Justin Verlander is widely regarded as the best starting pitcher in major league baseball. Max Scherzer led the majors in strikeout ratio with a staggering 11.08 strikeouts per nine innings in 2012, and appears to be on the verge of greatness. Doug Fister has an ERA of 3.10 and a WAR of 9.1 over the past two seasons, putting him among the top dozen pitchers in the game.
The signing of Anibal Sanchez means that he, or one of the three aforementioned pitchers, will be the fourth man in the Tigers' starting rotation for the 2013 season. No other team in baseball has that kind of proven talent in their rotation.
As the 2012 season ended, I wrote that the Tigers boasted the best rotation among all the playoff teams in the American League. Now, I'd like to expand that analysis to include all rotations around major league baseball.
When you isolate pitching performance and remove defense from the equation, which is what fielding independent percentage (FIP) does, the Tiger rotation ranked third in all of baseball, behind only the Nationals and the Cardinals. When adjusted for league and ballpark (xFIP), the Tigers ranked second to the Phillies' starters. The Tiger rotation also led major league baseball in fWAR, posting a plus 20.5.
It's no secret that every team is looking to improve their pitching every off season. This off season the Tigers were happy enough, ecstatic in fact, just to keep Sanchez in a Tiger uniform. While his 3.77 ERA over the past two seasons might not look so impressive, Sanchez has posted an xFIP of 3.43, which ranks 28th in the majors, and his 7.6 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs, is 21st over the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
In fact, all four of the Tigers' top four starting pitchers rank among the top 23 in fWAR, and among the top 40 in FIP and in ERA. Rick Porcello comes in at 48th in FIP. Of course, no single statistic is the be all measure of pitching performance, especially when comparing pitchers across both leagues. With 30 clubs in major league baseball having an entire rotation in the top 50 and having the top four among the top 40 is impressive.
Looking at the rest of the league, the Tigers 3.76 rotation ERA ranked second in the league last year behind the Rays, who led all of MLB at 3.34. The next six best ERAs in MLB belonged to national league clubs, illustrating the advantage that NL clubs have in the ERA department due primarily to the absence of a DH. That the Rays led all of baseball is all the more impressive. But the Rays have traded their second best pitcher, James Shields, to Kansas City. Shields ranked among the top ten in the AL in FIP and among the top twelve in ERA. He will be missed. Rays' starters also benefited from a solid infield defense.
The Oakland A's had a rotation that had an ERA just slightly higher than the Tigers in 2012, but once you adjust for fielding, the gap widens, and adjusting for ballparks, considering the canyon that the A's call their home stadium, they drop all the way to eighth in the league. Oakland has also lost Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon from a rotation that was led statistically by two rookies, Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone. A repeat performance is possible, but not probable.
The Angels were thought to have one of the best rotations last season, but they struggled with a 4.04 ERA and an even higher 4.33 FIP. They have also lost Zack Greinke to the Dodgers, and Dan Haren to the Nationals, replacing them with Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton. They may not be done adjusting their rotation yet.
The former AL champion Texas Rangers had an ERA of 4.30 and a predictably lower FIP of 4.01 and even lower xFIP of 3.90. They've lost Ryan Dempster to Boston, and barring any more additions, will try to convert Alexi Ogando from the bullpen to the rotation, and may have Martin Perez rounding out the rotation.
In the national league, comparisons become more difficult, again because of the difference presented by the absence of the designated hitter. The Phillies, once billed as having the best rotation since the civil war, will return with a trio of Halladay, Hamels, and Cliff Lee joined by Kyle Kendrick and a mystery guest. They will be formidable, but did not live up to expectations in 2012.
The Nationals will replace Edwin Jackson with Dan Haren, and will presumably be smart enough to not shut their budding young ACE down because of an irrational and arbitrary innings limit this year. Steven Strasbourg, Jordan Zimmerman, and Gio Gonzalez give the Nats a solid young core, and if Haren can regain the form he showed prior to last year, the Nats figure to have one of the better rotations in the game.
The Dodgers have been the talk of the off season, or actually the trade talk of baseball since they shed the shackles of McCourt last year and began to spend seemingly without limitation. With a solid rotation that already had former Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, they've added Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Korean lefty Hyun Jin Ryu, to go with holdovers Chad Billingsley, Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, and Ted Lilly.
The Dodgers are deep in the rotation, but which five will emerge on opening day? Kershaw is still the ace of the franchise, with Greinke a solid No. 2. Ryu is a complete unknown. Beckett was frankly not a good pitcher last year, going 7- 14 between Boston and LA with an ERA of 4.65. He could rebound and give the team a very solid rotation. Billingsley was once a strikeout machine, but has fallen off sharply in that department. Still, the Dodgers will piece together a very solid rotation.
The Cardinals had one of the better rotations last season, ranking fourth in MLB in rotation ERA, second ahead of Detroit in FIP, and fifth in xFIP. However, the Cards had a stellar performance from Kyle Lohse, who went 16- 3 with an ERA of 2.86. Lohse is a free agent, still unsigned, but is not expected to be back in St. Louis, and would not be expected to repeat those numbers if he did return.
In the final analysis, the five best rotations on the stat charts are the Tigers, Rays, Nationals, Phillies, and Dodgers, not necessarily in that order. I don't think that one can look strictly at the rotation ERA to measure pitching performances because defense has to be factored in, as do league and park factors. FIP and xFIP should also be considered.
The Rays have taken a major hit losing Shields, although they got a great return for him, and they also traded a possible replacement for him in the rotation with Wade Davis. The Phillies are formidable, but they need a rebound season from Halladay and improvement from Kendrick, plus a capable fifth starter to round out their rotation.
The Dodgers could be deadly but there are questions, including whether Josh Beckett will regain his old form, and how Ryu adjusts to the major leagues coming from Korea. They have the depth to sustain injuries better than any other club.
The Nationals have a solid young rotation that figures to only get better, if that is possible. But they are still young and that could have pitfalls. They also have questions surrounding Dan Haren, but if he rebounds, they should be back in the playoffs.
The Tigers put up the numbers that they did last season despite losing Doug Fister twice for a total of six weeks, and they lost Drew Smyly for a period as well. They should have a full season of Sanchez as well as Verlander and Scherzer. Nothing is guaranteed, least of all the health of starting pitchers, but I believe that the Tigers had the best rotation in the game at the end of the 2012 season, and if healthy, they have the best starting rotation to begin the 2013 season.