Left unchecked, the Detroit Tigers' pitching staff will be the ruin of their 2016 season. Detroit's pitching currently ranks among the worst in Major League Baseball, but the team has taken steps to prevent that by putting Anibal Sanchez in the bullpen. As is, the powerhouse lineup can survive -- even thrive -- this year, but the pitching cannot.
The Tigers are listed among the bottom 10 teams in ERA, FIP, and HR/9. May is worse, with both the rotation and bullpen listed as one of the five-worst in all three categories. Tigers starters (five, including spot starts) not named Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey have allowed 78 earned runs this year.
Sanchez and Pelfrey have given up a combined 71 earned runs. Excluding Sanchez and Pelfrey, the remaining five starters have given up 21 home runs. The former two have allowed 24 between the two of them -- 14 belonging to Sanchez. With them, the Tigers' rotation carries a 4.55 ERA, ranked No. 19 in the majors, and their 4.34 FIP is ranked fifth-worst in baseball. Exclude them, and the ERA drops to 3.79, which would be good enough for ninth-best.
It gets better. Without Sanchez and Pelfrey, the Tigers' FIP would become 3.82, tied with the White Sox for the sixth-best pitching staff in MLB. Yes, this includes the bullpen, meltdowns and all, and three young starters. Excluding both starters, the team has a healthy chance at overtaking the AL Central, and a legitimate shot at the postseason.
But even if you leave Pelfrey in the rotation and remove only Sanchez, that would make the team FIP 3.98, 16 points higher. Sanchez is that much of a detriment to the rotation. He simply cannot pitch effectively for a long period of time. Ultimately, though, the Tigers are better off without Sanchez and Pelfrey in the rotation.
Part of the blame for Sanchez's run damage is also due to him being left in the game too long. It's no big secret that he (and Pelfrey for that matter) have struggled in the later innings, but manager Brad Ausmus has continued to leave him out there past what he's shown to be moderately capable of.
In seven of Sanchez's 11 starts, he's given up at least one run in innings that he did not complete -- 12 total. In other words, a quarter of the runs (earned or otherwise) he's given up have come in those situations alone. The home runs are a significant problem regardless of whether Sanchez is in the starting rotation or the bullpen. In small doses, though, it's possible he'll be able to sort his issues out without the pressure of starting.
When a team exhausts all other options, there's no recourse left but to remove a starter from the situation at-hand. Sanchez has a combination of issues, and he's been nothing more than a detriment to the team this year. He may have been dependable and lights-out in the past, but that Sanchez no longer exists. At least, not right now.
The Tigers' offense, while fluky at times, has been the 10th-best lineup in terms of offensive production. And if the team is going to capitalize on those opportunities and not blow away leads, they can't afford to have a pitching staff that can't keep runs off the board.
Moving Sanchez to the 'pen is only one of a few steps needed to ensure blown leads and early deficits don't happen at the alarming rate they've been occurring. The words "it's only June 1" usually eases fears, but in this case it's cause for concern. It's only June 1 and the pitching staff has experienced the wear and tear of a late-August team.
That's not going to work in terms of long-term viability. Not if the team has any hope of getting back into the race and contending this year. The Tigers have a respectable 103 wRC+ and .174 ISO (good for sixth and fifth in the American League, respectively) to this date, but there have been dry spells and when they go dark, they tend to do so as a team.
The Tigers will need to make a decision with Pelfrey, and soon. Whether that's limiting how deep he goes into a game and splitting starts with a long man, or moving him to the bullpen, too, is up to them. Mark Lowe, dealing with his own struggles, has been removed from the setup role, according to MLB.com's Jason Beck. He's been replaced by Justin Wilson until the team can get Lowe back on track.
There are a few other reference issues, but the objective is to do more than plug holes. They need to eradicate the gremlins completely for there to be any discussion of October baseball -- or even finishing with a respectable record, at this point. The offense will be just fine, especially now that key players are getting on-track. However, unless the team fixes the remaining issues, moving Sanchez will have done little in the long run.