There’s no doubt that the starting staff for the Detroit Tigers is stacked and often times intimidating. A look down the rotation shows the modern mound’s version of Murders Row, starting with the best pitcher in the AL over the past five seasons, Justin Verlander, who proved this assertion by flirting with a postseason no-hitter in the clincher against the Oakland A’s on Thursday night in Oakland. On paper, the best starter in the AL this season was Max Scherzer who was the lone 20-game winner in all of baseball (he won 21 for good measure) while being the lone regular starter to allow fewer than one batter to reach base per inning (0.97 whip). For good measure there’s also Doug Fister, an intimidating 6’8” mountain of a man who was among the league leaders with 3.6 strikeouts for every walk he issued. But the Red Sox first assignment in the series to determine who’ll get a chance to play for the ultimate goal, the World Series trophy, Anibal Sanchez, could be the toughest matchup of all.
Familiarity is one of the most overlooked aspects when many look at matchups. A quick glance at statistics, especially in a playoff series, can be misleading. The difference in batting .400 versus .200 is just one great defensive play if there’s only a five at-bat sample size. But when there’s a significant number of at bats judgements are easier to make.
Take Jon Lester for example. We know that entering Saturday’s game with the Tigers, he’s likely going to have troubles against right fielder Torii Hunter, a veteran he’s faced 32 times and allowed to reach base in 15 of those appearances. Although he’s faced Miguel Cabrera just 24 times, it’s safe to say that the 2012 Triple Crown winner and 2013 leader in every slashline category (.348 BA/.442 OBP/.636 SLG./1.078 OPS) knows what to expect when he faces the Sox lefty, having touched him up for 10 hits and five walks in their 24 meetings. In fact, among all of the Tigers who’ve faced Lester at least 10 times, Prince Fielder has had the least success, but even he’s batting .267 against the southpaw (4 for 13).
However when it comes to Sanchez, the AL’s ERA leader (2.57) in 2013, the Red Sox don’t have familiarity at all. Since joining the Tigers midway through 2012, Sanchez has made 41 starts, not one of those came against Boston (which a decent case could be made in a the-chicken-or-the-egg way, is a contributing factor to why he was the AL ERA leader in the first place).
In his career which spans eight seasons, mainly with the Marlins, he’s gotten the call just once against Boston, a seven-run outburst in 2006, Sanchez’s rookie year, by a lineup that included Coco Crisp, Manny Ramirez, Trot Nixon and Doug Mirabelli. In fact, only one Red Sox player from that lineup, David Ortiz—a source of a lot of the damage that July day who blasted two home runs and drove in four while playing first base in the interleague game at Miami— remains with the team, and he was. However that was a long time ago.
Big Papi is one of just five current Sox batters—Jonny Gomes (1 for 5), Shane Victorino (10 hits, four walks, one HR in 47 PAs), Stephen Drew (5 hits, 1 walk, 23 PA’s) and David Ross (2 hits, 1 walk, 1 home run in 12 PA’s) —with any live experience against Sanchez. With the possible exception of a random spring training meeting in Jupiter or Fort Myers or long forgotten at bats in the minors, Red Sox core veterans Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli and Jarrod Saltalamacchia know Sanchez only from videos, scouting reports and word of mouth.
The Red Sox first ALCS opponent is a mystery, and so is how they'll respond against him.
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He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.