LAKELAND, Fla. -- Former Tigers catcher Alex Avila had the best description of what Anibal Sanchez is like when he's on his game. He could have four or five different pitches going, Avila would say, but they'd look similar coming out of his hand. The result would be what looked like the same pitch upon release moving any of four ways on its way to the plate, usually at the knees or below.
"He's not a power pitcher where he's going to throw 95-96 [mph]," Avila once said, "but he's deceptive with the fastball. It's sneaky. It's got a lot of movement."
That was three years ago, when Sanchez led the American League in ERA (2.57) and tied his career high with 202 strikeouts. He also set a franchise record that April with a 17-strikeout game against a Braves lineup that included new teammate Justin Upton.
That 2013 season was the last time Sanchez made more than 25 starts. He started 29 games that year, covering 182 innings, but has made 46 starts over the past two seasons combined. His injuries in that time range from a middle finger laceration from a blister that burst, to a strained pectoral muscle, to rotator cuff inflammation that cut short an already disappointing 2015 season for him. A bout of triceps inflammation rekindled concern early this spring.
Yet, when Sanchez returned last week and took the mound in a big league Spring Training game for the first time this year, his pitches evoked the same reaction from catcher James McCann as they did from McCann's predecessor.
"Everything came out looking the same," McCann said. "He's a guy that's got 17 million pitches, and all of them were working. Everything looked very, very good."
If Sanchez can produce that in the regular season, Detroit's rebuilt rotation looks vastly different. For all the focus on Justin Verlander replicating his stretch run from last year, Jordan Zimmermann settling into a new league, Mike Pelfrey looking stronger two years out from arm issues, and Detroit's wish for a young arm to take the fifth starter job, Sanchez could be the difference between a good rotation and a great one.
Sanchez didn't have that form last year, and it showed. While his hit and strikeout rates were on par with his career averages, and his batting average allowed slightly above career marks, he gave up nearly as many home runs last year (29) as in his previous three seasons combined (33). His groundout/flyout ratio was his lowest in seven years.
Get the movement back, and his pitches should stay grounded. Get the old Sanchez back, and the Tigers could rise.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.