Anibal Sanchez came this close.
The Detroit Tigers right-hander was staring his second career no-hitter right in the face at Comerica Park on Friday night, making it through 8.1 innings without allowing a hit. Alas, then came Joe Mauer with a squeaky-clean single up the middle.
A one-hitter would have to do. Sanchez polished off his outing with back-to-back strikeouts of Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau. His final line included 12 punchouts, giving him two double-digit strikeout games so far in 2013.
The first one saw Sanchez punch out 17 Atlanta Braves back on April 26. I didn't want to say what I'm about to say now because of the whole small sample size thing, but it's more safe to say it now that the guy has 10 starts under his belt.
Holy heck, is Sanchez having himself a season. And if you haven't already been buying this guy as an ace, now's the time, bucko.
Sanchez now has a 2.38 ERA and 80 strikeouts next to 17 walks in only 64.1 innings. At this moment, he sits atop the FanGraphs WAR charts for pitchers ahead of notables like Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Matt Harvey.
And this is no joke, folks. Sanchez has been nasty ever since he first got settled in the American League last August.
His first four starts in a Tigers uniform after coming over in a July trade from the Miami Marlins didn't go so well. He gave up 18 earned runs in 20.1 innings, good for a 7.97 ERA.
But since then:
- 2.15 ERA in eight starts down the stretch.
- 1.77 ERA in three postseason starts.
- 2.38 ERA in 10 starts this year.
Add all the starts and all the earned runs together, and here's what you get: Sanchez has a 2.20 ERA in his last 21 starts in a Tigers uniform.
That's not a huge sample size, but it's not a small one either. It's certainly too big to ignore, and the same goes for the sexiness of the numbers.
It's also hard to ignore how Sanchez has evolved into the pitcher he's become.
By all rights, Sanchez probably shouldn't even be pitching anymore. He had Tommy John surgery in 2003, three years before he even broke into the big leagues. He made a name for himself as a rookie in 2006 with a 2.83 ERA in 18 outings with the Marlins, a stretch that included a September no-hitter against the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he had to go in for major shoulder surgery in 2007.
His recovery kept him out for most of 2008. Then in 2009, he had to hit the disabled list twice due to more shoulder trouble. His arm might as well have had a sign hanging on it: "Damaged goods."
Apparently not, and the thing is that you'd never know about Sanchez's injury problems if you were to look only at his velocity numbers. Pitchers tend to lose velocity as they age, and injuries certainly don't help matters. But Sanchez is different.
Here's his average fastball velocity by year, according to Baseball Info Solutions by way of FanGraphs:
- 2006: 90.8
- 2007: 90.0
- 2008: 90.5
- 2009: 90.9
- 2010: 91.3
- 2011: 91.7
- 2012: 91.8
- 2013: 92.1
Sanchez is throwing more than a mile per hour harder now at the age of 29 than he was in 2006 at the age of 22. It's not going to work for everyone, but that's one way to become a late-blooming ace.
It also helps to hone one's repertoire, and he has done that too.
He's throwing his changeup more often than ever before this season, and it's been his best swing-and-miss pitch. BrooksBaseball.net has the whiff percentage on Sanchez's changeup at 20.37 percent, by far the highest of any of his pitches. To boot, both left-handed and right-handed batters have been fooled by it.
It's no wonder Sanchez's changeup ranks among the best in baseball this season. In terms of Linear Weights, the only pitchers who have saved more runs with their changeups this season are King Felix, Doug Fister, Chris Sale and Cole Hamels—see FanGraphs.
You can go far with good fastball velocity and a wicked changeup, but while we're kissing Sanchez's butt, we might as well give him props for his above-average slider and command too. His tool chest contains most of the things you want an ace pitcher to carry, and Sanchez has been using all he's got like a master craftsman in 2013.
And that $80 million contract? I'll admit that I had it pegged as an overpay based on Sanchez's brilliant showing in the postseason, but it's panned out to be the best big-money investment of the offseason.
Maybe the Tigers knew they were buying an ace. Or maybe they just didn't want to lose Sanchez and are just getting lucky.
Either way, they should sit back and enjoy themselves when Sanchez is on the mound. He's a good one.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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