If you examine their numbers as a whole, the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation was not a problem in 2016. Tigers starters ranked fifth in the American League with 12.5 fWAR, and were tied for fourth with a 4.25 ERA. They posted above average numbers in several other categories, including FIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and home run rate.
Frankly, I was surprised by these numbers. We all know how dominant Justin Verlander was last season. Aside from him and Michael Fulmer, though, the starting rotation was a question mark for large swathes of 2016. Jordan Zimmermann was a non-entity after six weeks. Daniel Norris didn’t really come into his own until the second half. Anibal Sanchez might have single-handedly tanked the Tigers’ season. He and Mike Pelfrey combined for 48 starts, which was 48 too many for some fans.
Things look similar heading into 2017, but there are fewer questions. Sure, we’ll be waiting to see if Fulmer can repeat his dominant rookie season, or if Norris can build on his strong second half. We will examine the race for the last couple spots in the rotation closer to spring training, but for now, let’s see who will lead the Tigers back to the postseason next season.
This week’s question: Which starting pitcher is most important to the Tigers' success in 2017?
Patrick: Jordan Zimmermann. I think we know what we will get from Verlander. Fulmer was solid in his 26 starts, and should get 33 or 34 starts if he is healthy. Zimmermann made only 18 starts last year. When healthy, he is a top of the rotation starting pitcher. He owns a career 3.45 ERA and 3.59 FIP. Last season, his ERA was 4.87. He needs to be healthy and effective. The Tigers had 51 starts from Sanchez, Pelfrey, and Shane Greene last year. They need to replace as many of those as possible with healthy, effective starting pitchers.
Ashley: I think it's safe to say we know what Justin Verlander is going to bring to the table. As long as he, Fulmer, and Norris are consistent, they will continue to be strong factors in the starting rotation. The pitcher whose performance I'm most interested in seeing in 2017 is Jordan Zimmermann. If he's able to produce and do so consistently, he may very well be the No. 2 starter that the team needs. Hopefully 2016 was just an off year for him, moving to a new franchise, dealing with injury and then late-season yips because of said injury. I firmly believe that if Zimmermann can come back the way Verlander did, the Tigers starting rotation can survive and thrive even if Pelfrey and Sanchez don't see improvements.
Peter: Zimmermann. He was signed to be the reliable workhorse as a No. 2 starter, but he was simply terrible after six weeks due to injury. He must be the reliable guy you hand the ball to every fifth day, 33 to 34 times a year. He doesn't need to be the ace that Verlander is. However, with the young, unproven arms in the rotation, the Tigers need a reliable guy like Zimmermann to be that stopper if the rotation scuffles in a series.
Brandon: Obviously the better you are, the more important you are, but the other way to take the question is: whose contribution would boost the Tigers over my current expectations? I'll go with Jordan Zimmermann. I'm pretty confident that Fulmer and Norris can both do at least a little better than league average, and I think they'll both be a good deal better than that. Right now, my expectations for Zimmermann aren't very high. I can't help wondering if the reason both Pelfrey and Sanchez are still on the roster is that Zimmermann is more of a question mark than anyone really wants to say. If he is healthy, and can give the Tigers 180 innings of his usual production? I think our rotation is liable to be as good as any in the league, even if Norris and Fulmer don't wow us.
Rob: Now that all of the Zimmermanns are out of the way, I can give the real answer. The Tigers are screwed if Justin Verlander doesn’t provide ace-level production again in 2017. His bounce-back 2016 season wasn’t a surprise to anyone paying attention in 2015, but it was still refreshing to see the Verlander of old after his “I’mma dominate again, just you watch” tweet in early May. The Tigers were 20-14 in his starts last year — 17-11 after The Tweet — and were a whisker of run support away from being much better than that solid mark. Having that kind of starter in your rotation can mask a lot of flaws. With questions still surrounding every other pitcher in the rotation, another vintage Verlander performance is necessary if the Tigers are to return to the postseason this year.
frisbeepilot: I'll echo what a few others have said on here: we pretty much know what we're going to get from Verlander, and obviously he's going to be important at the top of the rotation. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Zimmermann is also pretty much a lock to be serviceable at worst, and a potential 1b (to Verlander’s 1a) at best. Norris looks to have righted the ship and, while he may not be the innings-eater that Verlander and Zimmermann may be, I think he may well put up a 15-win season. Hence, we now come to Matt Boyd. He put together a nice string of starts late in the season last year — the clunker against the Royals at the end notwithstanding — including a brilliant eight-inning performance against Minnesota. If he turns the corner like it seems Norris has, now you have one less guy in the rotation to worry about, and the better-rested the bullpen becomes. Boyd's the pivot here, in my humble opinion (all catastrophic pitcher injuries aside, naturally).
Whelan: I think you could make a pretty good case for anyone in the rotation. If Verlander isn't vintage or the team incurs another Zimmermann injury, things will get very dire. As for Fulmer, Boyd and Norris, their health and consistency will also make or break this season. So I don't get yelled at for not answering the question, I am going to go with Daniel Norris, mostly for the upside. If he can have a break-through season, the pitching staff will probably be one of the best in the American League and carry the team towards contention and possibly even the playoffs.
Kyle: Daniel Norris has the potential to be a cornerstone in the Tigers rotation. After the 2015 trade deadline, it was Norris, not Boyd or Fulmer, who was receiving all of the hype. Since coming to Detroit, Norris has posted a quality 3.48 ERA and 4.08 FIP, but he has only made 21 starts in little over a year. The biggest key for Norris will be staying healthy and finding a way to make a full year's worth of starts. If he can do that while pitching like he did to end 2016 — a 3.04 ERA with boatloads of strikeouts in August and September — Norris could elevate the Tigers rotation to the next level.