Despite a winding road of reports over the last two days, Anibal Sanchez will remain a Detroit Tiger after all. The club signed the 28-year-old right-hander to a five-year, $80 million deal, keeping him in Detroit through the 2017 season.
Sanchez joins Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister as locks for the Tigers’ rotation this spring, with just one spot left for youngsters Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly. Porcello could be the one on his way out — trade rumors have surrounded the 23-year-old since the Winter Meetings, and now the Tigers’ otherwise full rotation will likely push him out the door to make room for Sanchez.
Porcello posted mediocre results through his first four seasons — a 4.55 ERA and a 4.26 FIP. Durability has been a positive — 120 starts over those four seasons — and his accomplishments are much more impressive in the context of his youth. Both his ERA and FIP have improved each year since 2010, and with his prime ostensibly still to come, there’s reason to believe Porcello can turn into a mid-rotation starter (or maybe even a notch better).
However, the Tigers aren’t necessarily in a position to wait. The club already reached the World Series last fall despite missing Victor Martinez for the entire season. In addition, Ramon Santiago, Delmon Young, Don Kelly, Brennan Boesch and Ryan Raburn took 1,719 plate appearances and combined for minus-4.5 WAR. Although Boesch and Santiago remain on the roster, their roles will be diminished, with the others replaced by superior options like Andy Dirks, Omar Infante, Quintin Berry and Martinez. This is a team shooting for a World Series within the next two seasons, seasons in which Sanchez is likely to be definitively more valuable than Porcello.
Sanchez owns a 92 ERA- and 88 FIP- over the last four seasons, significant improvements over Porcello’s respective 107 and 100 marks. Diving deeper, Sanchez’s pitching style appears to be a much better fit for this current Tigers’ roster — specifically, its infield defense.
Porcello thrives on the ground ball. He throws a power sinker averaging 91.4 MPH over 50 percent of the time. The pitch has induced 58.7 percent ground balls over Porcello’s career according to Brooks Baseball, powering Porcello’s career 52.3 percent rate (53.2 percent in 2012). He has solid but not impeccable control — 2.3 career BB/9 — but doesn’t miss many bats. Although his strikeout rate has improved year-in and year-out, his sinker is still a hittable pitch — just a 5.1 percent whiff rate against it — and as such his strikeout rate has yet to break 5.5 per nine innings in a season (5.46 last season).
However, the Tigers infield defense — Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante and Prince Fielder — simply does not suit a pitcher like Porcello. The club allowed the fourth-most ground ball hits last season (fifth most adjusting for errors) and was third-worst in 2011. The Tigers have never been particularly good against ground balls during Porcello’s career — 20th in 2010 and a respectable 12th in 2009 — so it shouldn’t come as a surprise the grounder-reliant Porcello has seen his BABIP on the rise since his first call-up:
The Tigers’ rotation success in 2012 hinged on high strikeout totals — their 8.2 K/9 trailed just the Brewers in MLB and led the American League. Although Sanchez is himself something of a ground ball pitcher — 44.5 percent career, as well as a sharp 0.82 HR/9 — his 7.6 career K/9 and 9.6 percent swinging strike rate will allow him to rely less on his defenders and create more outs on his own. Besides being just a better pitcher, Sanchez’s ability to put hitters away himself makes him a better fit for the roster than the pitch-to-contact Porcello.
What looks like maybe just a one-win gain for the Tigers between Sanchez and Porcello on the basic statistics swells a bit when we account for the team context. Now, the Tigers can use Porcello as a solid asset — a young pitcher in just his second year of four (thanks to Super 2 status) arbitration seasons, under team control through the 2015 season. Detroit can use him to pick up middle infield help — they have little support for Infante and Peralta beyond the replacement-level Santiago — or shore up a bullpen left shallow by the departure of Jose Valverde. In the context of the Tigers — and Mike Ilitch’s lifelong run at a World Series ring — Anibal Sanchez is the better fit for the present.