By: Chris Larson
The Atlanta Braves are part of a handful of teams that surprised many around the game of baseball this season and certainly caught the entire NL East division off guard. After all, not only did the Braves clinch the NL East last week, they continue to have the third best record in the National League, tied with the Colorado Rockies, at 89-70 and have the third best run differential in the NL, to date at +99.
There are many reasons why the Atlanta Braves came out of their rebuilding mode and took their game up a notch. You can credit a new leadership team and vision under General Manager, Alex Anthopoulos, a offense that experienced a resurgence by Nick Markakis, the emergence of fascinating rookies such as Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies, or even the outstanding defensive metrics the team seemingly put up all season long, as being reasons for why the Braves are where they are at right now.
However, as the old adage goes, pitching and defense win ballgames and championships, which is exactly two of the things that Atlanta has benefitted from all season. Going into this season, there was plenty of hype surrounding Atlanta's young starters, including Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb. and while both will play extremely important roles for the Braves come the postseason, there are two individuals who might even be more important in helping the Braves to, sustain long-term postseason success this October, in: Anibal Sanchez and Kevin Gausman.
The reason being isn't solely based on the idea of both Sanchez and Gausman being veterans or leaders for the Braves pitching staff, but rather the track record and the postseason experience that both bring to the Braves starting rotation. Over his big league career, Anibal Sanchez has pitched in 6 postseason series, or a total of 38.2 innings, and has posted a 2.79 ERA over that span along with a 10.0 strikeouts-per-9 rate. Furthermore, Kevin Gausman, albeit a much smaller sample size, has pitched 8 innings of postseason baseball, with the Baltimore Orioles, in which he posted a 1.13 ERA with 7 strikeouts and a 0.75 WHIP. That certainly weighted heavily on the minds of the Atlanta Braves front office staff when the team signed Anibal Sanchez this past offseason and made the trade for Kevin Gausman at the Non-Waiver Trade Deadline.
Over his entire career, Anibal Sanchez has pitched 1,723.1 innings and has made 285 career starts, a number that matches the amount of starts that legendary St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, has made over his career. Granted, Adam Wainwright has a lot more fanfare behind his name and is recognized more by the media because of that fanfare, but regardless those numbers alone help to indicate how durable and reliable Sanchez has been. Having Sanchez as a veteran leader/anchor amid a young Atlanta Braves starting rotation has been one of the best moves the Atlanta Braves made over the past few seasons and that durability will absolutely come into play next month in the postseason.
The same can even be said for Kevin Gausman, who is only 27 years old, but has a very good track record and one that shows durability as well. While Gausman hasn't made as many career starts as Sanchez has over his big league career, Gausman has made at least 30 starts in each of the past four regular seasons and has 818.1 innings of work, or 136 career starts, under his belt altogether. The numbers haven't always been impressive or tops among baseball, but durability is something that many General Managers like and that is a big reason why Gausman will also play an extremely important role in the success of the Atlanta Braves come next month.
Going back to Anibal Sanchez now, one of the most amazing things behind the resurgence that he has experienced in Atlanta this season is the fact that he is relying on his cutter and curveball, a lot more often compared to recent seasons. Take a look at the chart below, which shows Sanchez pitch percentages, over the last four seasons:
Rather than relying on his fastball so much (48.8% last season), Anibal Sanchez is now throwing it over 10% less of the time (38.2%) this year which has translated into more success on the mound. Furthermore, he has cut the percentage of time, that he throws his slider, in half (11.6% last year versus 5.4% this season) and is relying on his cutter MUCH more often. As the chart illustrates, Sanchez only relied on his cutter 8.7% of the time last season, but has thrown it 22.9% of the time this year. Almost triple the amount of time he threw it in 2017 with the Tigers! The numbers have also changed, albeit slightly, in terms of Sanchez curveball and changeup percentages.
