The 2015 season will be remembered for a number of negative things -- missed expectations, injuries, the firing of a successful general manager -- but the horror that was the pitching staff may stick in the mind more than anything else. After taking home the Cy Young Award in 2011 and 2013, the Tigers added the 2012 winner during the 2014 season. Did you follow all that? No? Well, the point is that we had become accustomed to watching really really good starting pitching. Then 2015 happened.
Justin Verlander injured his triceps, Anibal Sanchez injured his shoulder, and Shane Greene injured his nerves (or something). Even the preferred injury replacement, Kyle Lobstein, hit the disabled list early in the season. Alfredo Simon and David Price were left as the only healthy starters, and while both of them pitched as expected that’s only a good thing in the latter’s case. Price was the lone effective starting pitcher for most of the season, and he was traded at the end of July. Ugh.
But the problems didn’t end at the starting rotation either. The bullpen was also a disaster, but that gutpunch doesn’t seem to hurt as bad after you get used to it. A combination of poor planning, bad luck, and the aforementioned injury bug left the Tigers with one of the worst bullpens in baseball (yet again).
But enough negativity! We’re here to focus on the good, and decide who’s most worthy of the Tigers-only version of the Cy Young Award. While there may not have been any fantastic seasons among the group, one of them has to better than the rest, dang it, so let’s go over the options:
Justin Verlander – Verlander missed the first 10 weeks of the season after going down to a
cramp triceps strain in spring training, and he wasn’t overly effective immediately after his return. He’s been known to take a while to get into midseason form though, and after six starts he began to look like the Verlander we saw in 2013. He finished the season by posting a 2.27 ERA across 14 starts, and struck out 91 batters in 99 1/3 innings. He also flashed triple-digit velocity for the first time in two years, announcing his presence with authority. His overall value to the Tigers may have been limited by his injury, but he certainly gave fans a reason to be optimistic about the future.
David Price – Despite being traded to the Blue Jays at the deadline, Price managed to easily lead the team in both variations of WAR. While only making 21 starts for the Tigers, he averaged a 7-inning, 4-run outing. His 2.53 ERA led the Tigers’ rotation by nearly a full run, and he struck out as many batters in four months as anyone else did in the entire season. Price has a good chance of winning the American League Cy Young Award, so the only reason this is even a question is because he only played a partial season for the Tigers. On that note, his performance will pay dividends well beyond 2015, as his awesomeness allowed former GM Dave Dombrowski to net an excellent return in Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt and bolster the future of the club. Whether or not you give credit to Price for that is a matter of personal preference.
Alfredo Simon – Despite the high cost of acquiring him, Simon started the season with low expectations. Acquired on the same day that Rick Porcello was sent to the Red Sox, Simon was expected to slot into the back of the rotation and hopefully eat enough innings to keep the Tigers in contention. What no one expected, however, was that Simon would lead the team in games started and innings pitched by the end of the season. Those stats are slightly misleading, though, as they're more of an indictment of the rest of the staff. Simon’s 187 innings pitched ranks only 42nd in the major leagues. Overall though, in a crowd of disappointing seasons, Simon stands out as a guy that was able to meet expectations.
Alex Wilson – Easily the most effective pitcher in the bullpen, Wilson logged an impressive 67 innings in relief (plus a 3-inning emergency start) and posted a team-best 2.19 ERA.
Blaine Hardy – While Wilson may have allowed fewer runs, Hardy’s 2.89 FIP indicates that he may have actually pitched better. His 1.1 WAR ranked third among all Tigers pitchers, and is the highest WAR from a Tigers’ reliever since Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit in 2013.
Anibal Sanchez – Sanchez battled home runs and a sore shoulder all season -- which are almost surely related -- but soldiered his way through 157 innings and picked up 0.9 WAR. It was a disappointing season by Sanchez’s lofty standards, but the innings he ate (second-most on the team) were much appreciated.
Daniel Norris – It’s impossible to argue that Norris was the Tigers’ most valuable pitcher, as he didn’t arrive until August and, soon after, hit the disabled list with an oblique strain. But in his eight starts he gave Tigers fans plenty of reasons to be excited about the future, allowing a 3.68 ERA with a petite 1.72 BB/9. He also hit a home run to dead center field in his first professional at-bat, so that was pretty cool too.