From 2012 to 2014, the Detroit Tigers boasted one of the best rotations in baseball behind pitchers like Justin Verlander, David Price, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Doug Fister. Over those three seasons, the Tigers led all MLB teams with 2,725 strikeouts, a 3.35 FIP, and 61.2 wins above replacement (fWAR).
However, things looked much different in 2015, as Price was traded, Verlander and Sanchez struggled, and Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene joined the club. As a result, the rotation fell on the opposite side of the spectrum with a 4.78 ERA and 4.50 FIP, and was one of the main reasons the Tigers faltered so significantly.
Going into 2016, expectations were high for the starting rotation despite the previous year's struggles. Verlander and Sanchez were expected to bounce back when healthy. Offseason signing Jordan Zimmermann has been 13th among starters in fWAR since 2012, and Mike Pelfrey was added to improve upon the innings that were taken by Simon. Newly acquired prospects Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Michael Fulmer are some of the best young pitchers Detroit has seen in years. This combination of old and new talent looked like a recipe to get the rotation back on track.
Despite high hopes and positive changes, the first 25 games of the season have been mediocre at best for the Tigers' starters. While the team as a whole has seen some success in 2016, the statistics produced by the rotation have been uninspiring and underwhelming to begin the year.
One noticeable struggle for the rotation has been going deep into games. Of course, pitchers are still building up their arm strength and working out the kinks during the first month of the season, but the Tigers are averaging some of the shortest starts in the majors. Thankfully, avoiding the bullpen is no longer a need, but it will only be a matter of time for things to fall apart if they become overworked.
It comes as a bit of a surprise that the Tigers’ strikeout numbers are so low, especially considering that both Sanchez and Verlander are striking out around a batter per inning. But with Zimmermann landing below the major-league average and Pelfrey fanning less than 10 percent of opposing batters, the rotation does not rank too favorably.
Compounding the strikeout issue is that walks totals have been high almost all around the rotation. Zimmermann has been sharp, walking fewer than two batters per nine innings, and Verlander has limited his base on balls. However, Sanchez, Pelfrey, and Greene have given free passes to over 12 percent of the batters they have faced in 2016.
These command issues have resulted in a 1.55 WHIP and .277 batting average against through the first month of the season. Hitters have been getting on base against Tigers pitching on a consistent basis, partly thanks to a 32.5 percent hard contact rate, which is one of the six highest totals in the majors. At the end of the day, these factors result in a 4.73 ERA and 4.38 FIP, figures that fall in the lower-middle of the rankings.
Hope is not lost for this rotation, though. Most of the starters have made only five or six starts, and early season numbers can change significantly as the year goes on. It would be shocking to see Verlander continue to pitch this poorly over the course of the season. His current ERA and FIP would be career highs and his 35 percent high contact rate is a jump above his 26.5 percent career average. He is also suffering from an inflated 14.0 percent home run per fly ball rate, which is almost double his norm.
Sanchez is another pitcher who is experiencing rough numbers early on, with a 35.7 percent hard contact rate and a 17.2 percent home run per fly ball rate, both figures over eight ticks above his career averages. His .354 BABIP is also due for a regression. There is even reason to believe that Pelfrey could make modest improvements. His current strikeout and walk rates are both worse than his career totals, and he is allowing an elevated .370 BABIP. On the other side of the coin, Zimmermann will see his shiny start slow down at some point this season, as his 0.55 ERA will not last forever. His .267 BABIP has helped with this, as well as a 2.7 percent home run to fly ball rate.
With such a small sample size of plate appearances and balls in play, regression to the mean is to be expected across the board. Some of the struggles of the Tigers' starters are due to correct, especially the figures that are currently significantly from different from the player's career averages, such as the contact rates and BABIP numbers mentioned above. However, statistical noise only is only part of the problem; adjustments will need to be made if the rotation wants to see better results.