By: Will Burchfield
The surprise wasn’t that the Tigers brought Anibal Sanchez into the game last night — they’ve stood behind him all season long. The surprise wasn’t that he promptly gave up two homers to push the Tigers deficit from three runs to six — he has the fourth highest HR/9 ratio (4.08) in the league.
No, the unanswerable aspect to all this is that Sanchez retains a spot on the roster no matter how frequently he hurts this team.
The 33-year-old has a 9.68 ERA and a 2.21 WHIP over 17 2/3 innings in 2017. He has allowed at least one run, often more, in six of his nine outings. Nearly every time he pitches, Sanchez decreases the Tigers’ odds of winning.
Was he the reason they lost on Wednesday night versus the Diamondbacks? No, of course not. Has he been the main culprit in any of their 16 losses this season? No. But what are the Tigers waiting for? Hand Sanchez a manageable deficit and far too often he turns it into an insurmountable climb.
It began in his first outing of the season, when Sanchez entered in the third inning versus the White Sox and the Tigers down by four. When he departed after the sixth they were down by nine. (A costly error by Nicholas Castellanos, it must be said, did not help Sanchez’s cause.)
A week later he came on in the fifth inning versus the Twins with the Tigers trailing 3-2. It was 11-2 when he left after the sixth. The Tigers would go on to lose 11-5, the six runs allowed by Sanchez providing the difference.
Two days later versus the Indians, Sanchez inherited a 9-4 deficit in the sixth, watched the Tigers scratch out two runs in the seventh, then gave up four in the eighth. Comeback extinguished.
Instances like these are the norm when Sanchez pitches, and Wednesday night was no different.
The Tigers weren’t in position to win when Sanchez entered the game in the bottom of the seventh. They were down 4-1 and had been flummoxed by Arizona pitcher Zack Godley all night long. But the offense deserved a chance to rally, especially with six outs to go. When Sanchez turned 4-1 into 7-1, that possibility became a pipedream.
“He hadn’t thrown in over a week,” Brad Ausmus told reporters, via the Detroit News. “You give a little leeway there. … I don’t know that he will ever be the guy who throws 95 mph again. But, it’s funny because we do see flashes of it. His last outing, which was (nine days) ago, he was 92-93 pretty consistently. I don’t know if we will see it all the time, but in spurts it will be there.”
It’s easy to look at the games in which Sanchez has blown up this season and decide his performance didn’t matter. (Don’t forget that Twins implosion, though.) And that may be true. In most cases, Sanchez could have held the opposition scoreless and the Tigers still would have lost.
But that’s not the point. A decision shouldn’t be graded in hindsight. It should be measured in the moment, with the simple question being this: What gives the team the best chance to win? Every time Brad Ausmus and the Tigers call on Sanchez it is an act of self-sabotage.
Again, what are they waiting for? How much longer will this continue?
Ausmus defended Sanchez’s spot on the roster last month by pointing to his strong performance in spring training, his ability to get swings and misses and the Tigers’ need for a long reliever in the bullpen.
Regarding his performance in spring training: That was a) well over a month ago and b) probably the product of facing undermanned lineups in exhibition baseball. What about his performance in real games over the Tigers’ first 32 contests in which he has been beaten to a pulp?
Regarding the swings and misses: Sanchez’s 9.2 K/9 is a nice stat and suggests he might have something left in the tank. But literally every other stat, from his ERA to his WHIP to his batting average against to literally-you-name-it, says the exact opposite. It’s like buying a house engulfed in flames because that one room isn’t on fire.
Regarding the Tigers’ need for a long reliever: They already have one on the roster in recent call-up Chad Bell. Do they really need two? If they do (they don’t), there are plenty of options in Triple-A Toledo – Buck Farmer and Warwick Saupold stand out – who would likely be far more reliable than Sanchez.
Hanging over all of this, of course, is Sanchez’s contract. He is owed $16.8 million this season with a club option for 2018 that includes a $5 million buyout. But the money is guaranteed through 2017, so the Tigers aren’t saving themselves any cash by keeping Sanchez on the roster instead of, say, designating him for assignment. All they’re doing, really, is preventing a more serviceable player from joining the team.
There’s something to be said for loyalty, no doubt. And there’s nothing wrong with favoring a player with a proven track record. But the Tigers are crossing the line with Sanchez. He does not help this team in any capacity.
The sooner they admit that the better.