Despite Shane Greene's struggles on Tuesday evening, the Tigers still had a chance to win a game they eventually lost 11-9. Neftali Feliz was in a world of trouble, but if he could induce some weak contact he could escape the eighth inning and give the offense one last chance to win the game. Instead, Feliz served up a grand slam to Seattle's Franklin Gutierrez. It was a blow that the Tigers could not recover from.
That game was symbolic of the Tigers as a whole. The decline of the vaunted rotation of years past has been well-documented. A significant part of the decline is that the Tigers are giving up more home runs than ever before. In 2012, the Tigers ranked 10th in baseball with 0.95 home runs allowed per nine innings. The next year, Detroit pitching tied for fourth in all of Major League Baseball by allowing just 0.79 big flies per nine innings, an impressive feat when you consider that Comerica Park weighs slightly as a hitter's park. They met that mark of 0.79 homers per nine innings last year, although it only bought them a tie for eighth place in baseball. Key cogs in limiting the big flies were Max Scherzer (0.74 HR/9) as well as Rick Porcello (0.79 HR/9), and especially Anibal Sanchez, who allowed just 0.29 home runs per nine. Keeping the ball in the park was a key part of the Tigers' recent pitching success.
This year, everything has gone down the drain. The staff is allowing 1.12 home runs per nine innings, a stat that ranks them 28th in baseball. The teams giving up more -- the Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies -- pitch in small ballparks and don't have the top-end talent the Tigers have. This is not where Detroit should be ranking.
The main culprits giving up so many home runs are, understandably, the weak links of the staff. Never before did Detroit realize what a luxury it was to have a Rick Porcello eating innings methodically in the back of the rotation until Kyle Ryan and Buck Farmer were both ceding home runs at a rate of two per nine innings. Anibal Sanchez and Shane Greene, two pitchers whose success relied on the ability to keep the ball in the yard, have both been awful in that department (1.37 HR/9 and 1.40 HR/9, respectively).
Not only that, but the bullpen (oh, you bullpen) is getting in on the act too. Ian Krol, Joba Chamberlain, and Joakim Soria have all been lit up to the tune of two home runs per nine. Most troubling of all is Justin Verlander, who is allowing 2.12 home runs per nine innings in a small sample of innings.
Part of the issue has been that the Tigers are giving up more fly balls. After a ground ball rate of 45.4 percent in 2013, the team jettisoned Doug Fister in the offseason and saw a ground ball rate decline to 44.2 percent. The effects of giving up more fly balls were felt less last year because the team home run to fly ball ratio declined from 9.2 percent in 2013 to 8.3 percent in 2014. This year, the staff is sans Porcello, another groundballer, and the team ground ball ratio is down to 42.6 percent. Combine that with a home run per fly ball rate of 11.5 percent, and you have the perfect ratio for a hailstorm of baseballs landing in the outfield bleachers.
To recap, the pitching staff's slow march into oblivion has been spurred by the loss of innings eaters that managed to keep the ball in the yard and pitch deep into games This has had a ripple-down effect on the Tigers and forced them to use worse pitchers, leading to less ground balls, more fly balls, and more home runs. A pitching staff cannot get away with giving up longballs, and that's what Detroit has failed at this year.