Anibal Sanchez came into the 2014 campaign with hopes of building off his stellar season the year before. An ERA title in the American League had established Sanchez as another ace-level arm inhabiting the Detroit Tigers rotation. Dominating efforts were commonplace such as a 17 strikeout gem versus the Braves or a near no-hitter of the Twins.
Would Sanchez once again be a pillar of success for the Tigers in 2014?
The 2014 Campaign
Well, the answer isn't simple. When he was available, Sanchez pitched pretty well. The Tigers went 12–9 in his starts and he posted a 3.43 ERA overall. But two stints on the disabled list marred the season and held him to merely 126 innings pitched in total.
The season started slowly for Sanchez. His early April performances failed to reach the sixth inning quite often, mostly due to pitch counts getting out of control. Then on April 26 in Minnesota, Sanchez left his start before getting out of the third inning with a blister issue that landed him on the DL for the first time in 2014.
Sanchez returned in mid-May and went on a roll. He contributed a fine game out of the chute with a five inning, one earned run start against the Red Sox during the Tigers' sweep at Fenway Park. The near quality start in his first game back was a harbinger of what was to come over the next few weeks.
While the Tigers as a whole were stumbling badly through the end of May and into June, Sanchez was humming along nicely. After his Fenway start, he would post quality starts in eight of his next 10 trips to the mound. Included in this streak were two gems against division rival Kansas City, both seven inning, one earned run efforts culminating in 2–1 Tigers victories.
Sanchez would end July with three blemish-laden efforts against Cleveland, Arizona, and the White Sox with no quality starts included. He would rebound, however, against the woe-begotten Colorado Rockies with one of his most dominant starts of the year on August 3. Sanchez would toss a season high 117 pitches en route to 12 strikeouts over seven two-hit shutout innings.
Then, mini-disaster struck for Detroit. Sanchez would leave the mound in the fifth inning of his next start in Toronto, looking very dismayed on his way to the dugout. It looked bad to most observers. Word would later filter out that Sanchez had strained his right pectoral muscle. This was actually greeted as good news overall since many were speculating about a more severe shoulder issue.
Sanchez would miss the several weeks and return for one lone relief outing in late September. He would pitch successfully in Game 2 of the ALDS, putting the Tigers in nice position to tie the series. However he was limited to a very small pitch count due to his layoff. Sanchez was pulled in favor of Joba Chamberlain to begin the eighth inning. It ended up being the true beginning of the end for the Tigers' hopes in 2014.
Sanchez had pitched between 182 and 196 innings in the previous four seasons. Scaling his contributions back to only 126 innings leaves a sizable hole for any organization's depth to fill. The two DL stints are the biggest stories of Sanchez's season in 2014. He wasn't available for swaths of the season and it's hard to get a grade surpassing expectations when that happens.
However Sanchez did have the dominant stretch in the middle of the season that helped keep the club afloat during a haphazard stretch of baseball that saw the Tigers teetering on mediocrity for a couple of months after their sizzling 27–12 start to the year.
One thing to take note of: Sanchez saw his strikeout percentage take a precipitous fall in 2014 over his sterling 2013 season. At 19.8 percent Sanchez was around the league average in strikeout percentage. It's a much closer rate to his career percentage and a big step back from the 27.1 percent he posted in 2013.
It's interesting to see that the strikeout percentage for all the Tigers starters who spent the whole year in Detroit fell from the year prior. Max Scherzer took only a small step back, but Rick Porcello, Justin Verlander, and Sanchez took very noticeable dips in strikeouts. All this in an era of rising whiffs throughout the game. Whether this is a troubling trend or just a testament to how dominant the Tigers pitchers were in 2013 is probably deserving of its own study.
It's all about the health. That's true of any pitcher you're building your rotation around. But for Sanchez, we've now seen three instances of missed time in two years. How the Tigers training staff can keep him available on a consistent basis will be the major story to be monitored moving ahead.
Sanchez really looked a bit more like the pitcher he was in Miami for several years in 2014. The dominant guy we saw in 2013 was only on display sporadically. It might be the case that 2013 was the "career year" and we'll see more of a "decent No. 2/great No. 3" starter moving ahead. In 2013, he was approaching higher levels.
If Sanchez is that near-ace guy again, however, it will soften the blow losing Scherzer if that indeed happens. Sanchez certainly has the dazzling array of pitches to dominate any game he takes the mound for. Will he hold up for a full season and be able to get his strikeout rates back to big time territory? Those will be the big questions in 2015.