When the Tigers traded top-prospect Jacob Turner for Anibal Sanchez at the trade deadline in 2012, people questioned whether the Tigers had overpaid for a starter who was only under contract for two more months. The doomsdayers of the Tigers fanbase even compared the trade to the infamous John Smoltz deal. Sanchez added a wrinkle to the comparisons by doing his best Doyle Alexander impression, maintaining a 2.05 ERA in his last 11 starts (postseason included).
After the 2012 season, people questioned whether the Tigers overpaid when they signed Sanchez to a five-year, $80-million contract. While his dominant stretch to close out 2012 was nice, he had a career 3.75 ERA and 3.79 FIP. Not to mention, Sanchez had a history of shoulder problems, including a labrum repair that caused him to miss most of the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
Then, 2013 happened. Sanchez delivered on the promise of his sterling finish to 2012, holding opponents to a 2.57 ERA and 2.39 FIP, both tops in the American League. He spent time on the disabled list due to a shoulder injury, but still logged 182 innings and 6.2 WAR. After silencing the doubters (again), there was only one question left about Sanchez heading into 2014: Can he do it again?
So far, so good.
It is not a stretch to say that Sanchez has been the Tigers' best pitcher in 2014. His 2.33 ERA is more than a full run lower than anyone else's on the starting staff. His 2.44 FIP is the best among Tigers starters, and second among all Tigers pitchers to Joba Chamberlain's 2.33 FIP. He is just 0.1 WAR shy of Max Scherzer for the team lead, but has thrown 34⅔ fewer innings than Scherzer. His 0.93 WHIP leads the team, unless you count Blaine Hardy's 0.60 WHIP in five innings of work.
Comparing Sanchez to his teammates may not be enough at this point, especially given the relative struggles of Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Sanchez's ERA ranks sixth in the American League (minimum 50 innings pitched) while his FIP ranks third. He is tied for 13th with 2.2 WAR and is one of two AL pitchers with at least 2.0 WAR in under 85 innings pitched. His .521 OPS allowed is second to Chris Sale among AL pitchers. Sanchez has only allowed one home run in 69⅔ innings, the lowest rate in baseball. All in all, a spectacular start for the 30-year-old Venezuelan.
Unfortunately, there are warning signs. Sanchez's home-run rate is unsustainable. Currently 1.5 percent of fly balls leave the park, but his career-average is 7.7 percent. His 3.49 xFIP — which uses a league average home run rate — may be a better predictor of his performance going forward. His 3.62 SIERA is also not so rosy. His 2.95 strikeout-to-walk ratio is good, but not as good as the 3.74 he posted last season. He is allowing fewer ground balls than last season, and that .232 BABIP probably won't last either. His average fastball velocity has dipped slightly as well.
Whether he regresses or not, Sanchez's performance has kept the Tigers afloat during this rough stretch of baseball. He is showing the ability to get hitters out despite not having the excellent strikeout rate he posted in 2013. He has been far more than Tigers fans could have ever expected, and just might be the Tigers' most imposing starting pitching matchup for opposing teams at the moment.