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Tigers’ over-reliance on Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey cost them a shot at the playoffs

If we boil the season down to one decision, it was that to keep using Sanchez and Pelfrey as starters despite poor results.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins - Game One Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

As the 2016 regular season winds down, people will point to a number of different reasons why the Detroit Tigers have missed the playoffs for a second consecutive year. Look around, the internet will be full of them today. Some will blame an inconsistent offense, others may point at injuries. Others may blame Brad Ausmus and call for his firing. The bullpen had its moments, and a general lack of organizational depth deserves a mention as well.

But if we’re going to boil the entire season down to one number, it’s 48. This is the number of games started by Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, two starters that did not pull their own weight in 2016 (to put it nicely). Sanchez finished the year with a 6.04 ERA and 5.19 FIP in 26 starts, while Pelfrey posted a 5.19 ERA and 5.24 FIP. They both finished on the positive side of the fWAR ledger, combining for 1.2 WAR. However, Baseball Reference’s version put Pelfrey at replacement level and Sanchez 1.1 wins below that.

These numbers are bad, but they get even worse when compared to those of Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd. The former Blue Jays draftees combined to make 31 starts for the Tigers this year, and their numbers were a big improvement. Norris battled injuries for the early part of the season, but finished the year strong. In 13 starts, he managed a 3.42 ERA and 3.89 FIP. FanGraphs considered him nearly as valuable (1.1 fWAR) as Sanchez and Pelfrey combined (1.2 fWAR).

Matt Boyd’s ERA took a hit in his final start of the year, making his final numbers a little less impressive than his entire body of work. He had a 4.16 ERA and 4.62 FIP in 97 13 innings entering his start against the Royals on September 25, but allowed four runs without recording a single out. Still, his final numbers — a 4.81 ERA and 4.78 FIP in 18 starts — represent an improvement over Sanchez and Pelfrey.

We can make things simpler than that, though. Wins and losses aren’t perfect metrics to assess a pitcher’s performance, but they paint an accurate picture here. This is how the Tigers fared in games started by each pitcher:

Norris: 8-5
Boyd: 10-8
Sanchez: 8-18
Pelfrey: 10-12

Combined, that’s an 18-13 record in Norris/Boyd starts, and a pitiful 18-30 mark in games started by Sanchez and Pelfrey. A lot of that damage came in April and May, when the Tigers went 6-15 in games started by their veterans. Pelfrey ended May with a 4.96 ERA and 5.65 FIP, while Sanchez 6.67 ERA and 6.31 FIP relegated him to the bullpen soon after.

During that same stretch, Boyd posted a 2.06 ERA in 48 innings at Triple-A Toledo. Norris didn’t debut with the Mud Hens until April 20 after recovering from his spring training back injury, but struck out 38 hitters in 33 13 Triple-A innings after that. There’s no guarantee that either youngster would have given the Tigers another win or two — wins that became quite necessary in the end, it turns out — but it’s hard to see how they would have been much worse. Had the Tigers gone to Norris or Boyd sooner than they did, we might be talking about a relevant Game 162 or AL Wild Card berth today.

Now, this isn’t to say that Sanchez and Pelfrey should not have started at all. The young starters that emerged this season were also question marks at the start of the season, and the Tigers dealt with injury issues along the way. However, as the season progressed, it was clear that Sanchez and Pelfrey were not the answer in the rotation. The Tigers realized this late in the year, even starting Buck Farmer in an important September game. But by then, it was too little too late.

It’s too early to speculate on what the Tigers will do with Sanchez or Pelfrey this offseason. Dumping both would cripple the Tigers’ rotation depth, but it’s clear that neither earned a spot in next season’s starting rotation based on 2016 performance. Norris has seemingly cemented his place in the 2017 rotation, while Boyd should get a fair shot at one spot as well.

It’s just too bad they didn’t get more of a shot in 2016. The Tigers could still be playing because of it.