When the Tigers acquired Anibal Sanchez from the Miami Marlins at the trade deadline, they thought they were getting a guy who had established himself as one of the better starting pitchers in the National League. He wasn’t ever considered an elite-level, ace-type pitcher, but over his last three full seasons in the NL (2009-2011), he ranked 19th in the league in total fWAR. Over that stretch he posted a solid 3.66 ERA with 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings while walking 3.4 per nine. Those numbers make for a decent number two pitcher or an excellent number three. The Tigers were slotting him to be their four or five man in the rotation. It looked like an easy upgrade.
But that wasn’t the pitcher who arrived in Detroit following the trade deadline. That guy couldn’t really strike anyone out, that guy gave up a ton of hits, and that guy wasn’t helping the Tigers win games. Through his first six Detroit starts (34 innings in July and August), Sanchez’s ERA was an eye-popping 5.29. Partially to blame for that was a higher-than-expected BABIP of .350, but his FIP was 4.81 (if you can accept my back of the napkin calculation) so poor luck can’t be blamed as the primary culprit. His home run rate took a jump – he allowed five homers in those six games – but the real change was his near complete lack of strikeouts.
Sanchez, who had fanned nearly eight batters per nine innings for his career, suddenly sported a Porcellian 5.3 K/9 rate through his first month in Detroit. Whatever the reason – no longer facing the pitcher, getting used to new hitters, extra pressure of being on a contender – Anibal simply wouldn’t be able to get the job done with those numbers. Was the talent level of the American League too much for him?
But after the calendar flipped from August to September, Sanchez morphed back into the pitcher the organization thought they were getting in the first place. Actually I take that back, he’s been much better than the guy they thought they were getting. In his last five starts (34.1 innings in September) Sanchez has quieted the doubt that he could get the job done in the AL. In these five starts Sanchez has dominated the competition to the tune of a 2.62 ERA. He’s received a boost from a .264 BABIP, but his FIP for the month still comes out to around 2.76, so his results are legitimate. He’s done a better job of keeping the ball in the yard, and he’s whittled down the walk rate, but the biggest difference between his first six starts in a Tigers uniform and his last five has been the strikeout rate jumping back up to 8.7 per nine innings.
Sanchez isn’t typically an overpowering pitcher, but the strikeout is a large part of his game and he needs to keep it that way in order to find regular success. If Anibal Sanchez stays on his game, then the Tigers would almost certainly have the best 1-2-3-4 playoff rotation of any AL team (assuming they make it).
The Tigers don’t need Sanchez to be the complete-game shutout pitcher that we saw last night to hold of the Sox and make a run in the playoffs, but they do need him to be the guy the traded for. And with the return of his strikeout numbers, it appears that he will be just that.