If you had to guess which Tigers starter has been most effective this season, who would it be?
That's a different question than who the best Tigers pitcher is. That's Justin Verlander, despite recent hiccups.
The answer is, of course, Anibal Sanchez, he of the franchise-record 17-strikeout game and the recent near no-hitter.
Not only does Sanchez lead the Tigers in ERA (2.38) but if you start to drill down in advanced stats, the picture looks even better.
Sanchez, as of Tuesday, leads all of baseball in fielding independent pitching (1.78). FIP attempts to strip away what a pitcher can't control — his team's fielding — and put emphasis on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. The stat is then scaled to ERA so fans can intuitively tell what is good and what is bad.
Sanchez trails fellow starter Max Scherzer in both strikeout rate (31.0 percent for Scherzer to 30.7 percent for Sanchez) and walk rate (6.1 to 6.5 percent). But by allowing the lowest rate of home runs in the rotation (4.1 percent of fly balls leave the park), Sanchez has been slightly better overall than Scherzer for the year.
When we're splitting hairs about whether Sanchez or Scherzer has had the better season — and we've barely talked about Verlander and haven't said a thing about Doug Fister — the Tigers are in a pretty good place.
Credit there goes to the Tigers' front office, first for the decisions to trade for Scherzer, Fister and Sanchez during the past few years, and the more recent moves to lock up Sanchez and Verlander for the next few years.
After a stretch dating back to late 2006 of having several trades turn out poorly — Edgar Renteria, we're looking at you — and having extensions to pitchers turn out horribly — Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis, take your bows — the confidence from the front office to keep trading and keep signing costly extensions seems to be paying off.
Sanchez, especially, appeared a risk to some.
It was not that long ago some fans questioned why the Tigers would even trade for him, let alone give him a contract that at the time was equal in dollars to Verlander's this past offseason.
After all, Sanchez had a losing record with the Marlins last July, and his ERA was nearly 4.00.
That kind of analysis goes only skin deep.
What the Tigers saw in Sanchez was similar to what they saw in Fister before that and Scherzer before him — a strikeout pitcher who doesn't get himself in trouble much who was playing for an underperforming team.
Sanchez's FIP with the Marlins in 2012 was a healthy 3.43. That was after seasons of 3.32 and 3.35.
Despite a 3-12 record with the Mariners, Fister had a 3.27 FIP when the Tigers traded for him. Scherzer's was a bit higher in 2009 with the Diamondbacks, but even 3.87 should project well to the middle of a team's rotation.
While none of that trio of pitchers may rise to the level of true ace, each has shown on any given night he can be magnificent, and on most nights he'll be better than his counterpart on the opposing team.
Which leads us back to Sanchez: Even at $80 million spread across five years, he seems like he'll be another Dave Dombrowski success story. Standard caveats apply. He could suffer an injury. He may drop off in the final year or two of his contract, and the Tigers could be stuck holding the bill just like they did in the past with Robertson or Willis.
But that's a worst-case scenario, and one that will likely be forgiven if the Tigers make another trip or two to the World Series while Sanchez is in their uniform.
Thanks to bringing him back to Detroit and pairing him with an already strong rotation, that seems a lot more likely than not.