Midterm report card: Tigers starting rotation not up to expectations

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers' starting pitchers set themselves up with very high expectations for 2014. So far, they have not quite measured up.

The Detroit Tigers had the best starting pitching rotation in the American league in 2013, and it really wasn't even close. Tiger starters led the league in almost every major category, and their 25.5 wins above replacement (WAR), per Fangraphs, was well ahead of the second-best Texas Rangers' 16.1 WAR.

The Tigers set a team record for most strikeouts in a season in 2013, and naturally entered the 2014 season with very high expectations. Things haven't gone quite as well as planned, however. While the starting rotation is still the strength of the team, and few if any teams can boast of four quality starting pitchers that the Tigers have, their performance so far this season has been much less dominating.

Here are the numbers:

Rotation

Category 2013 2013 AL Rank 2014 2014 AL Rank
ERA 3.44 First 3.84
Sixth
FIP 3.12
First 3.69
Third
WHIP 1.21 First-tie 1.27
Fifth
K/9 8.63
First 7.17
Ninth
BB/9 2.49 2nd 2.66
Fifth
HR/9 0.74 First 0.83
Second
IP/ Start 6.31 First 6.21
First
WAR 25.5
First 9.8
First

What we see in the numbers above is that the Tigers have declined in every category. Their ERA and FIP are up, while strikeouts are down. Home runs and walks are up, and they are lasting fewer innings per start.

There are two categories where the Tigers' rotation still leads the league. That is in longevity, still going well over six innings per start, and in WAR. Fangraphs' WAR is a combination of the three factors that a pitcher absolutely controls; strikeouts, home runs, and walks. The Tigers are good enough, and deep enough, that they still lead the league.

One other category not listed above where the Tigers lead the league is in starting pitcher wins (42), even though the Tigers have played from three to six fewer games than any other team. As we know, a team's offense has a lot to do with pitcher wins.

Now, let's examine the individual pitching performances of the Tigers' starting pitchers.

Max Scherzer

Scherzer GS W-L IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WHIP fWAR
2013 32 21–3 214.1 10.08 2.35 0.76 2.90 2.74 0.97 6.4
2013 Rank* 1st 5th 2nd 14th 7th 5th 3rd 1st 1st
2014 19 113 126.1 10.40 2.49 0.85 3.35 2.96 1.17 3.1
2014 Rank 3rd t 8th 2nd 23rd 23rd 19th 9th 11th 9th

* 2013 rank among 35 starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title

After winning the Cy Young award in 2013 and declining a lucrative six-year contract extension, expectations were high for Scherzer entering the season. While he still ranks among the top 10 in the American league in WAR, and is still second in strikeouts, he is not nearly the dominant pitcher that he was a year ago. Still, when he is on his game, he can be as dominant as any pitcher in the league.

Justin Verlander

Verlander
GS
W-L
IP
K/9
BB/9
HR/9
ERA
FIP
WHIP
fWAR
2013
34
1312
218.1
8.95
3.09
0.78
3.46
3.28
1.31
5.3
2013 Rank*
14th
4th
7th
7th
27th
15th
9th
24th
4th
2014
20
88
129.0
6.70
3.21
0.84
4.88
4.02
1.46
1.9
2014 Rank
t 19th
7th
29th
35th
22nd
43rd
28th
42nd
22nd

The former Cy Young winner and American League MVP has had the roughest season among Tigers' starting pitchers this season. His ERA has climbed to 4.88, although the numbers suggest there may be some misfortune there. Still, his WAR has dropped him outside of the top 20 pitchers in the league, and that's quite a fall. Verlander is still a work horse, and he has had stretches of quality starts along with a string of three seven run outings.  Verlander may be the biggest key to the Tiger rotation approaching it's dominance over opponents.

Anibal Sanchez

Sanchez
GS
W-L
IP
K/9
BB/9
HR/9
ERA
FIP
WHIP
fWAR
2013
29
148
182.0
9.99
2.67
0.45
2.57
2.39
1.15
6.3
2013 Rank*
7th
30th
3rd
19th
1st
1st
1st
9th
2nd
2014
16
63
94.2
6.65
2.38
0.29
3.04
2.96
1.04
2.4
2014 Rank
31st
45th
30th
18th
1st
11th
8th
5th
12th

Sanchez won the ERA title in 2013, also leading the league in FIP, home run ratio, and was second only to Scherzer in WAR. He would have been a strong Cy Young candidate if not for two weeks on the disabled list. This year, another stint on the DL has kept his numbers down, but the ratios indicate that Sanchez is still very much an elite pitcher, although there has been a big drop in his strikeout rate. He still leads the Tigers in ERA and should be counted on down the stretch as long as he remains healthy.

Rick Porcello

Porcello
GS
W-L
IP
K/9
BB/9
HR/9
ERA
FIP
WHIP
fWAR
2013
29 138 172.2 7.25 2.19 0.94 4.43 3.57 1.30 3.1
2013 Rank*
t 14th 32nd 22nd 11th 17th 31st 19th 22nd 21st
2014
18
125
119.1
5.05
2.11
0.83
3.39
3.94
1.18
1.7
014 Rank
t 1st
20th
42nd
13th
25th
20th
27th
12th
25th

When the Tigers traded Doug Fister, they counted on Porcello to step up and become a top-four starting pitcher. He has done all that could reasonably be expected of him. Porcello has seen the biggest improvement from 2013 to 2014 among Tigers' starting pitchers, leading the league in wins at the break and dropping his ERA one full run.

While his strikeout ratio has dropped, it's back in line with his career numbers. For the first time, his ERA is outperforming his FIP. Part of that may be improved infield defense, but more likely that his sinker- which is his bread and butter pitch- is not nearly as hittable as it was. The batting average against his two seamer has dropped from .300 to .255.

The biggest key for Porcello was to improve left-handed hitters. His batting average against allowed against lefties which was .300 last season, has fallen to .239. Another key is for him to pitch deeper into games, and he has increased his innings per start from 5.9 to 6.6, with two complete games.

Drew Smyly

Since Smyly spent 2013 in the bullpen, comparing his numbers to last year would be apples and oranges, so I'll just give a synopsis of where Smyly stands in relation to other pitchers.

I wrote at the start of this season that the best way for the Tigers to make up for the loss of Fister would be for Porcello to take Fister's place, and Smyly to replace what they got from Porcello. For the most part, Smyly is doing just that, although he's going about it in a different manner.

For one thing, Smyly is more of a strikeout pitcher and more of a fly ball pitcher. He has allowed more home runs and walks, and he could stand improvement in both of those categories, but he manages a lower ERA than Porcello had a year ago. In the end, what may be most important for Smyly is whether he can transition back to the bullpen and provide anything like the performance that he gave the Tigers last year, when he was one of the best relief pitchers in the league. The team has not yet replaced his performance in the bullpen this year, but that's the subject of another article.

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