Now that the regular season has come to a close and the Tigers have clinched their fourth division title in as many years, we can turn our attention to postseason matters. For the third straight season now, the Detroit Tigers sit atop all of Major League Baseball in starting rotation fWAR. What that means is that the Tigers arguably have the best pitching staff in baseball, and have since 2012.
The debate immediately after David Price was acquired from Tampa Bay was "what starter will go to the bullpen," but Anibal Sanchez's timely injury settled that one quickly. Kyle Lobstein filled in admirably as the fifth man in the rotation for seven starts, but he will pitch out of the bullpen if he even makes the postseason roster at all.
First, let's go over what is certain. The starting pitchers that the Tigers will go with in the playoffs will be Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Price, and Rick Porcello. Sanchez will pitch out of the bullpen. Price will not be available to start game one due to pitching Sunday's division clincher.
Let's explore what is close to being certain. Scherzer will start game one of the divisional series for the Detroit Tigers, while Porcello will start game four (if needed). Considering Price wasn't acquired until July, Scherzer has been undoubtedly the best pitcher in the rotation for the entire season.
Mad Max followed his 2013 Cy Young campaign with a year that is worthy of the $200 million contract that he will get in the off season. In 33 starts, Scherzer threw 220 1/3 innings with a 3.19 ERA, a 2.84 FIP, 252 strikeouts, 63 walks, and a 1.18 WHIP. The only number that was significantly worse for him in 2014 was that he allowed a .315 BABIP, as opposed to a .259 BABIP in 2013. Considering that neither of his LD%, GB%, and FB% did not change by more than 2.7%, the drastic increase in BABIP can basically be attributed to more bad luck this season. Although Scherzer had trouble going deep into games in September, pitching Thursday would mean he will be pitching on six days rest. Given the added relaxation period and the fact that Scherzer has been marvelous all season, I see no one else but Max Scherzer starting game one.
Porcello is coming off of arguably his best season. For the first time in his career, Ricky P broke the 200 innings barrier. In 2014 he started 31 games and pitched in a total of 204 2/3 innings, nearly 30 innings higher than his previous high of 177 last season. Overall Porcello finished with a 3.43 ERA, a 3.67 FIP, and a career low 1.69 GB/FB ratio. However Porcello's season took a turn for the worst in September. The final month of the season he posted a line of a 6.20 ERA, a FIP of 4.19, a WHIP of 1.91, and allowed a .422 wOBA to hitters. While many think Porcello was simply regressing to the mean, I for one don't think the explanation is ever that simple. Rick has never thrown above 180 innings in his career, and this year he nearly broke 205. Despite Brad Ausmus refuting this notion, Porcello is more than likely gassed from this season's workload. He needs all of the rest he can get before he sees game action again, which is why he will be the fourth starter in the playoff rotation.
Since the first and fourth spots in the ALDS rotation are filled, the question becomes in which order should Price and Verlander throw? Well, let's crunch the numbers and see where the data takes us.
As you all probably know, Justin Verlander did not have a typical Justin Verlander season at all. In fact, JV finished with the fourth worst ERA in the American League among qualified starters. Yikes. However, ERA does not nearly tell the full story of how any pitcher's season went. Verlander finished the season with a 3.74 FIP, much better than his inflated 4.54 ERA. It might not seem this way to the casual viewer, but Justin actually had a pretty respectable second half. His 3.97 ERA was still inflated by his standards, but he posted a FIP of 3.29 along with 3.32 K/BB ratio. In September, Verlander posted his best month of the season. JV's 2.84 FIP, 1.30 BB/9, and 7.01 K/9, are all fantastic signs heading into October. Mr. Verlander might not have had a very good season overall, but it looks like he is finding his grove at the best time of the year.
David Price. David Price, David Price, David Price. David Freaking Price is a Detroit Tiger and I will never get tired of writing that. After assuring that they clinched their fourth straight division crown last Sunday, the Tigers' prized trade deadline acquisition is now in line to be the first lefty to start a playoff game for Detroit since Nate Robertson in game three of the 2006 World Series.
Beginning in 2008 in Tampa Bay, Price's career has been nothing short of stellar. Price, winner of the AL Cy Young award in 2012, has put up the best numbers of his career in 2014. David finished the season with a 3.26 ERA, a 2.78 FIP, and led the American League in both innings pitched (248 1/3) and strikeouts with a whopping 271! Contrary to popular belief, Price arguably pitched better after being traded to Detroit. His FIP for the Rays was 2.93, as opposed to the 2.44 FIP he put up wearing the Old English D. Dave Dombrowski traded for David Price with October on his mind. Price is a dominant arm that works deep into ball games. In a perfect world he would be pitching game one in Baltimore, but because he had to pitch Sunday, Brad Ausmus will throw his lefty in either game two or three.
Now, here is my verdict.
I think that Justin Verlander should pitch in game two of the ALDS in Baltimore. I am usually a numbers guy, and every number points to David Price being better than Verlander this season. There is no debate about that. However, Verlander has pitched extremely well recently and has a history of dominating down the stretch. Obviously you can't rely on situational data from the past to suggest that Verlander's success will be what it typically is in the ALDS, but the finish he had to the 2014 regular season tells me that he is primed and ready to pitch more big innings.
That leaves David Price as your ace in the hole for game three. As I previously stated, Price just wrapped up another marvelous season in marvelous fashion. Regardless of what the series sits at when you get to his turn in the rotation, he is going to give the Tigers a great chance to win the game no matter who Baltimore throws. Price is all but a lock to pitch into the eighth inning each time he takes the mound. Considering it's the playoffs, the leash on his pitch count will likely be longer. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if it's Price against the Orioles for nine innings. Also, and I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but having a rested bullpen could be huge with a fatigued Porcello.
To sum up the last 1,200+ words you just read, I am advocating that the ALDS rotation goes Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, David Price, and Rick Porcello. Verlander and Price could go either way depending on what factors you look at. In Leyland terms, I have an old fashioned hunch that it's going to go Scherzer to Price to Verlander. Scherzer and Price have been the most consistent performers throughout the season, therefore they give the Tigers the best chance to win the first two games.
I complain about Brad Ausmus a lot, but you certainly won't hear me complain about that rotation despite my opinion. Having a rotation that features the last three American League Cy Young winners is a fantastic luxury to have. However, if all three are at the top of their games, it won't matter what order they throw in.