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Half time report card: Tiger rotation grades well

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This is the first article in a series looking at the first 81 games of the Tigers’ 2012 season. We’ll grade the bullpen and the lineup separately.

Overall, the Tiger pitching staff has done an excellent job in the first half of the season, despite injuries to two of the five regular starters and some inconsistent performances from those that were healthy.

The Tigers' starting rotation has the lowest Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) rating in the league at 3.80. That compares with a rotation ERA of 4.29, which ranks seventh in the league. The difference between the two numbers is primarily poor defense. If you prefer xFIP (which is park adjusted), the Tigers lead the league there also, at 3.64. The rotation also leads the league with an 8.21 K/9 ratio and they have the second lowest BB/ 9 ratio in the league at just 2.64.

You can tell immediately by the grades I’m giving, that I find the FIP numbers to be a much better indication of how well the players have performed, than just by using the traditional ERA numbers, and I hardly mention wins and losses. I will post both ERA and FIP numbers in the analysis below for individual pitchers, so those that don’t see the world through sabermetric goggles can still enjoy the show.

Justin Verlander- A minus: Last year’s Cy Young winner and league MVP has been good this year, although not quite as good as he was a year ago. Verlander ranks second in the AL with a 2.90 FIP and fourth with a 2.69 ERA. His walk ratio is slightly up, strikeouts are slightly down, and his home run ration is actually a bit better than in 2011. I believe that he is still the best starting pitcher in the major leagues, and the Tigers can count on their ACE for the remainder of the season.

Max Scherzer- C plus: The good news is that Scherzer leads the league in strikeout ratio at 11.36 K per nine innings. The bad news is that he has been inconsistent, posting an ERA of 4.98, with a much better FIP of 3.74. The 1.43 runners that he puts on base per inning leaves room for improvement. More good news is that there are some indications that the Tigers can expect better from Scherzer in the second half of the season. His BABIP is a lofty .359 versus his career .313 BABIP, suggesting he could be luckier on balls put in play. His HR/ fly ball ratio is 15.4% against a career number of 11.5%. Scherzer has pitched much better recently than he did at the start of the season, going at least six innings in six of his last eight starts. If he continues to enjoy good run support, there is reason for optimism.

Rick Porcello: C plus Porcello has stepped up his game this season, especially in the past several outings, with an ERA of 4.35 and an FIP of 3.81. That compares with 4.75/ 4.06 in 2011. He maintains a high ground ball percentage of 52.8% and a solid BB/ 9 rate of 2.23/ 9. Porcello’s strikeout ratio is up to 5.52 from his career rate of 4.94, and he has not allowed more than four earned runs since April. A WHIP of 1.49 indicates that he is giving up too many hits. His BABIP of .339 suggests he could be more fortunate on balls in play.

Doug Fister- C The savior of the Tiger rotation in the second half of 2011 has been merely average in 2012. Apart from the two stints on the disabled list with an abdominal strain, Fister has an FIP of 3.80 and an ERA of 4.54. I won’t hold his 1-6 won- loss record against him, because he has gotten such poor run support. A look at Fister’s xFIP shows an even bigger difference, at just 3.17. Fister’s HR/ fly ball ratio is a whopping 17.9%, which is an indication that he is making too many mistakes, perhaps due to mechanics caused by injuries. Whatever the reason, the Tigers were a mediocre staff last year before they got Fister, and they’ll need him to be better this year if they’re going to get back to the post season.

Drew Smyly; C minus; The Tiger rookie has pitched well as the fifth starter in the rotation, posting an ERA of 4.54 and an FIP of 4.17. Those are better numbers than Scherzer and Porcello put up for the 2011 season, and his FIP would rank 25th of 42 qualified starting pitchers in the league. Smyly has good ratios of 7.98 K’s and just 2.58 BB’s per nine innings. His biggest issue has been the long ball, and that is mainly due to missing location at times. Smyly is equally effective against righties and lefties, allowing a few more extra base hits to right handed hitters, and that bodes well for a lefty that wants to remain in a starting role. As long as he can keep doing what he was doing before he went on the disabled list with a blister, he should be fine in the fifth spot in the rotation.

Adam Wilk F- While Fister was on the disabled list in May, Wilk got three starts and lost all three games, posting an ERA of 8.18 and an FIP of 7.32, while lasting a total of 11.0 innings. He is said to have the best control in the Tiger organization, and he threw strikes during his time in Detroit, but too many of them wound up in the seats. A BABIP of .415 suggests bad luck, but the home run rate suggests his stuff isn’t good enough for a major league rotation.

Casey Crosby- D minus: Crosby also got three starts, the second time that Fister went on the disabled list. He pitched 12.1 innings, with a record of 1-1, an ERA of 9.49, and an FIP of 6.38. Crosby walked eleven batters and gave up a pair of home runs, including a grand slam to Curtis Granderson. He may get another shot.

Incomplete- Jacob Turner.

Overall, the Tigers have one true ACE, and four pitchers that have been very close to league average. The fact that their ACE is so good, and that all four others rank so well among other starting pitchers in the league gives the Tiger rotation a solid B grade. In order to bump that up, they will need someone to step up and become a legitimate Number 2 starting pitcher. Fister was that last year, but it doesn’t have to be him this year.