After a topsy-turvy win in Miami on Opening Day, the Detroit Tigers face an even stiffer test on Boxing Day: Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, the 23-year-old flame-throwing phenom who has never lost a home start.
For the Tigers, all eyes will be on Anibal Sanchez, who suffered through a brutal 2015 season, allowing a 4.99 ERA and 4.73 FIP in 157 innings. Sanchez's struggles were mystifying at times, punctuated by a league-leading 29 home runs allowed. Known for his ability to suppress homers throughout his career -- he had only allowed 21 home runs in a Tigers uniform entering 2015 -- the 1.66 dingers per nine innings he gave up last season seem like an anomaly.
If anything, Sanchez's 2015 season becomes all the stranger when you look at his other numbers. His strikeout rate actually went up compared to 2014, while his walk rate was nearly identical to his 2013, when he won the American League ERA title. His swinging strike rate did not budge from 2014 (though both seasons were lower than his career average) and he actually threw more first-pitch strikes than he ever had since arriving in Detroit.
While tonight may not be the best test to determine if Sanchez has diagnosed his home run issues -- Marlins Park tends to suppress homers, despite what we saw on Tuesday -- Tigers fans would feel a lot better if he could ruin Fernandez's perfect record and sweep the two-game series.
Detroit Tigers (1-0) at Miami Marlins (0-1)
Time/Place: 4:55 p.m., Marlins Park
SB Nation blog: Fish Stripes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (10-10, 4.99 ERA in 2015) vs. RHP Jose Fernandez (6-1, 2.92 ERA in 2015)
|Pitcher (2015 stats)||IP||K%||BB%||FIP||fWAR|
It would be easy to condense this entire section into the words "Jose Fernandez is good. The end." Fernandez seemingly came out of nowhere in 2013, skipping both Double- and Triple-A to log a 2.19 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 172 2/3 innings at the major league level. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and finished third in Cy Young voting, all just after he had turned 21 years old. While he was ranked by scouting services as one of the top prospects in all of baseball prior to the season, no one expected that in such short order.
Then came Tommy John surgery, which has limited Fernandez to 19 starts in the past two seasons. His results have still been electric since then, and he hasn't lost an ounce of velocity on his mid-to-upper-90s fastball. Capable of reaching triple digits on the radar gun, Fernandez has limited opponents to a .244 batting average on his four-seamer during his young career.
Backing up the electric fastball is a curveball that sits in the low 80s. Think of that Drew VerHagen curveball that fooled Giancarlo Stanton on Tuesday evening, and then add another three helpings of nasty. Opponents hit just .193 with a .250 slugging average on Fernandez's breaker last season, while hitting nothing but air 22.7 percent of the time he threw it. Fernandez will also break out a changeup against left-handed hitters, though he struggled with it at times last season. Lefties hit a healthy .333/.377/.482 in 122 plate appearances, while righties were limited to a .446 OPS.
Hitter to fear: Martin Prado (.412/.429/.529 in 35 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Ichiro Suzuki (.182/.182/.182 in 11 plate appearances)
Normally, one would think that Sanchez would be facing a slew of former teammates in tonight's matchup. These are the Marlins we are talking about, though, so the rules are... different. Slugger Giancarlo Stanton is the only Marlins hitter who was on the same Marlins roster as Sanchez in 2012, with every other position player either still in the minors or playing for another team.
Those that have faced Sanchez before have fared well, hitting a combined .333/.338/.413. Prado and third baseman Chris Johnson lead the way, each hitting over .400. Prado is the lone Marlin to ever homer off Sanchez, and one of three (Johnson, Ichiro) to even face Sanchez more than five times. Speedster Dee Gordon may continue his hot start, as he is 2-for-3 off Sanchez in his career.
Opponents have had little to no success against Fernandez in Marlins Park throughout his career, and it's tough to see tonight being much different. The Tigers have a couple things working in their favor -- they're good, for one, and the ballpark's fences have been moved in -- but facing a pitcher of Fernandez's caliber will be tough sledding for any lineup. Add in the supposed struggles the Tigers may have against good right-handed pitching this year (they hit .125/.263/.500 on Tuesday) and we should be in for a low-scoring matchup. Sanchez will need to keep pace if the Tigers are to come away with the sweep.
Sanchez pitches well but Fernandez shuts down the Tigers' big bats to split the series.