It's almost like clockwork at this point. Death, taxes, and Anibal Sanchez struggling the third time through the lineup are the three certainties in life. Sanchez proved this again in his last start, a solid effort in a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. After cruising through five shutout innings, Sanchez quickly retired the first two batters in the sixth, but made one mistake to Starling Marte with a runner on base, who unloaded on a hanging fastball to cut the Tigers' lead in half.
That home run came on Sanchez's 102nd pitch of the game, or just a few pitches more than in his previous start, when he struggled to get through the sixth against the Miami Marlins. In an embarrassingly small sample at this venture, opponents are hitting .500/.625/1.167 against Sanchez the third time through the order.
This wouldn't be a concern if Sanchez's TTOP* issues weren't already well documented. Opponents posted an .853 OPS the third time through the order in 2015, and a .713 OPS in similar situations in 2014. Though that last statistic seems out of place, keep in mind that Sanchez held opponents under the .550 OPS mark the first two times through the lineup that year.
That said, things are otherwise going very well for Sanchez. He is holding opponents to hitting just .221/.349/.361 so far this season, and that's without his best fastball command. The home run to Marte is Sanchez's lone gopher ball of the season, a major improvement from last year. Manager Brad Ausmus may need to hold Sanchez to a quick hook all season long, but the results so far are about as promising as one could have expected heading into the year.
*TTOP = Third time through the order penalty
Time/Place: 2:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (2-0, 3.38 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (0-1, 6.55 ERA)
Mike Fiers feels like he should be pitching for the Oakland A's or another small market club. Originally a 22nd round pick out of Nova Southeastern University in 2009, Fiers has carved out a solid career with an unconventional delivery -- watch for his exaggerated over-the-top motion during this game -- and pure devotion to elevating a straight-as-an-arrow fastball that lacks the premium velocity you would expect from that type of "country hardball" mindset.
Somehow, it has worked. Fiers has posted above average results in three of his previous four seasons, including a 3.69 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 180 1/3 innings last season. The saber-savvy Astros came calling at the trade deadline last year, plucking Fiers and Carlos Gomez away from a Milwaukee Brewers team destined for the bottom half of the NL Central. Fiers struggled in his first outing, but settled down quickly, grabbing a win over the Tigers in August and throwing a no-hitter against the Dodgers in his very next start.
Fiers' success stems mostly from his four-seam fastball, which averaged 90.3 miles per hour in 2015, according to Brooks Baseball. He is able to get away with that subpar velocity by elevating the fastball, throwing it almost exclusively at the top of the strike zone. This has resulted in a career 41.3 percent fly ball rate, one of the highest in baseball since Fiers debuted in 2011. Despite his fly ball rate, he has been able to succeed in a pair of homer-happy ballparks, though he did allow more home runs at home (15) than on the road (9) in 2015.
Hitter to fear: Evan Gattis (.500/.500/1.500 in 6 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Colby Rasmus (.190/.280/.333 in 25 plate appearances)
Sanchez has not fared well against the current Astros roster, but the numbers are largely skewed by a number of very small samples. Outfielder Preston Tucker homered in his lone plate appearances against Sanchez last year, while Jake Marisnick and George Springer are 1-for-2. Evan Gattis and Carlos Gomez have looked very good in six plate appearances, while even Astros pitcher (and former teammate) Doug Fister is 1-for-2. He has never faced Carlos Correa, who could easily make these numbers look even worse.
On a positive note, Sanchez struck out 11 in his lone start against the Astros last season, so we're going to ignore the part where he allowed seven runs on eight hits.
Like Collin McHugh on Saturday, Fiers posted reverse platoon splits during the 2015 season, and has struggled more against righties than lefties throughout his career. Part of this is the nature of his arsenal; big, looping curveballs like his fare better against lefties, and cutters would theoretically be tougher for them to handle as well. Fiers also gets more one-dimensional against righties, throwing his changeup and curveball less frequently against right-handed hitters. He can still be frustratingly effective if he spots the fastball well, but the righty-heavy Tigers lineup might actually have the advantage in this matchup.
Sanchez moves to 3-0 with another solid outing.
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