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Midterm report: Tigers' starting pitching is not what it used to be

The starting pitching rotation has been the strength of the Detroit Tigers during their reign over the American League Central Division. Now, it is their greatest weakness.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers had a historically good starting pitching rotation during the 2013 season. They set the all-time record for most strikeouts in a season, and led the league in ERA, FIP, fWAR, and were easily the most dominant rotation in the American league.Verlander, Scherzer, Fister, Sanchez, and Porcello left no room for a very good young starter like Drew Smyly, who was sent to the bullpen to wait his turn.

The 2014 Tigers starting rotation was also very good. Smyly replaced Fister in the rotation for much of the season, and David Price was acquired in July to give the team three former Cy Young winners. They led the league in WAR on the strength of pitching over 1,000 innings, and their sixth place ranking in ERA was inflated by a defense that cost them runs.

The season finished with the Baltimore Orioles sweeping the American league playoff series, beating Detroit's three former Cy Young winners in succession. An injury to Anibal Sanchez knocked him out of the rotation just as Price stepped in, so the full value of the four best pitchers never got to mesh together, and Verlander was never right following core muscle surgery in January that disrupted his season preparation.

Starting the 2015 season, the Tigers' rotation had a far different look. To most observers, the rotation presented the biggest questions heading into the season. Verlander was out for two months with a muscle strain. Scherzer left via free agency, while Porcello and Smyly had been traded. Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene would take up two spots in the rotation, and Kyle Lobstein was picked to fill Verlander's spot.

Here how the 2015 Tigers' starting rotation compares after 81 games to the American league and the 2014 starting rotation:


Category 2015 2015 AL Rank 2014 2014 AL Rank
ERA 4.30 12th 3.84
FIP 4.14 10th 3.69
WHIP 1.28 7th 1.27
K/9 6.82 11th 7.17
BB/9 2.59 5th 2.66
HR/9 1.13 11th 0.83
IP/ Start 6.09 4th
WAR 4.9 11th 9.8

What we see in these numbers is an across the board decline in results from one season to the next. Strikeouts are down, and home runs are up. Interestingly, the number of base runners allowed has remained constant, and the walk ratio has actually declined, yet the staff has allowed nearly one-half run per game more than they did a year ago.

The absence of Scherzer, Verlander, and Porcello is obviously a big culprit, but the presence of Price helps to at least partially offset that. Equally important is the fact that Anibal Sanchez, who led the league in ERA in 2013, has gone from having the lowest home run ratio in the league to giving up more home runs than all but one starting pitcher in the American league this season. His HR/9 ratio has shot up from 0.29 to 1.44 per nine innings.

There are reasons for optimism and causes for concern in the rotation as the Tigers head into the second half of the 2015 season. Verlander is back, although not 100 per cent just yet. Sanchez has pitched much better recently and has been keeping the ball down. Price remains one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, ranking among the leaders in several pitching categories.

On the dark side of the equation, Simon and Greene have not lived up to the organization's expectations of them. Greene is in the minor leagues after his command disappeared, and he hasn't been effective enough in Toledo to warrant a recall. Simon got off to a fine start, but has allowed 23 runs on 41 hits in 34 innings in June and July, for an ERA of 6.09 with a WHIP of 1.62. That's not going to work in the major leagues.

Kyle Lobstein was doing surprisingly well until he also went on the disabled list, and the Tigers have used Buck Farmer and Kyle Ryan in the fifth spot in the rotation. In six combined starts, they are 0- 4 with an ERA of 6.60, working an average of under 5-1/3 innings per start. Ryan has been the better of the two, but he struggles after going through the batting order a couple of times.

Dave Dombrowski can not admit that he is looking for a starting pitcher, but that is the word in the rumor mill as the trade deadline approaches. Even if Sanchez stays on form, and Verlander returns to health, the Tigers' rotation is not nearly what it used to be, and really is not good enough to expect the team to make the playoffs. Help is wanted, and needed.