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Pitching through the first quarter

The Tigers' offense is delivering runs, but is the pitching doing enough?

Drew Smyly Provides the Tigers with Pitching Depth
Drew Smyly Provides the Tigers with Pitching Depth
Leon Halip

After reviewing the first quarter performance of the offense, we found that while some players are over-performing and others under-performing, on balance the Tigers are scoring a lot of runs and should continue the pace. But they are two games out pending completion of the Indians' game today, so what needs to be fixed?

The Tigers allow 4.2 runs per game, barely better than the average of 4.3 runs per game. This clearly has room to improve. Let’s look at the pitching, in the order of innings pitched.

Surprisingly Anibal Sanchez is leading the team, though the top four starters are all within an inning and a third. Sanchez is striking out nearly 30% of batters faced and walking only 6%, both career bests. He likely can’t maintain this pace, but should be able to win at least as often, and that is more important than gaudy stats.

Doug Fister had a short outing last night, but his numbers are still excellent. Striking out 18% of opposing batters while walking under 4% leads to success, as does allowing only one home run. Fister is on pace for 19 wins, and while wins are not a complete picture of a pitcher’s performance, they silence any critics.

Max Scherzer is exceeding last year’s career-best strikeout rate at nearly one in three batters, or 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings, while walking under 6%. He has allowed just under one base runner per nine innings, sixth in the American League. His earned run average sits at 3.98 partly thanks to five home runs, but this is an improvement over 2012. Max’s win/loss record projects to 19-0, which clearly will not happen, but he has contributed more than enough to this point.

Justin Verlander appears fourth on this list, but that is partly a testament to the quality of the staff. Verlander is striking out 26% of the opposing batters, ahead of last year’s rate and career rate. His walk rate is just under 9%, contributing to 1.3 baserunners per nine innings and an ERA of 3.17. An excellent April has been followed by a lousy May, and the dominant Verlander needs to return.

Rick Porcello may be providing the most value of any fifth starter in baseball, even including the one inning in Anaheim that we all want to forget. A 17% strikeout rate is low compared to the other starters, but easily his career best. Combined with a 5% walk rate, Porcello is at last taking a step forward. And even with that inning that we desperately want to forget, he is allowing 1.3 baserunners per inning, nearly identical to Verlander!

Drew Smyly is the workhorse of the bullpen and is allowing baserunners at a rate better than any starter. I see no reason that this will not continue, short of a move to the rotation. Darin Downs is nearly matching Smyly’s numbers, with a strikeout rate better than Verlander’s and a WHIP better than any starter. Phil Coke is striking out two batters for every one walked, and his 7.43 ERA hides an acceptable performance. Combined those are three good left-handed choices, and Jose Alvarez in Toledo is looking like a great fourth option if needed.

Joaquin Benoit is putting a strange 2012 in the rearview mirror with a strikeout rate of nearly 33%, higher than any starter, and a WHIP of 1.00. Only two homeruns allowed contributes to an ERA of 1.42. Al Alburquerque has maintained his strikeout rate of 38% but a 19% walk rate contributes to a WHIP over 1.8. This is a big red flag going forward, and needs to be fixed in Toledo before he returns. Jose Valverde has a team-leading 0.625 WHIP. Everybody who predicted this a month ago raise your hand. Only eight innings is a ridiculously small sample to draw conclusions, but one blown save has not put the Tigers in second place. Octavio Dotel, Brayan Villareal, Evan Reed, Luke Potkonen, and Bruce Rondon have combined for all of 18 innings or less than 5% of the team’s total. Why does it feel like so much more? Perhaps because of the 16 walks allowed.

So step one of the solution, other than being patient and expecting better results, is to find more bullpen arms that will throw strikes. As the Detroit-to-Toledo shuttle continues today with Luke Putkonen swapping in for Evan Reed, this should mean Jose Alvarez is the next left-hander and not Casey Crosby or Kenny Faulk. This means Evan Reed returns when the pen is next depleted, not Brayan Villareal or Bruce Rondon.

What else is missing? Do you blame the defense? An improved Central Division? Random bad luck?