Sanchez, Strikeouts and Pitch Counts: The Tigers Take Game One

Game One of the 2013 ALCS was a classic. The Detroit Tigers beat the Boston Red Sox 1-0 in a contest that featured more than its fair share of drama. It also featured plenty of strikeouts and a near no-hitter. The game ended after midnight, with 322 pitches having been thrown.

Jim Leyland said something interesting about the Red Sox offense on Friday. There was a grain of truth to his comment, yet it was off base. It said a lot about a team that is very good at getting on base.

Asked about Boston’s ability to drive up pitch counts, the Tigers manager said, “I really don’t think taking pitches and working the pitcher has much to do with it… It‘s not taking the pitches, it’s that they foul off good pitches.”

Red Sox hitters did foul off a lot of pitches this year. Most notably, they fouled off 4,065 two-strike pitches, the most in baseball. The median was just under 2,800. No team had fewer than the Royals, who fouled off just 1,693 two-strike pitches.

Those numbers don’t prove Leyland right. Boston’s two-strike foul percentage was 40.2, which ranked them 15th among the 30 teams. The less-disciplined Royals [40.8] were more likely to foul off a two-strike pitch despite doing so far fewer times.

The Tigers, meanwhile, hit the sixth-most two-strike foul balls [3,309], while their percentage [38.2] was second from the bottom. Much like the Red Sox, they hit a lot of two-strike fouls because they saw a lot of two-strike counts. Working counts and taking pitches played a big part of that.

The teams’ plate discipline was borne out tonight. The first time through the order against Anibal Sanchez, Red Sox hitters saw 4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 5, 5, 4 and 6 pitches respectively. Thanks in part to the Detroit righthander’s overpowering stuff, it wasn’t until the 40th pitch of the game that they put a ball in play.

In the first inning, Sanchez became only the second pitcher in postseason history to strike out four batters in an inning, joining Orval Overall of the 1908 Chicago Cubs. Remarkably, it was the first time in their 113-year history a Detroit Tigers pitcher had turned the trick.

Familiarity — or lack thereof — was likely a contributing factor to Sanchez’s dominance. The Red Sox starting lineup went into the game with a combined 64 at bats against him, and forty-three were by Shane Victorino. Six of the nine hitters had never faced him.

A 95-mph fastball and devastating slider-changeup combination was a bigger factor. Sanchez had 10 strikeouts over the first five innings. He also had three walks and had thrown 88 pitches. Were it not for 10-pitch innings in the third and fifth, that number would have been even higher.

Lester was only slightly more efficient with his pitch count, and far less dominating. He had four strikeouts over the first five innings and twice left a pair of runners stranded.

In the top of the sixth, the Tigers scored the game‘s only run. A hobbled-but-still-dangerous Miguel Cabrera drew a walk. Prince Fielder was hit by a pitch. After a Victor Martinez force out put runners on the corners with two out, Jhonny Peralta quieted “steroids” chants with a single up the middle to score Cabrera. Lester’s pitch count was 102 at inning’s end.

In the bottom of the frame, Sanchez threw 28 pitches. It seemed like more. He walked the bases loaded and struck out two — including Stephen Drew to end the inning — and departed having thrown 116 pitches. The K put his name in the record books for a second time. In postseason history, only Walter Johnson had ever walked six batters and struck out 12. That happened in 1924.

Al Alburquerque
came on for Sanchez and held the Red Sox hitless in the seventh. He also continued the Tigers’ strikeout binge, fanning a pair. Jose Veras came on for the eighth and struck out both batters he faced. Drew Smyly then got David Ortiz to fly out, on a 3-2 pitch, to end the inning. The Red Sox were still without a hit, and four Detroit pitchers had combined for 16 strikeouts.

In the top of the ninth, Boston shortstop Stephen Drew kept the score 1-0 with a juggling, over-the-shoulder catch off a Fielder flare to strand Tigers at second and third. The out came on pitch number 158 for Red Sox hurlers.

Then came the bottom of the ninth.

Joachin Benoit came on and K’d Mike Napoli for the first out. It was the Tigers 17th strikeout of the game, which tied the postseason record set by Bob Gibson in 1968, and matched by Kevin Brown and Trevor Hoffman in 1998. What followed was the type of drama that makes baseball so great.

Two outs away from a combined no-hitter, Daniel Nava lined a clean single. After Drew flew out, Quintin Berry — a former Tiger who has never been caught stealing — pinch ran and swiped second base. Up came Xander Bogaerts, who less than two weeks ago celebrated his 21st birthday. One of the top power-hitting prospects in all of baseball, Bogaerts represented the winning run.

Naturally, the count went to 3-2. With the Fenway Park crowd holding its collective breath, Benoit delivered the 164th pitch thrown by Tigers hurlers. It was a changeup. Bogaerts popped harmlessly to shortstop Jose Iglesias for the final out.

After the game, Iglesias was understated in his assessment of what he had just experienced.

“Anibal was outstanding tonight,” said Iglesias. “It was pretty fun, and as a group we did an amazing job. It was a good game, and nice to win Game One.”

Alex Avila was more effusive in his praise of Sanchez.

“His stuff, at times, is probably some of the nastiest stuff we have on the team,: said the Tigers catcher. “Today was definitely one of those nights for him. His ball had so much action on it that I don’t think he knew where it was going sometimes. Sometimes I didn’t. But it worked out in our favor. We obviously walked way too many guys, but I’ll take it when we make pitches with guys on base like we did today.

“Between how nasty his stuff was, and we were trying to be as unpredictable as possible,” continued Avila. “I don’t think they were thinking 2-0 sliders with two guys on, 3-1 changeups — things like that. It makes it tough on hitters.”

The only Red Sox player to hit safely concurred with Avila’s assessment of Sanchez.

“He did a good job of mixing and matching pitches,” said Nava. “There was no pattern. When that happens, you’re working the count because you’re seeing a lot of pitches. We were grinding out at bats, which is what we try to do, but we didn’t get him out of the game soon enough.”

“Our at bats weren’t bad,” agreed Dustin Pedroia. “But obviously his off-speed stuff is put-away stuff. We had guys on, we just weren’t able to get the big hit.”

More accurately, the Red Sox weren’t able to get many hits at all. Their approach was the same as always — they saw plenty of pitches and worked counts — they simply couldn’t solve Anibal Sanchez or the Tigers bullpen.

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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In regards to Leyland’s comment, the Red Sox had the lowest swing% (43.7%) in the baseball. Sounds to me like taking pitches is exactly what they do.


It’s also particularly ironic with the Red Sox in this particular game, as I got the impression the Sox could barely make contact at all. I wasn’t seeing foul-offs, I was seeing three things: swinging strikes, looking strikes, and balls. How could they possibly be fouling off a lot of pitches if they’re swinging through air all night?