Who gets the ball for Detroit in Game 1 of the ALDS? In some ways, Jim Leyland has an easy decision to make. With Max Scherzer a likely Cy Young Award winner, Anibal Sanchez the ERA king of 2013 and Justin Verlander a former MVP, it's kind of hard to find fault, no matter which of the three pitchers he chooses. On the other hand, no matter who Leyland picks, there's going to be a great argument for choosing someone else.
No matter what, the Tigers are going to have battle tested players on the mound: All four pitched in the 2012 postseason for the Tigers, which resulted in a run to the World Series, and three pitched for the 2011 team that went to the ALCS. Three of the four are known for striking out batters, and the fourth, Doug Fister, holds the AL record for consecutive strikeouts.
Here's a closer look at the choices:
He's the ace. But he's also been the least consistent starter among the three candidates in the rotation and he hasn't shined in the postseason, either. For most of the season, discussion about Verlander began with the words, "What's wrong with." Some even believe he should be sent to the bullpen rather than pitch out of the rotation.
Yet lately we've seen some vintage Verlander on the mound (though, admittedly not against the strongest of opponents.) In his final two starts of the year, Verlander did not allow a run in 12 innings on the mound. He gave up nine hits and four walks, and struck out 22. Earlier in the month, he also shut out the Indians for seven innings in a game that pushed Cleveland 7 1/2 games back.
If Verlander starts, he'll be on regular rest.
Why you pick Verlander: He's your franchise ace, regardless of stumbles earlier in the year. You give him the ball. Period.
Scherzer is almost certainly going to win the Cy Young after starting the season 13-0 and later 19-1. Run support helped him, but it's more than that. Scherzer allowed two runs or fewer in 20 of 31 starts. Scherzer had a 2.74 FIP, so like Sanchez he may have pitched better than his ERA. (A common theme given the Tigers' defense.) Among starting pitchers, only Yu Darvish struck out a higher percentage of batters than Scherzer (28.7 percent).
Why you pick Scherzer: He's consistently kept opponents off the board and pitched well in big games.
With a 2.57 ERA, Sanchez was the best in the American League. Looking at his sabermetric numbers shows he could have had even better results. His 2.39 FIP (a stat based on walks, strikeouts and home runs, rather than hits and runs) was the best in the AL. The only knocks on Sanchez's Cy Young resume was innings pitched -- injuries limited him to two starts in June, limiting his innings pitched to 182. He finished strong, holding opponents to two runs or fewer in four of his five starts in September. Like Scherzer, Sanchez is a punchout pitcher. He struck out 27.1 percent of batters.
Why you pick Sanchez: If he'd been healthy the entire year, he'd probably be your Cy Young winner.
Fister is obviously the longest shot. Even though he had a terrific season, keeping pace with his 2012 year but with even more innings pitched, he can't make an argument remotely near his teammates.
Why you pick Fister: If he wins the first game in Oakland, the Tigers have a really good chance to pick up two wins out of the next three starters.
Interestingly all three of the chief contenders pitched two games against the A's, and each had one bad game and one good game. Knowing Leyland, it might shake out like this:
1. Justin Verlander (13-12, 3.46)
2. Max Scherzer (21-3, 2.90)
3. Anibal Sanchez (14-8, 2.57)
4. Doug Fister (14-9, 3.67)
No matter how this settles out, the one thing we can say for certain: The Tigers have one heck of a playoff rotation heading into the ALDS.
What's your playoff rotation look like?