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Sunday, October 14, 2012
Kuroda vs. Sanchez unfamiliar territory

By Christina Kahrl

Kuroda/Sanchez
Hiroki Kuroda and Anibal Sanchez get the call for Game 2 on Sunday.
NEW YORK -- Game 1 was ominous for the Yankees and Tigers for very different reasons: The Tigers for their latest unhappy reminder that perhaps Jose Valverde’s glaring vulnerability is potentially the stuff of broken postseason dreams, the Yankees because of the mortifying knowledge that Derek Jeter is done for 2012 and has a long, painful rehab ahead of him.

But all of that adds up to one night’s action and one game’s outcome, however much fear it breeds in New York and Detroit. Before you can so much as try to gather your thoughts and reflect, Game 2 is already upon us, with the Tigers squaring off against Hiroki Kuroda, while Anibal Sanchez gets ready to take on the Yankees.

What experience the Tigers have collectively against Kuroda is almost entirely summed up in their two shots at him this season: In two turns, Kuroda delivered quality starts each time out. In today’s wide-ranging schedules, that’s what has to pass for familiarity with a particular pitcher. The old rule that you don’t want to pass judgment on a particular pitcher-batter matchup until 20 at-bats may no longer apply in the tech-enabled present. Never mind something as simple as a scouting report. Between video-enabled batting cages and readily available data, hitters have never had so much info at their disposal as they do now.

Still, nothing beats the real thing, right? Prince Fielder, armed with the most experience against Kuroda going back to their previous time spent in the National League, seemed to think so immediately after Game 1: "Man, he’s good. I’ve been facing him since he was with the Dodgers. He’s always been tough; tomorrow he’s going to be tough as well."

Certainly it doesn’t hurt any that Miguel Cabrera and Fielder have both enjoyed success against Kuroda in their limited confrontations. Miggy has ripped two homers and a double in nine at-bats, while Fielder has gone 5-for-16 with a double.

With the tight 15-hour turnaround from Game 1’s late finish to Game 2’s first pitch, will the Tigers have any shot at preparing for Kuroda? Center fielder Austin Jackson wasn’t in a hurry to get there, saying of where he was after the game, "You kind of enjoy it for right now. When tomorrow comes, you start getting prepared."

Thinking ahead, Fielder just smiled and said, "I’m really not the Peyton Manning of baseball by any means. As far as studying videos, I’m not going to do that that much, I’m just going to try to get some rest."

It probably doesn’t hurt the Tigers’ chances that Kuroda will also be starting on short rest, something he didn’t have to attempt in the Japanese leagues or with the Dodgers. Before Game 1, he noted, "This is probably the shortest rest that I have ever had in my baseball career,” but added, “I’m not too concerned. I prepare myself as [if] the next game that I’m going to pitch is my last. I have always taken that approach, so I am just going to do the same [for Game 2]."

Kuroda noted, "My style of pitching is to be aggressive and just be aggressive all the time." Informed of that, Fielder responded, "Hopefully, it works out for us, and we score some runs early."

Direct experience with the Yankees has been much less rewarding for Sanchez this season. He took a hammering at the hands of the Yankees his third time out in a Tigers uni after coming over in a midseason deal. But does that one game mean all that much?

Manager Jim Leyland seemed willing to discount the early work.

"There’s a lot of stress and things that go along with moving to another team, particularly a team in a pennant race with a lot of responsibility. ... It takes a little time to get acclimated to your new surroundings."

Looking at the big picture, perhaps predictably since coming over from the National League, Sanchez has seen his strikeout rate drop from almost 22 percent to a below-average 18 percent. That might seem normal enough for a pitcher moving to the DH league, but he’s still managed to pitch as effectively, posting a 3.74 ERA that’s a little higher than what fielding-independent performance metrics FIP and xFIP suggest it should be.

Perhaps the big problem for Sanchez is that he has little or no control over the Tigers’ defense, which is why that lower strikeout rate is cause for some concern. Detroit ranked next-to-last in the AL in defensive efficiency (and park-adjusted defensive efficiency), converting just 67.8 percent of balls in play into outs. That isn’t all Cabrera or Fielder or Jhonny Peralta or Delmon Young -- it’s all of them combined, and the cumulative result is that balls in play against the Tigers lead to bad things for their pitchers.

Collectively, Tigers pitchers have mitigated that damage on defense this season by striking out almost 22 percent of opposing batters, the second-best mark in the league. With Justin Verlander (25 percent) or Max Scherzer (29 percent), there are that many fewer chances that a bad defense can make an impact. Sanchez isn’t cut from that cloth. While he’s not a finesse righty by any means -- throwing around 92 mph with his fastball -- how well he hits spots with his slider and changeup could be critical.


Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.