On Thursday, I presented some of the best and worst Tigers batters in spring training over the past five years, then shed light on how they performed in the regular season that followed.
It’s time to do the same thing, but with pitchers.
Have you noticed the hot start of Jordan Zimmermann, who kept his best spring as a Tiger rolling on Thursday, and now has a 2.00 ERA and 14 strikeouts in nine Grapefruit League innings? Or how about Tyson Ross, the free agent signing some hope will be Mike Fiers 2.0, who has a 13.50 ERA and 17 baserunners allowed in 6 2⁄3 innings? What might these very, very early results say about their seasons to come?
We can’t know for sure. But I can show you some examples of Tigers pitchers in recent memory who created a buzz like Zimmermann, or a similar sense of panic as Ross. The results are pretty fun to analyze (well, maybe not for all of the pitchers mentioned — especially if your name is Mike Pelfrey).
A note before we begin: in a perfect world, all the players discussed below would be “qualifiers” (i.e. players who have the minimum number innings in spring training to qualify for league leadership). But attempting to use qualified players only would have decreased the pool of available names, thus increasing the difficulty of this exercise. So keep in mind that all of these sample sizes are very small — some just happen to be a bit smaller than others.
The best pitchers
Justin Verlander (2014) — 20 innings, 0.00 ERA, 8 hits, 17 strikeouts, 0.65 WHIP
Having rattled off five straight All-Star appearances and a Cy Young award leading up to the spring of 2014, Verlander’s utter dominance was nothing new for Tigers fans. His regular season that followed, however, was quite forgettable. He posted a 4.54 ERA to go with career-worsts in hits per nine innings (9.7) and bWAR (0.9).
Joakim Soria (2015) — 9 1⁄3 innings, 0.00 ERA, 1/1 saves, 2 hits, 8 strikeouts, 0.54 WHIP
Soria came to the Tigers at the 2014 trade deadline, underwhelmed during the regular season (4.91 ERA in 13 games) and got shelled in his two playoff outings (five earned runs in one inning of work). Fortunately, his excellence in the following spring training was a sign of things to come, and he pitched well enough to be flipped at the 2015 trade deadline for JaCoby Jones.
Mike Pelfrey (2016) — 20 1/3 innings, 2.66 ERA, 15 hits, 13 strikeouts, 1.08 WHIP
Lost in the shuffle of Detroit’s expensive 2015 winter, which included the free agent signings of Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann, Pelfrey inked a two-year deal worth $16 million. This spring showing was a nice first impression following the contract, but it wouldn’t last. Pelfrey posted a 5.07 ERA in 119 innings, including a career-worst 12.1 hits per nine.
Matt Boyd (2017) — 25 2/3 innings, 2.10 ERA, 25 hits, 23 strikeouts, 1.71 WHIP
In this instance, Boyd’s lowly 1.71 WHIP should have stuck out more than the 2.10 ERA. He struggled to a 5.27 ERA in the season, thanks in part to career-worsts in walks per nine (3.5) and BABIP (.333). Still, don’t forget that he also took a no-hitter down to the final out against the White Sox that season.
Michael Fulmer (2018) — 17.0 innings, 2.12 ERA, 12 hits, 15 strikeouts, 0.82 WHIP
Fulmer was shut down for the final month of his 2017 All-Star season due to injury, so his results last spring were highly encouraging. In the season that followed, however, injuries contributed to his continued downward trends in ERA+, WHIP, OPS against, and home runs allowed. This spring, he has allowed five runs on seven hits and three walks in five innings.
The worst pitchers
Rick Porcello (2014) — 18 1/3 innings, 7.85 ERA, 27 hits, 15 strikeouts, 1.58 WHIP
Unbeknownst at the time, this was Porcello’s last go-round in Lakeland. He ended up outdoing Verlander in the regular season with a 3.43 ERA (the second-best of Porcello’s career) and a league-best three shutouts. Porcello was shipped to Boston the next offseason, where two years later he would outdo Verlander again — this time, for a Cy Young award. We don’t need to get into that right now.
David Price (2015) — 25 innings, 5.76 ERA, 24 hits, 29 strikeouts, 1.16 WHIP
Like Soria, Price was a 2014 deadline acquisition who didn’t immediately set the world on fire with his new club. Price’s spring numbers that followed in 2015 look ugly, but the high strikeout rate and low WHIP carried into the regular season, where he posted an AL-best 164 ERA+. Also like Soria, Price was swapped at the deadline for Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris and Jairo Labourt.
Bruce Rondon (2016) — 10 innings, 9.00 ERA, 13 hits, 13 strikeouts, 1.70 WHIP
Rondon has been so wildly unsuccessful the past two seasons (9.33 ERA, 2.096 WHIP in 45 1/3 innings) that it’s easy to forget how good he was in 2016. Following his unsightly spring — which, apparently, was a crystal ball for the future — he put up a 144 ERA+ and a 0.96 WHIP. It was far and away the best of his five MLB seasons.
Mike Pelfrey (2017) — 17.0 innings, 7.94 ERA, 24 hits, 12 strikeouts, 1.76 WHIP
There is not much more to say about Pelfrey. He simply couldn’t string together any success and was released at the end of the spring. The White Sox signed Pelfrey a week later (he struggled for them, too) and Detroit was forced to pay him $7.46 million that year to work for a divisional foe.
Mike Fiers (2018) — 11.1 innings, 9.53 ERA, 10 H, 7 K, 1.59 WHIP
Fiers is an example of hope for Tigers fans. No matter how Tyson Ross, Matt Moore and others do this spring, one can point to Fiers’ unsavory results from last year and recall how he turned things around well enough to be flipped at the deadline. His 3.56 ERA last year (3.48 with Detroit) was his career-best among seasons in which he threw at least 80 innings.
For a lot of pitchers, feeling healthy entering the regular season is much more important than coming off a dominant spring. That’s certainly true for Fulmer. The best case scenario is to be like Jordan Zimmermann right now, with a killer stat line and a clean bill of health (for now, anyway).