There’s an old saw that says you can divide a baseball season into three sections.
The first two months, you just watch your team play and see what you’ve got. The next two months, you make changes where you’ve got issues. The final two months, you’ve got your team set and see what it can do.
From that standpoint, you can understand why GM Al Avila and manager Brad Ausmus have not made any rash decisions about the team’s pitching. But that first two-month period is just about over, and the Tigers are now at the place they have to do something about Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey.
Both have elevated stats: Pelfrey has a 4.96 ERA with a 5.62 FIP, an indicator he’s actually been worse than his results. Sanchez stand at a 6.04 ERA and 5.61 FIP. Just as worrisome, neither starter can make it through six innings without doing damage to their team’s chance of winning.
The result is that the Tigers have won just three of Sanchez’s 10 starts, and three of Pelfrey’s 10 starts. Sabermetric thinkers don’t like to worry too much about wins and losses when it comes to pitchers. That’s because they know it takes a team effort to win a baseball game. A good start can be easily ruined by a lack of run support.
And then you have Pelfrey and Sanchez, who take hard-earned leads by their teammates and give it all right back.
If this goes on much longer, they’re going to destroy the Tigers’ chance of contending for the playoffs, too.
When it comes to the “Times Through the Order Penalty,” or TTOP, popularized by sabermetric author Mitchel Lichtman, they suffer more than most.
Sanchez is about average when it comes to the first two times through the order, allowing batters an OPS of .720 the first time through and .747 the second. To put the numbers in perspective, look at the sOPS+ split, via Baseball Reference. Sanchez has a 103 split there (where 100 is the average pitcher, and lower than 100 is good).
The third time through the order, Sanchez is shelled for a 1.185 OPS. For a little more perspective, in Miguel Cabrera’s best season he put up a 1.078 OPS.
Sanchez is turning every player he faces the third time through the order into Cabrera in his prime. That’s an sOPS+ of 206, or which is to say, way worse than an average pitcher’s third trip through.
Sanchez can give you five good innings, or about 50 to 75 good pitches, and that’s it.
Pelfrey is worse.
Batters put up a .913 OPS against him the first time through (entering Sunday’s game), for a 157 sOPS+. Somehow he is actually better the second time through, for a .709 OPS / 94 sOPS+.
The third time though, batters put up a 1.366 OPS against Pelfey, for an incredible 248 sOPS+.
It’s clear that the best-case scenario for the Tigers is to be ready to go to the bullpen at the first sign of trouble by either pitcher in the sixth inning. That’s less than ideal when you’ve got a bullpen that is struggling, too.
The alternative is just to admit it’s not working and to replace one or both pitchers in the rotation. They’re being paid a lot of money as starters, but you can’t let that destroy a $200 million investment in the roster this season by owner Mike Ilitch, either.
At this point, with Michael Fulmer looking strong in the rotation, Shane Greene coming back from a blister, Matt Boyd pitching strong in Triple A and the well-touted Daniel Norris finally looking strong there as well, the best bet is to give someone else a chance and move both Sanchez and Pelfrey to the bullpen.
It might be a little risky, but at this point what do the Tigers have to lose? Ausmus can’t wish either pitcher through six, and neither has much hope of pitching through seven. Maybe they can help more in relief.
Two months into the season, it’s clear Sanchez and Pelfrey aren’t helping by doing what they’re doing. It’s time to try something else.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.