Two years ago, Anibal Sanchez was limping through the final season of a five-year contract he signed with the Detroit Tigers following their run to the 2012 World Series. Sanchez, the 2013 AL ERA champion, started that deal off with two excellent seasons, both of which saw the Tigers win the AL Central. He dropped off precipitously after that, with a subpar 2015 season followed by two nightmare years in 2016 and 2017. When the Tigers declined his contract option for 2018, no one batted an eye.
This isn’t the part where we say the Tigers got it wrong. Sanchez had managed a 5.67 ERA and 5.01 FIP in his final three years in Detroit, and by all accounts looked like his days as a major league pitcher were numbered. He put up a surprising 3.59 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last season with the Tigers, but couldn’t seem to put that to good use; namely, he allowed 2.2 home runs per nine innings as he fluttered between the rotation and bullpen. An 11-strikeout performance against the White Sox in September was a nice glimpse into the past, but that — and the three starts afterward, his final in a Tigers uniform — were not enough to warrant another year on the roster.
(I will defend that contract to my deathbed, however. Sanchez’s performance in the first two years of his deal more than outweighs what he did in years 3-5.)
Now in the twilight of his career, Sanchez has rediscovered some of that old magic. He put up a sparkling 2.83 ERA in 136 2⁄3 innings with the Atlanta Braves last year, and has found his footing after a rocky start with the Nationals in 2019. He will make his first start at Comerica Park (and against the Tigers) since departing in 2017.
Washington Nationals (40-40) at Detroit Tigers (26-50)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Federal Baseball
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (3-6, 4.02 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-6, 4.69 ERA)
Game 78 Pitching Matchup
Things didn’t look good for Sanchez — or the Nationals, really — early on. He allowed four home runs in his first five starts, and coughed up a 6.00 ERA in those 27 innings. Granted, six of the 18 earned runs he gave up during that stretch came at Coors Field, but it wasn’t a good look overall; he struck out 20 batters to 16 walks in that same five-start run.
Since then, Sanchez has been on a roll. He has 45 strikeouts to just 13 walks in his last nine starts, a 44 2⁄3 inning stretch, and has limited opponents to a 2.82 ERA. They are hitting just .208/.272/.357 against him in those nine games, though he has benefitted from a .246 BABIP. He has even started eating some innings, with six frames tossed in four of his last five starts.
How has he done it? The cutter, namely. Sanchez started using it heavily with the Braves in 2018, and it helped him generate a 45.0 percent ground ball rate, his highest since his better years with the Tigers. His home run rate plummeted, and opponents hit just .195 and slugged .329 against the cutter. It has somehow gotten even better in 2019; Sanchez has limited opponents to batting .164 and slugging .282 against his cutter this year.
He has also gone back to using his changeup with abandon. It was a pitch he always liked, further honed under former Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones, but got away from as his struggles in 2015 and 2016 forced him into more bad counts.
Key matchup: Daniel Norris vs. the lefty mashing Nationals
We should probably talk about Daniel Norris a bit, huh? The 26-year-old lefty is coming off his longest start of the season, a weird affair in which he gave up six runs, but still logged seven innings while striking out eight hitters. The start was a comedy of errors — only figuratively, because MLB scoring decisions are ridiculous — but had less to do with Norris’ pitching and more to do with everything around him. Between the Tigers’ subpar defense and the vengeful BABIP gods, it was just not his day (or inning, really).
That brings us to the Nationals, who are really good against left-handed pitchers. As a team, they own a 118 wrC+ against southpaws, the sixth-best mark in baseball. Norris has relatively even (and bad) splits against both righties and lefties this year, but has generally been hit harder by righties (38.1 percent hard hit rate) throughout his career.
Anibal shines in his return to the Comerica Park mound and the Nationals take game one.