Since much of the Tigers' roster was settled when spring training opened, we have the luxury of focusing on the suddenly crucial 5th spot in the starting rotation. The importance of a 5th starter's performance is debatable - especially with the Tigers young and effective front four. We often credit Brad Penny with effectively eating innings throughout 2011, but did so forgiving his 5.30 ERA (5.02 FIP). He methodically accumulated 0.8 FanGraphs WAR -- and -0.4 Baseball-Reference WAR. In 2006, Mike Maroth's strong start was derailed by an elbow injury, and Zach Miner became the steady hand of okayness in 16 starts.
Penny and Miner became so entrenched in their teams' staffs that they each made a grand total of 1 playoff appearance.
Still, every fifth day we'll look to this starter to take advantage of a stacked lineup and provide an opportunity to win. Spring training performance will likely have a major impact on who wins the spot among Duane Below, Andrew Oliver and Drew Smyly. Some will look at overall spring stats to define performance, but I'm bothered by the number of minor leaguers (or fringy major leaguers) who can skew the stats favorably. I decided to break out appearances by whether or not the starters faced a decent lineup. I quickly saw that there really hasn't been enough appearances for these starters for a meaningful analysis, but THAT COULD NOT STOP ME.
First, Spring stats so far as published on tigers.com, through today:
Below: 12.1 IP 6R/6ER 12H 8K 6BB 2HR 4.38 ERA 5.47 FIP
Oliver: 12.2 IP 3R/3ER 4H 7K 8BB 1HR 2.13 ERA 5.02 FIP
Smyly: 8 IP 4R/4ER 4H 7K 3BB 0HR 1.13 ERA 2.58 FIP
This does not include strong outings for Oliver against Fla. Southern or Smyly against Class A competition. I used Gameday play-by-play to look for "credible" batters - which I defined as players with at least 130AB (negates rookies/prospects) and a career OPS of at least .730 (last year's AL average, and much lower than other recent years, meaning this is not a high bar to clear).
Using these criteria, Below has faced 34 credible of 60 total batters, Oliver 14 of 49, and Smyly 5 of 29.
Oliver held a worthy Atlanta lineup scoreless in his first outing while facing major league competition, but walked 3. His next two outings were notable for zero walks allowed, but facing Matt Holliday, David Freese, and no one else. He then turned in an ugly performance against a toothless (and M&M-less) Twins. Below has allowed runs in all 3 of his appearances against credible opposition (including the Nationals twice). Perhaps today's start against the Yankees helps make his case over Oliver, but certainly not convincingly. Finally, Smyly has yet to face a quality line-up. He induced a flyout from Jose Reyes on March 6, so there's that.
Spring stats against major league lineups (appearances with at least 50% major league batters faced):
Below: 8.1IP 5ER 12H 7K 5BB 2HR 5.40 ERA 6.44 FIP
Oliver: 3IP 0ER 0H 3K 3BB 0HR 0.00 ERA 4.20 FIP
Smyly - none
Here, Below's stats are worse, Oliver's start vs. MIN is annulled, and Smyly becomes the darkest dark-horse candidate. Obviously, the small sample size situation of spring training does not lend itself to subgroup analysis - and this further illustrates how little we truly have to go by.