For almost two months, Anibal Sanchez was in a funk. Whether it was a seeing-eye grounder that found a hole or yet another fly ball that left the park, Sanchez couldn't seem to get hitters out. He gave up five earned runs or more in five of his first 10 starts, resulting in a 6.12 ERA on May 24.
How unusual was this for Sanchez? He only had eight outings with five or more earned runs allowed in his Tigers career heading into this season. We simply had not seen the 2013 American League ERA champion struggle like this since arriving in Detroit, so it was natural for doubt to creep in. Was Sanchez hurt? Is this the Sanchez we'll see for the remainder of his contract?
The home run rate was especially puzzling. After allowing four home runs in 126 innings last season and nine in a full 182-inning season in 2013, Sanchez allowed 11 home runs in his first 60 1/3 innings this year. Righties, lefties, sluggers, slap hitters, it didn't matter. Everyone was making hard contact against the 31-year-old Venezuelan and it was starting to feel like more than a fluke.
It's particularly odd, then, that Sanchez's turnaround started during the Tigers' worst stretch of the season. While the Tigers were busy losing eight games in a row, Sanchez turned in a pair of solid performances against the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics. Then, when the Tigers finally snapped their losing streak, Sanchez turned it up a notch. He tossed 7 2/3 shutout innings against the Chicago Cubs on June 9, and followed that up with last night's two-hit shutout of the Cincinnati Reds.
While Sanchez's win-loss record has yet to reflect his resurgence, his peripheral numbers have always been strong. Sanchez has 24 strikeouts to eight walks in his last four starts, and a 3.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the season. His ERA is down to 4.65, while his FIP is down to 3.99. His 3.67 xFIP and 3.77 SIERA have been fairly consistent all season long, indicating that Sanchez has been better than his homer-inflated ERA suggested.
Sanchez's strand rate, once an unsightly 59.5 percent, has steadily risen to a more respectable 66.8 percent. It would be rising faster if Sanchez were allowing more baserunners, but he has only given up 19 hits in his last 28 2/3 innings, a vast improvement over the 15 hits and 14 runs he allowed in his two starts leading up to this recent run of success.
More importantly, Sanchez's hot stretch has come when the Tigers have needed it most. With Shane Greene struggling and Justin Verlander only now working back into the fold, the Tigers needed as much out of their other three starters as possible. David Price and Alfredo Simon have held up their end of the bargain so far, but Sanchez had not. The Tigers were 3-7 in his first 10 starts, and lost his next two despite better efforts.
Now, they have won Sanchez's past two starts and look as dangerous as ever in the American League Central. Both Kansas City and Minnesota have struggled ahead of the Tigers, and with the offense finally starting to come around, the Tigers could make a run in the standings before the All-Star break. They will need the Sanchez we have seen in the past two weeks to get there, but if last night's outing is any indication, he's more than up to the task.