The Detroit Tigers rode their powerful starting pitching rotation to their third consecutive Central Division title in 2013, and their third consecutive appearance in baseball's final four. Led by two Cy Young winners in Justin Verlander, and the 2013 Cy winner, Max Scherzer, as well as the 2013 ERA champion in Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 rotation set a very high mark for any future rotation to try to match.
With Scherzer going 21- 3 and coming off by far the best season of his career, and with Sanchez leading the league in ERA, and with Doug Fister being traded for nobody that figured to help the team very much in 2014, one could be forgiven for expecting some decline in the performance of the Tigers' pitching rotation in 2014. Well, forgive and forget all about that. Through the first quarter of the season, the 2014 Tigers have a rotation that is as good as ever, and maybe even better.
Following is a comparison of the critical statistics of the Tigers' starting pitchers between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, after 40 games through Monday's game.
As we can see from the comparison, the 2014 rotation measures favorably by comparison, even to the dominating 2013 Tiger starters. Their ERA is even better and they still lead the American League. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is exactly the same, and they're putting fewer men on base as evidenced by an improved walks plus hits per inning (WHIP) ratio.
This year's rotation does not strike out as many hitters, and they walk a few more, but the home run rate has plummeted, and they are yielding a batting average of just .224. The modest drop in strikeouts is not surprising, considering the fact that the 2013 Tigers set the all time record for strikeouts by one team in a season. In fact, not shown on the chart is the fact that the 2014 Tigers have cut the opponents' OPS by 35 points, from .669 to .634.
While defense can play a part in taking away hits, and extra base hits in particular, the drop in home run rate is independent of any defense considerations, and it would be difficult to imagine that the defensive personnel in the outfield this season is any better than it was a year ago. No, this pitching rotation is simply doing a better job of not giving up the big hits.
As for the individual performances, I wrote in January how I thought the Tigers might compensate for the loss of Doug Fister, who was one of the top ten pitchers in the league last season according to several metrics including WAR, FIP, GB%, HR/9, BB/9, and K/BB. To summarize, there is no way that Drew Smyly could replace Fister's production over 218 innings, so it would be up to Rick Porcello to replace Fister, and Smyly in turn would have to carry Porcello's load. How is that working out thus far?
Rob Rogacki recently wrote this article suggesting that Max Scherzer has even improved on his Cy Young winning performance a year ago. Read the article, look at the chart once again, and judge for yourself. Max is still the best pitcher in the league, and it's just a matter of by how much.
Max Scherzer 2013- 2014
FIP- Fielding Independent Pitching is explained here.
Justin Verlander had what would be considered an "off year" for him in 2013. He lost some velocity on his fastball and was throwing more off speed pitches, but he was still clearly a top ten pitcher in the league. Following is his comparison between 2013 and so far in 2014, updated through Tuesday's start as much as possible.
Verlander was not the dominant pitcher last year that he was the two previous seasons, and his strikeout rate is down again, while his walk rate is up again. Not completely shown above is a trend that may be cause for concern. Verlander registered a career high K/9 of 10.09 in 2009, and that stabilized around 9.0 K/9 the past three seasons, but that is now down again, although we're just finishing up the first quarter of the season. He has compensated by yielding fewer hits, and keeping the ball in the park to a ridiculous- really an unsustainable degree.
Verlander is still a work horse, actually throwing even more innings per start than he did a year ago. His WAR per start is also up over a year ago. A look at his 6.76 xFIP gives us a glance at what he might look like if his HR rate were calibrated to the league average. If he's going to allow as many base runners, he'll have to keep the ball in the park as he has been doing to keep a solid ERA. He continues to rank among the league leaders in innings and WAR.
Anibal Sanchez was the Tigers' second best starting pitcher a year ago, but has been missing from action for the past few weeks due to a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand. In five starts before going on the DL and one start since his return, Sanchez looks to be back on track.
The numbers here suggest that Sanchez has an ERA that's not quite as good as his performance would otherwise indicate. After leading the American league with the lowest home run rate in 2013, he has yet to allow a dinger this season. He continues to strike out about a batter per inning, although the walk rate is up over a season ago. Like his team mates, he doesn't allow many hits, and they're not big ones when he does. His batting average allowed is the best in the Tiger rotation. If Sanchez stays healthy, he projects to produce about 5.2 WAR over the same 182 innings that he pitched a year ago.
Rick Porcello has shown the biggest year to year improvement of any pitcher in the Tiger rotation this season.
Porcello not only stands at 7- 1, his win total tied for the league lead after his last appearance in Boston on Saturday, but his ERA is down by one third, his WHIP is down, his walk rate is sharply reduced from an already good BB/9 ratio, his HR/9 rate is down, and oponents are hitting 32 points lower against him. Why is that?
When we looked at Porcello prior to this season, what stood out was that he had the fourth best wOBA allowed in the league against right handed hitters, but was getting killed by left handers. In fact, his splits were so dramatic that opposing managers actually sent more lefties to face Porcello than right handed hitters, which almost never happens.
Porcello now has allowed right handers to hit .237 with a wOBA of .273 against him, while lefties are hitting just .235 with a wOBA of .278. One year ago, opposing lefties hit .299 with a wOBA of .353 against Kid Rick. That dramatic improvement against left handed hitters accounts for his breakout season, putting him among the top 20 AL pitchers in WAR and FIP this season.
Pitch f/x also shows Porcello's improvement, particularly on his off speed pitches. Opposing batting averages are lower against the two seam fastball, the curve ball, and most of all, the change up which he likes to throw to left handers. He is still vulnerable throwing four seamers in the zone, and his slider is nothing special.
Drew Smyly is the new guy in the rotation, again. He has only been able to make five starts, plus two appearances in relief, due to a messed up schedule that is partly weather related. I don't believe that it's particularly helpful to compare Smyly's numbers in the bullpen last season with his work this year, but let's see where he fits into the rotation overall.
In 33-1/3 innings of work, Smyly is 2- 2 with an ERA of 3.05, which fits right in with the veterans in the rotation. His FIP is elevated partly by four home runs that give him a higher HR/9 ratio. His strikeouts are above average at just under one per inning, and his BB/9 is respectable So far, so good for Smyly, who is on track to having a fine season as long as he can handle the increase in innings.
Robbie Ray has been called into action due to the injury to Sanchez and now due to Porcello having his next start pushed back. Last season, Jose Alvarez was the sixth man in the rotation, and he went 1- 5 with an ERA of 5.14 and an FIP of 5.55. He averaged 4-2/3 innings per start. Ray has fared much better thus far, with an ERA of 0.79, allowing 9 hits and 2 walks with 7 strikeouts in 11-1/3 innings, going over 5-2/3 innings per start. So far, he's looking like a clear upgrade over Alvarez, but if he has to make more starts than Alvarez did a year ago, this whole theory about the rotation being better will be severely tested.
And therein, perhaps, is the key to the whole question. It's a question of health. The Tigers were very fortunate to get by with their AAAA starter only starting six games in 2013. Ray will have made half that many by the end of this week. While he is a good bet to improve upon Alvarez, he's not likely to be able to replace the performance of one of the established starters in the Tiger rotation.
So to answer the question- If they can stay healthy, if Verlander resembles his dominant self, and if Rick Porcello can continue his improved performance against left handed hitters, this year's rotation could well pull off the seemingly improbable accomplishment of actually improving upon the great 2013 Tiger pitching rotation, which was already best in show.