Hiding in Plain Sight

Scherzer and Verlander get all the attention, but the Detroit rotation is holding a third ace. It's time to stop overlooking Anibal Sanchez
October 07, 2013

Last December the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million contract, the most ever for a righthanded pitcher. A week later, in a less-heralded move, the Tigers locked down another righty, Anibal Sanchez, to a five-year, $80 million deal. Greinke was regarded as far and away the best starter on the free-agent market, even though over the prior three seasons the 29-year-old Sanchez, who is four months younger than Greinke, had been worth more wins above replacement (9.4 to 8.4), posted a lower ERA (3.70 to 3.83) and gone longer without a stint on the disabled list.

Sanchez, who will most likely start Game 3 of the ALDS, remains criminally underrated, the overlooked ace on a team with the AL's likely Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer), its 2011 Cy winner (Justin Verlander) and MVP front-runner (Miguel Cabrera). Sanchez's fastball, which tops out in the mid-90s, will never be mistaken for Verlander's. His career record is 62--59, he has never won more than 15 games and he's never been an All-Star. This season he did not have Scherzer's gaudy win total—but he was one of the best pitchers in baseball (yes, better than Greinke). While Verlander struggled through his worst season since 2008, the 29-year-old Venezuelan emerged as a dark-horse Cy Young candidate: He went 14--8 with a 2.57 ERA, allowed the fewest home runs per nine innings of any AL starter (0.44) and helped lift the Tigers to their third straight AL Central title.

Sanchez, who was acquired by Detroit from the Marlins at the 2012 trade deadline, has bloomed into an elite pitcher by slashing his walk rate, firing more first-pitch strikes and throwing an improved changeup. His dominance goes back to the 2012 postseason, when in three outings he allowed four runs and 14 hits in 201/3 innings.

Detroit's offense, ranked second in the majors in runs and slugging percentage, can bludgeon opposing teams with a middle of the order—Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez—that is as scary as any other. Ultimately, though, it'll be the rotation, which led the AL in ERA and the majors in strikeouts, that will have to carry the Tigers to another World Series. They will need Scherzer and Verlander to live up to their reputations, and they'll need Sanchez to pitch like an ace—which is exactly what he's been for them all year long.