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What’s the problem with the Tigers? Part 1: Pitching

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Sparky Anderson was famously quoted saying that you have to wait until 40 games into the baseball season before you know what kind of team you have. All the concerns raised about the Tigers so far this year have been met with "It’s still early." Well, there are 40 games in the books now, and the Tigers find themselves coming up short of expectations, sitting in third place in their division, under .500 and three games out of first place.

Most, if not all prognosticators, pundits and experts, including myself, expected much more from the Tigers than what we’ve seen so far this season. For my part, I still believe that the Tigers will win their division handily, but that does not mean that the team is without its problems. There have been issues in the rotation, issues in the bullpen, issues in the lineup, and issues on defense. Yes, it's still early. Yes, there is still a lot of baseball to be played -- 121 games, to be precise -- and yes, the Tigers were in a similar position in 2011 at the same point in the season and went on to win the division by 15 games.

Here is a look at Tiger pitching through 40 games, or about one quarter of the way through the 2012 season.

The Rotation:

One big problem that the Tigers rotation has had this season, and in my opinion the biggest problem, was created with the temporary loss of Doug Fister, and that problem was solved by his return to the rotation. Fister gives the Tigers a better No. 2 starter than any of their division rivals. With Verlander atop the rotation, that gives them the best one-two punch in the division. No other team has a starter comparable to Verlander, but without Fister, they have two rookies who had a career total of no more than three starts in their careers, to go with the inconsistency of Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer.
Tigers' Starting Pitching through 41 games, 2012 season
Pitcher Starts ERA/FIP WHIP Run Support/game started Quality Starts
Justin Verlander 9 2.14/ 2.24 0.80 3.9 7
Doug Fister 4 1.58/ 3.10 1.15 4.1 3
Drew Smyly 8 2.89/ 3.61 1.19 4.1 5
Rick Porcello 8 5.12/ 4.57 1.40 5.3 4
Max Scherzer 9 5.73/ 3.87 1.58 5.7* 5
Adam Wilk 3 8.18/ 7.24 2.18 1.7 0

* before Sunday's game

The above chart shows that Fister and Smyly, while a bit fortunate to have ERAs so low, are solid starting pitchers, logging quality starts most outings. Porcello and Scherzer have been unlucky in the ERA department, but have continued to enjoy solid run support. Wins have been harder to come by this season for the entire rotation.

Adam Wilk was Fister’s replacement, and he went 0-3 with an 8.18 ERA in three starts. In four starts since his return, Fister has a 1.59 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.15. His lack of wins are due mainly to bullpen and lineup failures. He is rock solid. Porcello and Scherzer have been up to their old tricks again. They’re either very good or very bad. We keep waiting for a breakout season from both of them, but just when we get a couple of good starts, they come out and throw a batting practice session where they get smacked all over the field. But in total, the Tigers' rotation has been very good since getting Fister back.

According to Fangraphs.com, the Tigers' rotation has the lowest fielding independent performance (FIP) in the league at 3.69, and it leads the league with 8.26 strikeouts per nine innings. For the month of May, the rotation has an ERA of just 3.15, and leads the league with a 3.35 FIP and a WHIP of just 1.10. It could be even better if Scherzer, Porcello and Drew Smyly would cut down on the mistake pitches and keep the ball in the park. Each has allowed seven home runs.

All the pitchers in the Tiger rotation, but particularly Rick and Max, benefited last year from having a lineup that provided them with great run support (third and fifth in the league, respectively) and the back end of a bullpen that saved just about every lead they were given. The run support has been sporadic this season, but the bullpen is not converting quality starts into wins with the same frequency. Hence, the win totals for Tiger starters are down this season. Tiger starters ranked 13th in the league with just 11 wins through 40 games.

Perhaps the brightest spot on the entire team this season has been the emergence of Smyly as a legitimate mid rotation starter. Smyly has picked up the slack for some of his rotation mates, and he looks like the real deal up to ths point. The Tigers gambled on finding an internal solution to replace Brad Penny from among the many pitching prospects this spring, and so far at least, the gamble has paid off. Smyly will make rookie mistakes and pay for them disproportionately in the form of untimely home runs, but he helps to solidify the rotation. One has to wonder how many starts the team will give him in his first season in the majors and just his second in pro baseball. One really has to wonder whether Smyly will be available at all if and when the Tigers reach the playoffs. Well, let’s get there first.

The rotation is still deeper than those of Detroit's division rivals, and if the Tigers can get quality outings even half of the time from Scherzer and Porcello, they should be strong enough to win their division, barring a complete collapse in the bullpen. Improvement from Porcello and Scherzer would really put some distance between Detroit and its rivals.

The Bullpen:

A story of contrasts marked the 2011 season for the Tigers' bullpen: While the back end of the relief corps led the league in save percentage and never blew a lead after the seventh inning, the bullpen ERA ranked 11th in the league. That’s an indication how poor the middle relievers were last year, and they’ve picked right up where they left off this season. The Tigers now have the highest bullpen ERA in the league at 5.04. This year, though, the problems run through the entire bullpen.

Tiger Relief Pitching through 41 games, 2012 season
Pitcher Innings ERA WHIP Saves/ Chances Opp Avg K/ 9 BB/ 9
Valverde 16,1 5.51 1.78 7/ 9 .270 7.71 6.61
Benoit 17.2 3.06 1.58 1/2 .262 13.75 5.60
Dotel 14.0 3.21 1.00 1/ 2 .192 11.57 2.57
Coke 17.2 4.58 1.30 0/ 1 .277 8.15 2.55
Below 19.1 2.79 0.83 0/ 0 .194 7.91 1.40
Balester 18.0 6.50 1.39 0/ 0 .209 6.00 5.50
Villarreal 6.0 0.00 0.83 0/ 0 .105 12.00 4.50
Schlereth 7.0 10.29 2.71 0/ 0 .412 7.71 6.43
Putkonen 6.0 10.50 2.67 0/ 1 .400 9.00 6.00

Although a perfunctory caution about small samples is in order, the early BB rate for Tigers relievers is alarming. Tiger relievers have issued a league leading 60 free passes through the first 40 games, and opponents are getting on base at a .352 clip vs Tiger relievers. The save percentage was 83% in 2011, and that's down to 57% in 2012.

The biggest concern that I have going forward is the effectiveness of the back four in the bullpen. Jose Valverde saved 49 games in 49 chances in 2011, but has already blown two saves in 2012. Together with Joaquin Benoit, who also struggled early last year, the pair have not been exempt from the high walk rates that have plagued the entire bullpen this season. New set-up man Octavio Dotel has been solid apart from one very loud implosion, and Phil Coke has been mainly effective from the left side. Nothing will frustrate fans and players more than blowing a lead in the late innings. The Tigers avoided that last year, but have struggled with leads so far this season.

Middle relief may continue to be an issue. It stands to reason that this area will struggle more than the other pitchers on the roster, but the Tigers have been particularly bad by comparison with their competitors. Duane Below seems capable of calming things down, but Collin Balester has been no improvement over the departed Ryan Perry, and a host of others led by Daniel Schlereth have been mostly horrible.

The Tigers can keep changing relievers until they find some consistency, but they have not had much luck with that thus far. They should be getting Al Alburquerque and Luis Marte back healthy at some point this season, and that may provide some welcome relief. The easy solution is for the starters to bypass them completely by throwing quality starts and giving the ball directly to the fearsome foursome of Coke, Dotel, Benoit and Valverde. Then pop a couple Rolaids and hope for the best.

This afternoon: A look at the lineup and fielding issues through 40 games.