Dontrelle Willis was essentially a throw-in in the December 2007 trade that brought Miguel Cabrera to Detroit. But the Tigers needed Willis in their starting rotation during the 2008 season; they didn't have a fifth starter. And the idea of putting a former 20-game winner in that spot seemed so promising for the Tigers.
Unfortunately, it was an utter disaster. Willis was already showing serious signs of decline in his previous two seasons. In 2007, he led the National League by allowing 118 earned runs. His rates of hits and walks allowed per nine innings were steadily increasing. When he began pitching in Detroit, he couldn't find the strike zone.
However, Anibal Sanchez should work out differently for the Tigers. For one thing, he was acquired from the Miami, not Florida, Marlins. But seriously, folks, he brings a far better, and improving, set of skills to Detroit.
Willis was a two-pitch pitcher when he was traded to the Tigers. As data shows at Fangraphs, he relied almost entirely on a fastball and slider.
By contrast, Sanchez has a four-pitch repertoire. He began throwing his changeup and slider more, beginning in 2009, while using his curveball less. But he incorporates all three pitches with his fastball.
Sanchez also shows more encouraging trends as he leaves the National League for the American League.
His walks per nine innings are decreasing, while his strikeouts per nine are increasing. Actually, his strikeout rate is on pace to be less this season than it was last year. But it will still be the second-highest rate he's compiled since becoming a full-time starting pitcher in 2010.
Additionally, Sanchez's rate of hits per nine innings has remained consistent, at nearly nine hits per game.
If there's one concern in Sanchez's game, it's that his home run rate is slightly increasing. ESPN.com's Keith Law noted this as a potential problem in his scouting report of Sanchez after the Tigers-Marlins trade was made. Law cited a relatively flat fastball as a pitch upon which opposing batters could tee off if it's not located well.
Looking at park factors, Comerica Park is near the upper third in terms of home runs hit at home for the Tigers versus on the road. That could be something to keep an eye on as Sanchez faces more powerful AL lineups.
During his time in Miami, the Marlins lineup didn't score many runs for Sanchez. Last year, he received some of the worst run support of any starting pitcher in baseball. This season hadn't been much better, though there was some slight improvement. Not enough to help Sanchez's win-loss record, unfortunately.
However, run support is not going to be a problem for him in Detroit. As with Doug Fister last year, Sanchez will immediately benefit from a stronger Tigers lineup. Fister became nearly unbeatable during the last two months of the 2011 season. Will Sanchez experience a similar surge with the Tigers this year?
Tigers fans probably aren't too happy with me for drawing a comparison between Willis and Sanchez at the beginning of this article. Apologies for that.
But I do wonder if Willis' meltdown made general manager Dave Dombrowski hesitant to trade for a starting pitcher who hadn't faced AL competition. Probably not, but it's curious.
Sanchez profiles as a pitcher that should be able to handle the AL, though. While he doesn't have a blazing fastball, he gets plenty of strikeouts with his changeup. That's going to be a good mix among the flamethrowers and sinkerballers in the Tigers rotation. And Sanchez gets more ground-ball than fly-ball outs, which should help him keep the ball in the park.
Obviously, the Tigers are hoping that's the case. If not, it could be a while before Dombrowski trades for another NL pitcher. Or one from the Marlins, at least.
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