Cristopher Sánchez has been arguably the Phillies’ second-best starter for the majority of the second half of the season. The wiry lefty’s changeup has become one of the best changeups across all of baseball, as he became the first pitcher since Luis Castillo in 2019 to collect 10 strikeouts in a game all on changeups in his last start against the Mets.
Rob Thomson has acknowledged that Sánchez has thrust his name into the conversation for a role in the postseason, potentially starting a playoff game. That seems like it would be the most logical choice considering the recent struggles of Taijuan Walker, but Walker was paid with the belief he could start a playoff game. That decision won’t have to be made unless the Phillies advance to the NLDS, but Sánchez could wind up coming out of the bullpen.
But what if Sánchez wasn’t used as just a starter or just a reliever? What if he follows the path of another Phillies lefty?
Ranger Suárez entered the 2022 postseason entrenched as the team’s number 3 starter. He had long surpassed Kyle Gibson in the rotation with a breakout season that saw him start a career-high 29 games and pitch to a 3.65 ERA. Suárez started Game One of the NLDS against the Braves and went 3.1 innings and allowed one run before giving way to the bullpen, as is the norm for the postseason. It was his only appearance in the series as the Phillies advanced before he was needed again.
Suárez’ role evolved when the Phillies reached the 7-game series of the NLCS and the World Series, however. He continued to start, but he also started to pitch crucial, high leverage innings in relief. Coming out of the bullpen wasn’t foreign to Suárez, as he was one of the most trusted relievers for a majority of 2021. All in all, he finished the postseason with a 1.23 ERA across 14.2 innings spread across 5 total appearances and 3 starts.
Sánchez of 2023 and Suárez of 2022 had similar seasons heading into October. Both previously had bounced around between the bullpen and the rotation. Both forced their way into the rotation and took off at the age of 26. Both pitchers also use a changeup as an out pitch. Suárez made more starts than Sánchez will this year, but even their numbers are not far off from each other.
Now you can see where this is going. Sánchez has the potential to be just as big a weapon as Suárez was last postseason. Sánchez has the ability to start and the experience of the bullpen. He could be called upon in a key situation to get a strikeout, or to pitch multiple bridge innings to get to the Phillies best relievers. His swing and miss stuff is more valuable in a bullpen role than the pitch-to-contact stylings of Michael Lorenzen. Sánchez’ ability to get both righties and lefties out on a consistent basis will also be key in a multi-inning relief role. He’s proven that he can be economical with his pitches without losing effectiveness, as he’s had two starts of at least 7 innings and 10 strikeouts in the month of September.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict how Sánchez will react to a postseason environment. But the same could have been said about Suárez prior to last season. Sánchez’s ability to generate a high number of whiffs bodes well for the postseason, but one area that does bring pause is his susceptibility to home runs. He’s allowed 16 long balls in 98.1 IP this season. Sánchez primarily works in the lower part of the zone, especially with his changeup. That is naturally going to lead him into the bat path of uppercut swings. He must keep the ball in the park if he wants to succeed in October.
Sánchez has also passed his career high in total innings already, as he has 148 IP spread across AAA and the Majors. That surpasses his previous high in 2022 of 97.1 total innings. He most likely has one more start left in the regular season, all but assuring he will pass 150 total innings for the first time in his career. Suárez of 2022 also set a new high in innings, as he was at 155.1 before the postseason began.
Best of both worlds
The difference between “starter” and “reliever” are blurred in the postseason. Teams prioritize using their best 7 or 8 pitchers, regardless of what their traditional regular season roles were. Right now, Sánchez is undeniably one of those 7 or 8, and the team should be ready to get creative with his role in the postseason. They saw last year just how much a pitcher with his abilities can be a vital piece when making a postseason run.