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Tigers' effective young starting rotation bodes well for the future

The three young pitchers in the Tigers’ starting rotation, all acquired in July 2015, are performing well in 2016.

Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Don’t look now, but the Detroit Tigers' starting pitching rotation has the second best earned run average in the American league in the second half of the 2016 season. Despite losing their two recently signed free agent starting pitchers to the disabled list, the Tigers have filled out the rotation with three young pitchers earning the major league minimum, and all are performing well at the same time. Detroit's starting pitchers struggled in the first half of the season, ranking in the bottom half of the league in most categories.

Without Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey, who earn a combined salary of $ 30 million per season, Detroit has inserted Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd into the rotation along with rookie Michael Fulmer and veterans Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. They have posted an earned run average of 3.31 since the all star break. In fact, the Tigers’ pitching staff as a whole boasts a 3.41 ERA since the break, which is also second in the league.

First half 4.60 4.39 1.39 7.27 1.20 3.09
Second half 3.33 4.16 1.15 7.36 1.21 2.25
2nd half AL rank 2nd 5th 2nd 8th 4th 3rd

Some advanced pitching metrics, such as fielding independent pitching (FIP) and fWAR suggest that the Tigers’ low ERA is partly due to a depressed .267 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). But even when adjusted, Detroit’s rotation is still top third in the American league during the second half of the season. Even if the improvement is not as dramatic as their ERA suggests, the fact that they've improved despite the loss of two veterans is a positive trend.

One key to the recent success of the Tigers’ starting rotation has been a big drop in their walk rate from the first half of the season. The Tigers’ strikeout ratio is also up, bringing their K/BB ratio from 2.36 to 3.23. They’ve cut their opponents' batting average by over 30 points, and their walks plus hits per inning (WHIP) is down .25 points since the all star break. Fewer base runners means fewer runs.

Fulmer holds a league leading ERA of 2.58, but has a 3.31 mark since the break, so the improvement is not attributable to him. Verlander holds a 1.98 ERA in the second half and Boyd carries a  2.16 mark. Sanchez held the highest ERA in the league among pitchers who have thrown at least 80 innings for the first half of the season with a 7.73 mark, has allowed a more respectable 4.09 ERA since the break, and his FIP is even better at 3.97, and his WHIP is 1.16 since the break.. Norris has made three starts, allowing five runs total since replacing Pelfrey in the rotation.

Zimmermann, who has a new five year contract worth $ 22 million per season, has made just one appearance in the second half of the season, after coming back prematurely, then returning to the disabled list. Pelfrey has made four starts for a total of 17 innings before going on the disabled list. Suffice it to say he has been more than adequately replaced.

The Tigers  will have some decisions to make when Zimmerman and Pelfrey are ready to come off the disabled list. Sanchez, who threw 7-2/3 innings of no hit ball in his last start, would not have a spot in the rotation but for the injuries, and he may be the odd man out of the rotation. But the Tigers know what an effective Sanchez can mean to the team, and if he has another solid outing, they will have a harder decision to make.

Pelfrey, who was signed for two years to bridge the gap until the three young starters who were acquired in trades last July were ready to step up, could have difficulty regaining his spot in the rotation if the trio of young guns continues at their current pace. Detroit resisted the temptation to trade their young pitchers at the trade deadline this season, and that decision has proved wise. Regardless of who is in the rotation and who is removed during the remainder of this season, the success that the Tigers' young pitchers are having bodes well for the future of the Tigers' rotation.