Remember when Justin Verlander used to struggle every April? As a Tigers fanbase, we'd momentarily panic, asking if there was anything wrong with our star righthander. Then, like clockwork, the calendar would turn to May, and Verlander would celebrate by throwing seven shutout innings to put us at ease. Even after a few years of bucking that trend, Verlander's career numbers still show signs of April showers. He is 17-18 with a 3.80 ERA in April, but 30-15 with a 3.30 ERA in May.
Left-handed reliever Tom Gorzelanny is the same way, just a month ahead of schedule. Gorzelanny is in the midst of a rough spring, having allowed six runs in six innings, with five walks to just four strikeouts. The rough stretch, which includes runs allowed in three separate games, has some wondering whether Gorzelanny deserves to make the Opening Day roster.
However, this is just business as usual for Gorzelanny. He has a career 5.46 ERA during spring training, with just one season (2006, his rookie year) under 3.00. He has allowed an ERA over 6.00 on five separate occasions, and has walked more batters than he struck out twice previously as well.
Things tend to settle down come April, though. Gorzelanny has a career 4.09 ERA and 4.17 FIP in the first month of the season, and his 7-10 record is more a product of playing for some awful Pittsburgh Pirates teams early in his career. He continues to improve into May and June before some rough summer months bring his ERA totals back to earth. One could presume that the numerous fly balls Gorzelanny allows -- he has a 39.9 percent fly ball rate for his career -- travel farther than usual during the dog days of summer.
We're still a few months away from July, though. Gorzelanny's rough spring is concerning for a fanbase that isn't familiar with his typical March swoons, but starting slow is his modus operandi. Come April, he should be fine.
Gorzelanny is currently inked to a one-year, $1 million contract. The deal contains numerous bonus incentives that could pay him up to $500,000 more based on the number of games he plays in. Gorzelanny has incentives for both starts and relief appearances, so the club may see him as a potential rotation option if the need arises.
Stats and projections
There has been talk of making Gorzelanny into a long reliever of sorts, which makes sense given his history in the role. However, there are a few circumstances that might push him into a late innings role. First, the relatively unimpressive performances of Ian Krol and Blaine Hardy still have the Tigers searching for a reliable left-handed option. Kyle Ryan has pitched well (though not lately), and could step into the long relief role if the team wants to keep him stretched out. Ryan's chances of making the roster improve if the Tigers decide to send Bruce Rondon to Triple-A to begin the year. The team may even take three lefties north in order to combat the lefty-heavy lineups of their division rivals early in the season.
For Gorzelanny, some regression from last season's ERA is guaranteed. He was able to strand 94.8 percent of the baserunners he allowed in 21 innings pitched. Coming off of shoulder surgery in December 2013, Gorzelanny only made two multi-inning appearances and never threw more than 34 pitches in an outing. Despite the kid gloves, he seemed to tire down the stretch, losing even more fastball velocity than at the start of his season in June.
There is reason for optimism, though. Gorzelanny has been stout as a reliever during his career, allowing a 2.88 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 171 2/3 innings. He has struck out 21.4 percent of the batters he has faced in a relief role, and has lowered his home run rate. Opponents have hit just .220 with a .341 slugging average in these situations. The Tigers will be looking for these numbers from Gorzelanny in 2015, not the ones you've seen during spring training thus far.