I have a yearly tradition where I've gone out and bought a shirsey of my favorite Tiger. It seems like whoever's number I plan on sporting that year has a massive season: Drew Smyly in 2012, Jhonny Peralta in 2013, Victor Martinez in 2014. This year, I made the fateful decision to one-up a shirsey and invest in a real jersey of one of my favorite Tigers ever. I planned on wearing that jersey all year in support of the criminally underrated Anibal Sanchez.
That's a long way of saying "my bad."
Sanchez took a huge step backward in 2015, with his ERA and FIP literally double where they were in his Cy Young-caliber 2013 season. Sanchez was just spared from the ignominious feat of posting an ERA over 5.00, but his 4.99 mark tied Chris Tillman for fourth-worst of all pitchers that notched at least 150 innings*. Sanchez was worth just 0.9 fWAR (less than Blaine Hardy, for reference), making this easily the worst full season of Sanchez's career.
The Tigers will be relying heavily on Sanchez to bounce back in 2016. Outside of Justin Verlander, Daniel Norris, and Sanchez, nothing is set in stone for next year's rotation. With Norris still young, it is imperative that Sanchez steps back up to the No. 2 pitcher he's been. Looking further beyond, the Tigers still have him under contract for another year after, as well as a team option for the 2018 season.
However, if we take a look back at 2015, there are some clear signs that he's going to get better.
*Oh, look, Alfredo Simon was on that list too.
Sanchez continues to strike guys out. That's the best thing a pitcher can do, because then you aren't putting your success in the shaky hands of Nick Castellanos. Anibal struck out 20.9 percent of the batters he faced in 2015, which was less than the insane 27.1 rate he posted in 2013 but still above the 19.5 percent league average rate for starting pitchers. Couple that with his 7.4 percent walk rate, and we can see that Sanchez is still getting the job done in those fielding-independent departments (well, two of them).
That's probably the most important thing, but we should also note that he takes part in some fantastic team bonding activities. Nothing surprising for the Ice Cream Man.
Sanchez has struggled to stay healthy in recent years, missing time in each of his three full seasons with Detroit. In 2013, during the Year of the Rotation, Sanchez missed nearly a month, although he still made 29 starts. That may be his yearly ceiling at this point in his career. Sanchez has pitched just 126 and 157 innings over the last two years, respectively. The list of injury issues he has dealt with in the last two years -- a lacerated finger, strained pectoral muscle, torn rotator cuff, and others -- is cause for concern going forward. I'd consider this the biggest reason to temper enthusiasm over the latter half of his contract.
Dingers, dingers, and more dingers. Somany dingers. Kyle Lohse and Phil Hughes just barely managed to be worse at home run prevention than Anibal in 2015, as Sanchez gave up 1.66 home runs per nine innings. That means the average span between home runs he allowed was less than six innings. It's very hard to win that way.
The rise in home run rates is pretty obviously caused by a sharp rise in Sanchez's home run to fly ball ratio. After posting below average rates in 2013 and 2014 -- 5.8 and 3.1 percent, respectively -- Sanchez allowed a big fly on 16 percent of his fly balls in 2015. That's basically equivalent to what Miguel Cabrera and Yoenis Cespedes posted in 2015. That's a statistic that I never want to see him post again.
He had his moments of strength, but it was clear Sanchez wasn't himself, even during his quality starts. At the end of the year Ausmus revealed that Sanchez had been dealing with a rotator cuff injury approximately two months before he told anyone. Sanchez finished his season on the DL with a rotator cuff strain -- just the latest of an ongoing series of shoulder issues throughout his career. He gave up a career-high (and MLB-high) 29 home runs after allowing just 21 the three years prior combined.
Expectations for 2016
Simply: Sanchez is going to be better. He has to be better if the Tigers are going to return to playoff contention. There is almost no way Sanchez will post a 16.0 HR/FB ratio again. Hopefully, that will lower Sanchez's 2016 ERA to a value closer to his 4.03 xFIP and SIERA. If he becomes healthy again, it's not unreasonable to hope for the Sanchez of old -- a dependable No. 2 starter who is worth roughly three WAR per season. The Tigers eagerly await his return to form as maybe the most integral piece of Detroit's rebound.