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Tigers' fall in standings due to decline of starting pitching

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The Tigers have dismantled a great pitching rotation, and the decline of their starting pitching is at the heart of their decline in the standings.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It started with the trade of Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals. It continued with the trades of Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello, and was greatly aided by the departure of Max Scherzer via free agency. It continued with Justin Verlander going to the disabled list for the start of the 2015 season. The decline of the Detroit Tigers’ starting pitching rotation is at the heart of their problems falling from the top of the American League Central Division, where they have ruled the roost for the past four seasons.

If you were to name three positions on the Tigers’ roster where they have seen the largest decline from year to year, they would be rotation, rotation, and rotation. The Tigers are currently two starting pitchers shy of a solid rotation, and Verlander has just recently returned from the disabled list.

Losses in the rotation have been partially offset by the addition of David Price, who has been among the best pitchers in baseball since his arrival in Detroit last July. The other replacements have not nearly been as good as their predecessors, though, resulting in a great decline. Alfredo Simon has fallen apart, with an ERA of 11.12 over his last five starts. He would likely be more effective in a bullpen role. The collection of Shane GreeneKyle RyanKyle Lobstein, and Buck Farmer have combined for 155 innings in 29 starts with a 5.94 ERA as a group. One of them needs to step up, or another starter must be found.

In addition, Anibal Sachez and Justin Verlander have struggled this season, posting 0.9 and -0.2 fWAR with ERAs of 4.63 and 5.34, respectively. There is reason to believe the two veterans will be better. Sanchez is 5-0 with a 2.84 ERA in his last six starts, and Verlander looked much more like the former Cy Young winner in his last start. That would give the Tigers three-fifths of a solid pitching rotation.

There are, of course, multiple factors that have combined to leave the Tigers with a .500 record and in third place at the All-Star break. Their nine game deficit behind the Kansas City Royals is their largest at the All-Star break in a decade. The following chart shows where the Tigers have ranked at the end of each season, and at the All-Star break in 2015, in multiple facets of the game.

Season Runs/ game Rotation fWAR* Bullpen fWAR* Defense* Base Running*
2011 4.91/ 2nd 13.4/ 8th 1.9/ 6th -13.0/ 9th -15.2/ 14th
2012 4.48/ 6th 19.2/ 1st 3.5/ 8th -27.7/ 13th -17.1/ 13th
2013 4.91/ 2nd 23.1/ 1st 3.0/ 11th -32.3/ 11th -21.4/ 15th
2014 4.75/ 2nd 17.4/ 1st -0.4/ 15th -42.2/ 11th -8.6/ 14th
2015 4.56/ 3rd 5.3/ 10th -0.7/ 15th +9.3/ 5th -9.9/ 14th

*= at fangraphs.com (note that WAR, BsR, and defense are cumulative during the season)

The Tigers' offense has steadily remained at or near the top of the league in run production, while the bullpen has struggled each season and continues to struggle. If anything, they are even worse than normal this season. The defense, on the other hand, has greatly improved this season. The base running prevents the offense from being one of the very best in the game, but it is not a major detriment either. What stands out is the sharp decline in the performance of the pitching rotation.

Since 2013, the Tigers' rotation has dropped from 8.63 strikeouts and 0.79 home runs per nine innings to 6.86 strikeouts per nine and 1.13 home runs per nine. Their innings pitched per start has fallen from 6.31 to 6.05, further taxing the bullpen.

After the starting pitching, the next greatest decline can be seen in the performance of the bullpen. You won’t find it in the bullpen’s ERA, nor even in the overall fielding independent numbers, which have remained mediocre overall. Where the bullpen has faltered this season is in save situations, where failure causes maximum damage. The Tigers blew 16 saves in each of the past two full seasons. So far in 2015, they have 10 blown saves. The Tigers' save percentage has gone from 71.9 percent in 2014 to 67.7 percent this year.

As a unit, the bullpen has performed below replacement level, with a net -0.7 fWAR. That is actually worse than the -0.6 WAR they accumulated during the entire 2014 season. It’s nothing new that the Tigers have only two relief pitchers who have performed above replacement level. Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson have been the most effective relievers in the Tigers’ bullpen this season, but they have not been used in the highest leverage situations.

Joakim Soria has mainly been effective, saving 20 of 23 games, but has struggled lately with an ERA of  8.10 over the past month. He has given up 2.08 home runs per nine innings this season, which is second-worst in the league among qualified relief pitchers. Soria has been worth -0.7 fWAR through the All-Star break.

The subtraction of Joe NathanJoba Chamberlain, and Tom Gorzelanny will not hurt the bullpen's performance, and the addition of Bruce Rondon and Neftali Feliz could help. However, acquiring a starting pitcher is a bigger need for this Tigers team, and moving Simon to the bullpen could help further.

Looking for internal solutions for the rotation or the bullpen this season has been like rearranging chairs on the Titanic. But if the Tigers are to return to the head of the class, they will need to upgrade their starting rotation, and the bullpen will benefit as a result.