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The Detroit Tigers' starting rotation is average at best

It's hard to see the Tigers catching the Cleveland Indians in the second half if the starters don't improve.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers have limped into the All-Star break with two of their five starting pitchers on the disabled list, one sputtering his way out of the rotation, and questions surrounding their pitching rotation as they approach the trade deadline at the end of the month.

Several things had to go right for the Tigers to be contenders this season. Two of those were a continued resurgence from Justin Verlander, the former Cy Young winner and MVP, and an adequate performance from Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 ERA champion. One of those things has occurred, as Verlander looks like his former self in most games. Sanchez, however, has probably pitched his way out of the starting rotation, leaving the Tigers to wonder where the innings will come from to finish out the regular season, let alone any post season competition.

First, let’s look at where the Tigers starting pitching rotation ranks among American league teams, as well as how they compare with the 2015 Tigers rotation half way through the season.

Category 2015* 2015 AL Rank 2016 2016 AL Rank
ERA 4.30 12th 4.55 8th
FIP 4.14 10th 4.42 7th
WHIP 1.28 7th 1.38 9th
K/9 6.82 11th 7.22 11th
BB/9 2.59 5th 3.07 9th
HR/9 1.13 11th 1.19 5th
IP/GS 6.09 4th 5.73 8th
K/BB 2.63 12th 2.35 11th

*After 81 games in 2015

What we see in these numbers is a pretty average starting rotation by league standards. Walks are up, and consequently WHIP is higher. Strikeouts and home runs have also increased over 2015 ratios. Tigers' starters are pitching fewer innings this season.

The Tigers starting rotation has an ERA of 4.55, which is higher, but exactly league average. The Tigers’ fielding independent pitching (FIP) suggests that there could be some bad luck, or bad defense contributing to that, but there is no escaping the fact that their chief rivals, the Cleveland Indians, have a starting rotation that is significantly better, with an ERA of 3.71.

In most major statistical categories, Detroit’s rotation ranks in the middle of the pack. Nothing looks great, and nothing too terrible, overall. When broken down by individuals, the Tigers have three solid starting pitchers in Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann and rookie Michael Fulmer, who has the league’s best ERA among starters with at least 75 innings pitched. Verlander and Zimmermann rank among the top ten starters in the American league in WAR. this season.

But there are questions; Zimmermann hasn’t been the same since tweaking a groin muscle in May. Norris has spent more time on the disabled list than on the active roster, and Fulmer is on an innings limit, calling his availability into question for September and beyond. He has pitched 92 innings between Toledo and Detroit, just 68 innings shy of the rumored 160 inning limit, if that's what it is.

The Tigers are 3-10 in games started by Sanchez, and 7-11 in games started by Mike Pelfrey. At least Pelfrey has pitched better recently, posting a 3.84 ERA over the past 60 days with the Tigers winning six of his eleven starts. Sanchez has the highest ERA and the highest home run rate of any American league pitcher who has thrown at least 60 innings this season. One has to believe that his last two starts would not have happened with a full, healthy rotation.

The future of the Tigers’ season depends upon Zimmermann returning to health, Daniel Norris returning to the rotation, and the team finding enough starting pitching to eat the innings necessary to finish out the season. That means finding about another 84 innings (14 starts at six innings) each from two starting pitchers aside from Verlander, Pelfrey, and Zimmerman. Some innings from Matt Boyd and others will be needed, barring any pitching acquisitions within the next few weeks. When healthy, the Tigers' current rotation has been sufficient to keep them in the playoff race, but not good enough to beat Cleveland.