A No. 5 in name only, Sanchez has new weapons and a chance to take off

A No. 5 in name only, Sanchez has new weapons and a chance to take off originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Was it real? Was it lightning in a bottle or a genuine jumping-off point?

The answers to these questions won't just impact Cristopher Sanchez' baseball future, they'll affect the Phillies' 2024 ceiling.

The 27-year-old lefty was so good last season, so important to the Phils' second-half success, solidifying the final spot in their rotation and performing like one of the best starting pitchers in baseball over the final three-plus months.

He was a No. 5 starter in name only in the second half of 2023, producing a 3.32 ERA and 1.02 WHIP from June 17 through the end of the regular season. The two primary reasons for Sanchez' turnaround were vastly improved command and the evolution of one of baseball's best changeups.

He walked just 16 batters in 99⅓ innings — 1.4 walks per nine innings compared to the 4.9 Sanchez had walked in his Triple A career.

The changeup held hitters to a .148 batting average, the lowest among all 42 major-league pitchers who threw at least 400 of them.

And now, there are two more wrinkles.

One is a new weapon. Sanchez is working on a cutter to give himself another option against right-handed hitters.

"It's one more pitch," he said after a sharp two-inning start against the Twins in Fort Myers Tuesday. "The first one that I threw to (Carlos) Correa, he got surprised. So that's the goal for me."

Righties hit .324 off Sanchez' fastball last season. They hit .161 on the changeup, but you can't throw the changeup every pitch. It needs to play off the fastball. If he can develop a cutter that consistently jams right-handed bats, it would make a difference.

"That up-and-in cutter at the hands, at the belt, it's tough to hit," manager Rob Thomson said. "Now he's got the sinker and cutter, mirrored pitches. It works really well for him."

The other change for Sanchez is a potential jump in fastball velocity. He threw nine two-seam fastballs Tuesday and they averaged 94.3 mph, topping out at 95.3. Last season, Sanchez' two-seamer averaged 92.2.

Given the effectiveness of his changeup, additional fastball velocity will only result in greater separation, theoretically making his entire arsenal better. Once upon a time in the Rays' system, Sanchez was a reliever throwing 97-98 mph. He had no command back then. Now the Phillies are trying to see if he can regain some of the velocity while holding onto the command.

"Hopefully he can do that, that would be the perfect scenario," Thomson said.

"I think he's just comfortable. He's got a full year in now where he pitched really well, and now he can maybe turn it loose a little bit and see if he can maintain that command. If he does, it's gonna be really good."

Sanchez looks significantly stronger this year. He put on 10 pounds of muscle and it shows. He went from lanky to jacked.

"Getting my body to be stronger, that's the fundamental part of this," he said Tuesday. "I wanted to be in better shape and that goes alongside having more velocity. A little bit more volume and weight on my body. I worked harder. More work. Conscious work."

The next step for Sanchez is repeating or approaching last year's success over a full season. He made 18 starts in the majors in 2023 with eight more in the minors. Combined, he threw 149 innings. An immediate jump to 200 would seem somewhat unrealistic but if he can split the difference and pitch 175 or so quality innings for the Phillies, it would help them get closer to their ultimate goal.

Every pitcher wants to stay healthy and make 32 starts. Every player wants to win the World Series. Those are Sanchez' primary motivations.

He has at least one more.

"Go to the All-Star Game," he said with a smile.

If his second half of '23 carries over to the first half of '24, it wouldn't be so crazy.