When the Detroit Tigers stumbled out to a 26-32 record through 59 games this season, it looked like all the experts who picked the Tigers to make the playoffs could be wrong.
But after Detroit went 16-8 in July and acquired starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante, everyone's pick to win the American League Central is starting to live up to expectations and realize their sky-high potential.
Although the Infante acquisition was critically necessary for Detroit, the addition of Sanchez is the key that makes the Tigers a lock to make the playoffs.
Sanchez is a proven veteran who will give Detroit much-needed stability at the back end of a young rotation.
The 28-year-old right-hander from Venezuela didn't impress in his debut with the Tigers on Saturday, giving up five earned runs on eight hits, three strikeouts and three walks in six innings of work in a 5-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.
But Sanchez's pedigree suggests he'll bounce back.
Prior to his arrival in Detroit, Sanchez boasted a 3.94 ERA, and an eye-popping 110-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 121 innings with the Miami Marlins this season. Before being traded to the Tigers, he had just a 5-7 record this year, but Sanchez was among the leaders in strikeouts-to-walks in the NL.
Sanchez, who began his career with the Marlins in 2006, broke into MLB with a bang, going 10-3 with a 2.83 and a K/BB ratio better than 7-to-1 in his rookie campaign.
Sanchez's 44-46 lifetime record could be better, but a pitcher's win-loss record is easily one of the most misleading ways to measure productivity in baseball.
The seventh-year righty has been economical his whole career.
He has a 3.75 career ERA, a sub-four ERA in five of his six-plus seasons in Florida, all without getting much help from his teammates. Prior to leaving the Marlins, Miami's bullpen was among the worst in the NL with a 4.29 ERA, and their scoring offense was third worst in the NL this season when Sanchez was traded, averaging just 3.74 runs per game.
Sanchez has the ability to throw a lot of innings, and always seems to get himself out of jams without allowing significant damage.
Because the Tigers bullpen has been generally inconsistent this season, Sanchez's knack of eating up innings will be important for Detroit. He's been a workhorse for the Marlins the past few seasons, throwing 195 innings in 2010, 196.1 frames last year, and pitched at least six innings in 16 of his 19 starts with Miami this year.
Despite the poor performance from his Marlins teammates over the years, Sanchez has done his job.
Last season, he racked up 202 strikeouts, which ranked sixth in the NL, and his strikeouts per nine innings was third best in the league. Some of the only NL hurlers with more K's than Sanchez last year were perennial All-Stars Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum.
And even after Sanchez's lackluster performance in his Tigers debut, manager Jim Leyland raved about his ability, and what he brings to the table for Detroit.
Will Sanchez have an integral impact on whether the Tigers make the playoffs or not??
"He's got weapons," Leyland said to MLive.com's Chris Iott after Saturday's loss. "He knows how to use them. He can use any of them in any count. He's got a good feel for pitching. He doesn't panic. He'll win games for the Tigers. That's a good thing."
When asked if he thinks Sanchez's acquisition will pay dividends for the Tigers, Leyland's answer was emphatic.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said to MLive.com's Diamond Leung.
To pay dividends for Detroit, Sanchez doesn't need to do a whole lot.
With the Tigers, Sanchez can be an integral piece to the championship puzzle if he simply does his job; give the team a chance to win in each of his starts.
Sanchez knows his role, and said he knows what he has to do to help the Tigers' realize their potential.
“I feel good with the team. It’s a great group of players," Sanchez said to MLive.com. "It’s really fun right now to play with those guys. They’ve made the playoffs, and that’s what I’m looking for right now.”