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The rise, fall, and rise of Anibal Sanchez

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The former Tigers starter has returned to glory in the 2019 MLB playoffs.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers’ 2014 starting pitching rotation featured four — count ‘em, four — Cy Young winning pitchers. Justin Verlander won the Cy Young and the Most Valuable Player Awards in 2011. David Price edged out Verlander in the 2012 Cy Young race. Max Scherzer won it in 2013, and Rick Porcello would go on to win it in 2016 with the Boston Red Sox (with Verlander finishing second again). Then, there was Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 American League ERA champion, just going to work in the shadows of the superstars, getting the job done.

Now with the Washington Nationals in a rotation that features Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, it was Sanchez who took the mound on Friday night, starting Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. He pitched 7 23 innings without allowing a base hit, staking his team to a 1-0 series lead.

Between that 2014 season — when the star-studded Tigers’ rotation were swept out of the first round of the playoffs in three games by the Baltimore Orioles — and Friday night’s performance, Sanchez has persevered, his career being like a roller coaster.

He came to the Tigers from the Miami Marlins at the trade deadline in July 2012, the year that the Tigers went to the World Series, and he was a big contributor. He made a dozen starts for the Tigers alongside Verlander and Scherzer. He started one game in the ALDS against the Oakland A’s, pitched seven scoreless innings against the New York Yankees in the ALCS, and made one start in the World Series, allowing two runs in seven innings.

Sanchez became a free agent after the 2012 season, and was on the verge of signing with the Chicago Cubs when the Tigers stepped in at the last minute and gave him a five-year, $80 million contract to stay in Detroit.

The 2013 season would turn out to be the best of Anibal’s career.

Along with winning the American League’s ERA title with a 2.57 mark, he posted career highs in strikeout rate (27.1 percent) and a minuscule rate of 0.45 home runs per nine innings, which was best in the major leagues. Those numbers were no fluke. He had a 2.39 FIP that was even lower than his ERA, and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was a very average .303.

Among all the greatness of that 2013 rotation, taking the mound in Game 1 of the American league championship series was Anibal Sanchez. He pitched six no-hit innings against the Boston Red Sox, helping stake the Tigers to a 1-0 series lead. He surrendered three runs in twelve innings over two starts with a 2.25 ERA and 1.10 WHIP for the series.

Sanchez backed that up with a solid performance in 2014. His 3.43 ERA, and 2.71 FIP put him among the league leaders again. His 0.29 HR/9 was once again best in show. An injury to his pectoral muscle put him on the disabled list in early August. He would not make it back to the Tigers’ rotation that season, coming off the disabled list and being used sparingly out of Brad Ausmus’s bullpen in the playoffs.

Sanchez never regained his peak form in three more seasons in Detroit. He went from first to worst in the league with a home run rate of 1.66 per nine innings in 2015, 1.76 per nine in 2016 and 2.22 per nine (!) in 2017. Along with that, his ERA soared to 4.99, 5.87 and 6.41 in those three seasons, respectively. When the club had to decide whether to pick up his $16 million contract option for the 2018 season, it was a foregone conclusion that they would just pay the $5 million buyout and move on.

Sanchez’s home run issues were a source of great frustration in those three seasons. It wasn’t just one pitch type. Right-handers hit him particularly hard, at 2.34 home runs per nine, but the magic was gone, as too many mistakes were hit out of the park. All the while, it was evident that if the home run issue could be solved, Sanchez was a solid starting pitcher.

Injuries have always been a part of Sanchez’s career.

While he never quite reached the 200 inning mark, he worked at least 195 innings, making 32 starts in three straight seasons from 2010 to 2012, followed by 182 innings in 2013, before the injury in 2014 cut his season short. He missed at least a month in both of the next two seasons, and finished up with almost half a season on the injured list in his final year with the Tigers.

Entering free agency with injury concerns and declining performances over four straight seasons was not the ideal situation for Sanchez. He signed a non-guaranteed split contract with the Minnesota Twins just as players were reporting to spring training that would pay him $2.5 million in the major leagues and $500,000 in the minors. He was released on March 11, just weeks away from Opening Day.

The Atlanta Braves signed Sanchez to a minor league contract that would pay him $1 million if he made it back to the major leagues, and pitched well enough that he was called up at the start of the season. He made the most of the opportunity.

Sanchez pitched to a 2.83 ERA and a career best 1.08 WHIP in 24 starts for the Braves, while holding opponents to a .208 batting average. Importantly, his home run rate was down to a manageable 0.99 per nine innings. He all but abandoned his slider, substituting in a cutter which was thrown at about 5 mph more velocity. He also reduced his fastball usage to less than 40 percent, so he featured a balanced four or five pitch repertoire.

Sanchez’s strikeout rate remained exactly the same in 2018 as it was in 2017, at just under a batter per inning. His walk rate actually increased some, to 3.14 per nine innings which is more in line with his 2016 season. But that lowered home run rate made all the difference.

It made a difference in the offseason as well. Sanchez was able to score a two-year contract with the Nationals for $19 million. There are bonuses to be paid based on the number of starts, and an option for the 2021 season.

Sanchez has continued to battle nagging injuries, but managed to make 30 starts for Washington this season, reaching all four bonus levels and earning an extra $2 million for the season. But more importantly, he earned his way back to the mound in Game 1 of the NLCS.

Standing in the shadows of other great pitchers in a star-studded rotation once again, there was Anibal Sanchez on Friday night. Back in the arena, on top of his game and getting the job done.