In addition to those factors, you can't ignore how well Anibal Sanchez changes his velocity on various pitches either. This season, some of the Atlanta Braves players have commented about how Sanchez has been magical in terms of being able to go from the mid-60's on some of his pitches to the low-90s against other batters. Sanchez most common pitch, his slider, has had an average velocity of 78.2 MPH this season, while Sanchez sinker has shown the most velocity, 91.4 MPH, throughout this season.
How much these changes help Anibal Sanchez to be successful this postseason, remains to be seen, but by basically remaking his entire pitch repertoire and relying on certain pitches more often, that can be valuable in any postseason scenario. Furthermore, by having five pitches, Sanchez adds even more value and could give the Atlanta Braves someone that could prevent a postseason series slide or a pitcher who could be used in the final elimination game of the season. Of course, everything is still up in the air about who the Braves could potentially face, but if everything came to a close today, the Braves would play the Colorado Rockies in the NLDS.
However, if you want to learn something fascinating, consider this. According to FanGraphs, the Colorado Rockies, are tied with the Boston Red Sox, for the fifth lowest hit percentage on cutters this season. Given that Anibal Sanchez most common pitch this season has been his cutter, that could certainly give the Atlanta Braves, quite an advantage. On the year, the Colorado Rockies are hitting 4.9% of the cutters that they have seen. The team that ranks first in that category, the Houston Astros, are hitting 7.3% of the cutters that they have seen, for comparisons sake.
Switching over to Kevin Gausman now, Gausman has also experience a resurgence with the Atlanta Braves, since coming over mid-season from the Baltimore Orioles. Through 9 starts with Atlanta, Gausman has posted a 2.80 ERA over 54.2 innings of work with 38 strikeouts and ground outs versus air outs ratio of 0.92, the second lowest ratio percentage, of his 6-year big league career. The numbers for Kevin Gausman haven't been as impressive this year, as they have been for Anibal Sanchez, but Gausman has still been highly effective in the starts that he has made for the Braves.
So far this season, with both the Baltimore Orioles and the Atlanta Braves, Kevin Gausman has a cumulative Opponent BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) value of .299, which is the lowest his BABIP, has been dating back to the 2015 regular season when it was .288. BABIP is important because it measures how often a batted ball, might end up falling and turning into, a hit. A big reason behind why Gausman has had a the lowest BABIP, over the past three seasons, has a lot to due with the tremendous success that the Braves defense has had all season and certainly a credit to them.
Furthermore, if you're looking for something else to like about Kevin Gausman, it is his ability to throw a split-finger fastball. That's not one of the most common pitches around baseball, much anymore, but Gausman has relied on it more than he did last season. Here is a chart showcasing Gausman's pitch percentages over the last four seasons:
Overall, Gausman has seen a slight downtick in the velocity on all of his pitches, but that could be part of the game plan that the Atlanta Braves helped to develop with him. As you can see from the chart, Gausman's average velocity on his fastball is down to 93.7 MPH this year compared to 95.0 MPH last season, his slider is clocking in at 81.5 MPH compared to 83.2 MPH last year, his changeup is almost down three MPH (85.1 MPH last season versus 82.2 MPH this year), and his split-finger is down a little more than two MPH (clocking in at 85.1 last season versus 82.9 MPH) this year. In addition, Gausman has eliminated the curveball entirely from his pitch repertoire, a pitch that he only threw last season, based on the data shown in the cart.
While nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the postseason or baseball in October and while you definitely can't make predictions on paper about what will happen, one thing is for certain and that's the fact that the Atlanta Braves will need both Anibal Sanchez and Kevin Gausman to perform well for sustainable, long-term postseason success. There's a reason why the Braves acquired both pitchers, not only for their veteran status and leadership, but also their durability and postseason track record. Come next month, it will be up to both Sanchez and Gausman to show the Braves front office members that, they made wise decisions in acquiring both pitchers, and prove why the Atlanta Braves should be taken seriously in the postseason.