Justin Verlander, the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history, and Max Scherzer, one of five undefeated starters left in the game today, walk into a clubhouse. The latter glances at the celebrious Verlander, then, pondering Anibal Sanchez, tells a nearby reporter, “To me, right now, he’s the best pitcher in the American League.” It’s not a joke.
That’s how I like to imagine the exchange tweeted by Jon Morosi of FOXSports.com last night after a victory for Sanchez and the Detroit Tigers over the Tampa Bay Rays. All three pitchers mentioned above have a case to be called the best in the Tiger rotation right now. Scherzer took things a step further, though, calling his teammate’s the best out of about 180 arms.
Let’s examine that claim. Sanchez leads the AL in Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by FanGraphs, with a 3.4. Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners trails by 0.6. On an unrelated but cool note, four Detroit pitchers find themselves in the top eight. Meanwhile, on Baseball-Reference, Sanchez comes in at sixth with a 2.5, while Clay Buchholz of the Boston Red Sox is first with a 3.5.
Buchholz also leads in ERA with a 1.62, while Sanchez sits seventh with his 2.65. But where Sanchez holds a big advantage is Fielding Independent Pitching. He leads the AL in that sabermetric evaluator of mound performance with a 1.78, the closest challenger being Hernandez at 2.39. Sanchez succeeds in that measure thanks to his strikeout rate, which sits at 11.31, second only to Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers with a 12.28.
Going by those numbers, it seems like a stretch to say he’s been the best for the season. But I don’t think April 1st was the cutoff date Scherzer had in mind. The starting point most lenient to his statement would be May 24th, the day Sanchez faced the Minnesota Twins and came two outs away from his second no-hitter. In his next start, he allowed just two runners for the first six innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates before imploding in the seventh. Last night, he dominated the Rays for seven full innings of one-run ball.
While his game log gets messy if you go back just a little further, Sanchez can claim three excellent starts in a row, save for one terrible inning. If results are the only factor, you could give the nod to Jerome Williams of the Los Angeles Angels or Scherzer. But considering a near no-hitter and 30 strikeouts in less than 23 innings, Sanchez may be as good a pick as any when looking for the hottest pitcher in the AL.
Even if he’s not the best pitcher in the league this season or this week, one thing is certain: he and his rotation-mates make it unfair to make the Chicago White Sox play the Tigers 19 times between now and the end of the season.