Red Sox vs. Tigers: Anibal Sanchez, Detroit’s should-be superstar


Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez throws against the Boston Red Sox in the first inning during Game 1. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Everything about Anibal Sanchez’s performance suggests he should be a star, but so much about his circumstances relegate him to the background. In a sports world where nothing and no one labeled underrated stays underrated for long, Sanchez has pulled off the trick. He is truly great, and a lot of baseball fans may not have recognized him if he was the guy who rang them up when they bought their coffee this morning.

The baseball world will have no choice but to pay attention to Sanchez tonight, when he takes the ball in Game 5 of the enthralling ALCS. In Game 1, he out-dueled Jon Lester with six no-hit innings. Sure, he allowed six walks. He also struck out 12. His repertoire is endless. He can be a snake charmer or a fire-breather, a finesse pitcher or a power right-hander, sometimes all in the same at-bat.

Sanchez began his career as a footnote – he was a throw-in to the blockbuster that sent Josh Beckett to Boston and Hanley Ramirez to the Marlins. Sanchez toiled in the obscurity of Florida for his first six and a half seasons. When the Marlins traded him midway through last season, he fit in as the Tigers’ fourth starter behind Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister. Those around him were always hogging the light.

No matter how well known, Sanchez has become one of the majors’ best pitchers. He threw a no-hitter in 2006. This year he won the American League ERA title with a 2.57. He had a FIP this season of 2.39, precisely the same as Clayton Kershaw. What that means is, if Sanchez and Kershaw experienced the same luck and defense behind them on balls put in play, they would have theoretically have produced the same ERA. Only Scherzer and Yu Darvish struck out more hitters per innings than Sanchez this season.

Don’t feel too bad for Sanchez’s overlooked career. The Tigers compensate him as one of the game’s best – he signed an $80 million deal this past winter. But you should watch him tonight, or anytime you get the chance, because he is a blast to watch.

Few pitchers can manipulate the baseball like Sanchez. He throws four pitches, like most pitchers. Unlike most pitchers, he can regulate the speed of them all. He essentially has four families of pitches, with all manner of variants within them. He can throw a big slow curveball or a more biting hook. His changeup may be a tick slower than his mid-90s fastball, or it may float to the plate at just above 70 mph – he seems to have especially mastered that skill this season. His fastball ranges from a mid-90s sinker to a mid-80s cutter.

The Red Sox have seen Sanchez once this series, which may actually benefit Sanchez. Even after facing him, they may have no idea what might be coming next. So many of his pitches look the same until the moment they’re past you, the ball is the catcher’s mitt and Sanchez is walking off the mound, another anonymous bit dominance in the books.

Boston at Detroit, Game 5
8 p.m., Fox
Lester (0-1, 1.42) vs.  Sanchez (1-0, 0.00)

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.

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Cindy Boren · October 17, 2013