to be. He’s averaging almost seven and a half strikeouts per nine (which is a bit low for him, but he’s at roughly one K per inning over his last six starts), and walking just one and a half per nine, and it’s resulted in a 3.02 ERA (3.33 FIP) in his first 53.2 innings.
It’s a bit hard to take the Marlins seriously, as a general matter. Their payroll always seems to hover around Alex Rodriguez's annual salary, and this offseason, they traded away their second-best position player and their starting center fielder for almost nothing in return. But with Johnson, Sanchez and Nolasco, they have what appears to be developing into one of the most dominant rotations (or among the top three, anyway) in baseball. With Hanley Ramirez (who should start hitting like Hanley again eventually), Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton, there seems to be more than enough offense there to win.
If you’re not already thinking of the 23-15 Marlins as contenders in the NL East and the wild card race, I think it’s time to start.
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