A year ago, around this time, there was a minor controversy among the Tigers’ fanbase about which pitcher should start on Opening Day. Justin Verlander had undergone core muscle surgery in early January, and initial reports weren’t optimistic about his availability for the opening series. However, as his rehab progressed and spring training began, it was becoming evident that the incumbent Opening Day starter would, in fact, be ready for Opening Day.
But the recent surgery wasn't the only reason why some felt Verlander should have been skipped. The Tigers had another quality option to take the start in Max Scherzer. OK, "quality" is an enormous understatement, as Scherzer was the reigning Cy Young Award winner. His 6.4 WAR, 2.90 ERA season in 2013 was unquestionably superior to Verlander’s campaign.
So on one hand you had Verlander; the face of the franchise, six-time Opening Day starter, former MVP and Cy Young Award winner. On the other hand, Verlander was still recovering from surgery, and Scherzer may have actually been the better pitcher. To confuse matters even further, the Tigers also had the reigning ERA Champion, Anibal Sanchez, available. Not exactly a no-brainer no matter which option you preferred. In the end, Verlander was deemed healthy (though that distinction turned out to be questionable) and was given the Opening Day start for the seventh consecutive season.
That brings us to the current day, where we may have a nearly identical debate. Verlander isn't coming off of surgery this time, but he is coming off his worst season since 2008, coincidentally the year his Opening Day streak began. The opposing option isn't Scherzer either, but a former Cy Young winner nonetheless; David Price. So here we are again. Do you opt for the guy who's started the last seven Opening Days, or do you go with the guy who's probably the better pitcher.
While his 3.3 WAR last season is respectable, it isn't up to par with what a contending team should expect out of their ace. More importantly, it doesn't even begin to compare to the WAR that Price accumulated in 2014.
In fact, Price's season was in line with what Verlander had been producing during his best seasons, and he's been one of the game's best pitchers for the last five seasons. The three major projection systems currently available -- Steamer, ZiPs, and PECOTA -- all expect Price to be more productive than Verlander. No matter how you slice it, Price will probably be the best Tigers pitcher this season.
The case for Verlander, however, is still a strong one. It's based on tradition and loyalty and doing what feels right, rather than cold-hearted logic and a strict adherence to on-field optimization. Verlander is the face of the franchise; drafted as restitution for one of the worst seasons in baseball history, a symbol of the rebirth of baseball in Detroit, and set to enter the Hall of Fame in the Old English D. He's been on the mound for the Tigers in the last seven Opening Days. In stark contrast to Verlander's steady presence, Price has been a Tiger since last August and is only under contract for one more season. He very well may depart via free agency after this season, leaving Verlander and the Tigers with no tradition.
So maybe the question boils down to whether you prefer that baseball decisions be made for entirely baseball-related reasons, or if you believe that there's room in the game for a personal element. Either way, let us know.