Anibal Sanchez struck out 11 batters against the White Sox on Friday, his third-most in a Tigers uniform, and you couldn’t help but think back to years past and wonder how it all went so wrong.
Sanchez’s career in Detroit may be just two starts from being over, and like many of his past and current teammates it’s conflicting to decide how to feel about his career here. He arrived five and a half seasons ago, appeared to have been a wonderful bargain both as a trade acquisition and a free-agent signee, and then lost it all as if a switch had been flipped.
At the end of this year the organization has to decide whether it’s better to pay him $16 million to stay or $5 million just to go away.
That decision seems easy now. Since the start of 2015 Sanchez has put up an ERA of 5.78. His ERA climbed from an American League-best 2.57 in 2013 to an above-average 3.43 a year later, to 4.99, to 5.87, to 7.03 today.
There are no advanced stats to take refuge behind here. Sanchez has just been that bad.
The culprit you look to most is home runs allowed, as a Sanchez start is seldom complete without at least one of them. And it’s true: this year he gives up 2.6 homers for every nine innings on the mound.
But it’s not just the hits that leave the park. He gives up more that stay in it, too: from 7.7 per nine innings in 2013 to 12.4 per nine this season.
You can argue the Tigers need veteran leadership, that they have no real options sitting around in the minor leagues, that their record in 2018 or 2019 doesn’t even matter. You’d be correct about all of those things, but that still doesn’t make it a good business decision to pay the man $16 million to frustrate fans that will already be hard enough to lure to Comerica Park.
So Friday was nice, vintage Sanchez, but it’s best not to let that influence you.
Sanchez struck out as many as 17 batters as a Tiger once, a feat in 2013 that years later is hard to bring to memory. At that point a five-year, $80 million contract looked like a steal. With 6.0 WAR, per Fangraphs, accrued that season and another 3.2 WAR a year later, the contract was arguably already successful.
The Tigers were twice a playoff team, and Sanchez was a key member of a fearsome rotation.
He struck out 12 once in 2013, and another 12 in a game in 2014.
He last struck out 11 batters on May 24, 2015. That game was notable for another reason: All the K’s were for nothing. Sanchez gave up seven runs, helped by two home runs allowed, and the Tigers lost the game to the young, surging Astros.
That wasn’t greatly unusual for the start of his year as Sanchez allowed multiple home runs in four of his first 10 starts. Twice he gave up three in a game. But it was unusual for a player who allowed just 0.7 home runs per nine innings over his previous nine seasons to struggle to keep the ball in the park.
Sanchez and the Tigers never solved the problem. He gave up multiple home runs in nine of 25 starts. He was worth 1.0 WAR that year, 0.9 WAR the next, and -0.3 so far this season.
The numbers will tell you the Tigers probably about broke even on the deal. Earlier he provided a lot more value than he was being paid, and later they would have been better off with, well, just about anybody else taking the ball every five days.
Recency bias will likely frame what most people think of Sanchez. Memory will associate Sanchez’s slide with others who helped lead to the great fire sale of 2017. But that would be unfair.
When Sanchez was good, he was really good. It was nice to see a memory of that, even if just for a day.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.