In light of Sanchez’s record performance, is this best Detroit pitching rotation ever?

Anibal Sanchez walks off the mound on Friday night after striking out his 17th batter, a new Detroit Tiger record for a nine-inning game.

Anibal Sanchez walks off the mound on Friday night after striking out his 17th batter, a new Detroit Tiger record.

What would you have said in March if I told you one of the Tigers’ starting pitchers would strike out 17 batters in one game this season?

You probably would have answered, “JV is awesome!” Or maybe you would have given the nod to Max Scherzer, the blue eyed/brown eyed devil who has been in a K Zone since the middle of last season. You might have even guessed Doug Fister, the rail-thin right-hander who struck out nine straight batters in a game last September to set an American League record.

Whiff! Whiff! Whiff! You’d have been wrong.

Now add 14 more “whiffs” on Friday night at Comerica Park and you’ll understand how great Anibal Sanchez was when he struck out 17 Atlanta Braves batters. The gritty Venezuelan right-hander had it all going for him: a lightning-quick fastball, a devastating curveball, and a slider that was dropping out of the strike zone. That last one was what frustrated most of the Braves, who felt more like taking a tomahawk to their bat rack than doing their famed Tomahawk Chop.

The Braves came into Motown as baseball’s hottest team, if not the best. Earlier last week they won their 10th straight game, and their offense has been fueled by the Upton Bros. But Sanchez showed why the Tigers are favorites to not only win their division but to win it all. The Tigers have a boat load of talent. Sanchez may not be as well-paid or famous as Justin Verlander, or as great a story as Mad Max, but he’s a very gifted big league pitcher. As his performance showed on Friday, he’s one of the best in the game.

With Sanchez getting better and better right in front of our eyes, with Scherzer striking out batters at a feverish pace, and with Verlander being…well Verlander, it’s time to ask ourselves if this Tiger rotation, at least 1-4, is the best in team history.

I’m going to say maybe, with a caveat that they have an excellent chance to be the best by the end of the year.

Sanchez is 29 years old, and so is Fister, who’s starting his second full year as a Tiger. Verlander turned 30 two months ago, and Scherzer will turn 29 in July. All four are right-handers with wicked stuff that often sends enemy batters back to the dugout having not put the ball in play. Through the first 21 games of the season, Detroit’s starting pitchers have struck out more batters than any team in baseball history to that point.

The last time Detroit won a World Series, back in 1984, they had three solid starters in Jack Morris, Dan Petry, and Milt Wilcox. But Wilcox was at the end of his career, getting by on guile, guts, and cortisone shots. Morris and Petry were All-Stars in their primes, but combined they were not as good as Verlander and any of the other three the Tigs currently have. That’s the advantage of the ’13 staff: there isn’t really a #2 starter after Verlander. Fister (3-0, 2.00 ERA), Scherzer (2-0, 4.13, 5th in AL in K’s), and Sanchez (3-1, 3rd in AL with 1.34 ERA, and 2nd with 41 K’s) are each capable of shutting down an opponent and (as we saw Friday night) making history. It’s the depth of the current rotation, 1-4, that gives them the nod over the ’84 team.

For that same reason, the Big Four (let’s go ahead and call them that) are better than any rotation Detroit had during the 1960s, including the ’68 champs. There was Denny McLain (two Cy Youngs), Mickey Lolich (all-time K leader for lefties in AL history), and Earl Wilson. But the 4th spot was nebulous, and McLain was a comet that fizzled out by the age of 26. Lolich is one of the greatest pitchers in franchise history, and undeservedly overlooked, but he never had three other arms with him in the rotation like this.

The only quartet that I see as having a claim to being better and perhaps as talented as the current group, is the mid-to-late 1940s rotation. Back then the Tigers had the famed “TNT” trio of Dizzy Trout, Hal Newhouser, and Virgil Trucks. Each of those three were talented pitchers who could overpower opposing lineups. Newhouser, of course, won a pair of MVP Awards and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Trucks was an All-Star, led the league in strikeouts, and tossed a no-hitter. Trout won 47 games over two seasons, was an All-Star, and led the AL in ERA in 1944 when he won 27 games. Add in lefty Fred Hutchinson, a control specialist who won 13-18 games for five straight years, and the Tigers had a formidable foursome back in the post-WWII years.

Verlander, Sanchez, Scherzer, and Fister are starting their first full season together (Sanchez was acquired at the trade deadline last year). Three of them (JV, Sanchez, and Fister) are locked up through at least 2015, and Scherzer isn’t eligible for free agency until after the ’14 season. It’s likely that GM Dave Dombrowski will ink Scherzer to a long-term deal next spring, as he did with Verlander and Sanchez this off-season. If so, Tiger fans will have the luxury of seeing four great pitchers work at their craft for a number of years.

But to push this group as a whole into the “great” category (or at least “the best in Detroit history”), they will need to lead the team to the promised land – the franchise’s first World Series win since 1984. With performances like Sanchez put together on Friday, it seems like a real possibility.

6 replies on “In light of Sanchez’s record performance, is this best Detroit pitching rotation ever?

  • Gary Steinke

    This rotation might have the best Tiger season ever, but we won’t know until the end of the season, and who knows, next year they could be even better. Only time will tell. Nice article Dan. It was nice the way Porcello bounced back (on 4-27) from his start in L.A.

  • Chuck Poulsen

    Good article,Dan. That’s still too early to tell but hopefully they all stay healthy and being consistent through the season. As for their offensive goes.. they better start hitting for these pitching staff, now.

  • Cliff Parker

    Once again, Dan is the man with another great article on the Detroit Tigers! Anibal is doing great this season, and, hopefully, the Detroit Tigers will have a great season this year with a World Series Championship.

  • Dan Holmes

    Gary, Chuck, and Cliff –

    Thanks for reading. I agree that it will take a few years to answer the question of whether this quartet is the best the Tigers ever had. In terms of talent, I believe they are. They need to execute now.

  • Gary Steinke

    I agree with you Dan. I think Tiger fans should sit back and enjoy the show. Right now history is being made. Not only are we seeing some great Tiger pitching, but we’re watching one of the greatest hitters of all time in Miguel Cabrera.

  • Rick

    Great comments by all the only thing or I should say person who could and unfortunately probably will is Jim Genius! A couple people at work were bemoaning the fact the Tiger’s are once again muddling around 500 to which I replied they have a 500 manager what do you expect? Sorry to be a downer guys but it is true. Like your stuff Dan keep up the good work!

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