Sunday, October 06, 2013

Tigers Have One more Ace Up Their Sleeve

In game one of the American League Divisional Series, Tigers designated ace Max Scherzer showed the nation why he will probably win the Cy Young Award this year.  In the second game, former Most Valuable Player and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander looked like his old dominant self, although Athletics rookie Sonny Gray was just as good in what was a marvelous pitcher's duel.

The Tigers are not done rolling out their aces though as the somewhat lesser known Anibal Sanchez will strut his stuff in game three.  Sanchez led the American League in both ERA (2.57) and Fielding Independent Pitching or FIP (2.39), a statistic designed to measure a pitcher's performance on events that he essentially controls without the help of fielders - strikeouts walks, hit batsmen and home runs.

Highlighting Sanchez's accomplishments this year was a game versus the Braves in April, where he set an all-time single-game franchise record for strikeouts with 17. If a strained right shoulder had not caused him to miss three or four starts during the summer, he would be more prominent in the Cy Young discussion and probably still deserves to be in the picture. 

Sanchez originally came to the Tigers in a trade with the Marlins last summer along with second baseman Omar Infante.  The Venezuelan right hander was a great addition for the pennant race and was even better in post-season.  However, the Tigers raised some eyebrows when they signed Sanchez to a five-year $88 million free-agent contract during the winter.  Many felt that was an overpay for a "third starter" but, so far, it has worked out about as well as could have been reasonably imagined.

Both Sanchez's ERA and FIP improved by more than a run from 2012-2013 (See Figure 1 below) due largely to an increase in strikeouts (7.7 per 9 IP in 2012 versus 10.0 in 2013) and decrease in home runs (0.9 per 9 IP in 2012 versus 0.5 in 2013).  

Figure 1: Anibal Sanchez's Statistics, 2011-2013


Data source:

Figure 2 below, extracted from Brooks Baseball, shows that Sanchez's whiff per swing rate (percent of swings where the batter failed to make contact) increased on all five of his pitches this year - four seam fastball, sinker, change up, slider and curve ball - which would explain the increase in strikeouts.

Figure 2: Anibal Sanchez - Whiffs Per Swing, 2008-2013

The elevated whiff rate could be related to a boost in velocity of all his pitches (See Figure 3).  In particular, the speed of his four seamer increased from 92.3 MPH in 2011-2012 to 93.7 MPH this year.

Figure 3: Anibal Sanchez - Pitch Velocity, 2008-2013

According to additional Pitch f/x data, Sanchez is also doing a better job of  keeping the ball down.  He has located 33% of his pitches this year in the lower third of the strike zone or below the strike zone where he can get more swings and misses, which is up from 29% last year.  This could be the reason for the drop in home runs allowed as well the increase in strikeouts 

Home run rates tend to fluctuate a lot from year to year and can be the result of good fortune.  The rate of swings and misses against a pitcher is generally more stable, so an increase is more likely to be a real improvement.  So, if he can stay healthy, he may bring a better return on his investment than some analysts thought possible.

For now though, the Tigers and their fans are just concerned with winning a couple of playoff rounds and then the World Series.  They are struggling at the plate, but it's hard to bet against a team with not one, not two, but three aces.

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