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2019 midseason pitching report: Tigers starting rotation about average, bullpen failing

Matthew Boyd and Shane Greene have been solid performers for the Tigers this year.

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

In a year where four of the Detroit Tigers’ five expected starting pitchers on Opening Day were lost for much (or all) of the season, the team’s starting rotation has held together relatively well, all things considered. Detroit’s starters rank in the middle of the pack, from 5th to 9th of 15 American League rotations in all the major pitching categories for the first half of the 2019 season.

Detroit’s bullpen, conversely, ranks near the bottom of the league in most categories, and, like their lineup, is performing below replacement level as a group at the all star break.

The Tigers were dealt a severe blow when Michael Fulmer was lost to surgery before the season began. Next, Matt Moore, who was off to a solid start, suffered a season-ending knee injury in April. Tyson Ross made seven starts before suffering an elbow injury, and Jordan Zimmermann has made just nine starts for a total of 45 innings. The net result being that the club has relied upon a number of minor league call ups to fill in the gaps. Under the circumstances, things could have been much worse.

Rotation, rotation, rotation

Here is how the Tigers’ starting pitchers rank among the 15 American league teams half way through the season, in the major pitching categories:

Starting Rotation Rankings

Metric Value Rank
Metric Value Rank
Earned Run Average (ERA) 4.94 9
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) 4.47 6
Wins above replacement (fWAR) 6.8 9
Innings per start (IP/GS) 5.2 8
Strikeout ratio (K/9) 8.36 8
Walks ratio (BB/ 9) 2.73 5
Home Run ratio (HR/ 9) 1.44 6
Walks + Hits ratio (WHIP) 1.38 9

The Tigers’ defense ranked 12th in the league using Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) or Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and their Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is tied for highest in the league at .316, which may explain the difference between the team’s ERA and their FIP.

Matt Boyd is the clear ace of the Detroit pitching staff, ranking seventh among the league’s qualified starters in fWAR (2.8), fourth in strikeouts (11.74) and logging 5.77 innings per start. Spencer Turnbull also cracks the league’s top 20 starters with a 1.8 fWAR and is striking out 8.43 batters per nine innings. Daniel Norris ranks 30th in the league at 1.1 fWAR and is also averaging six innings per start. Both Boyd and Norris could improve on their home run ratios, as they’re giving up 1.5 homers per nine frames. Of course, Turnbull is presently on the injured list as well.

Bullpen woes

Now for the bad news. Other than Shane Greene, who is headed to Cleveland for the All-Star Game, the Tigers bullpen has been awful. Here is how the Tigers’ relief corp has performed and how they rank among the 15 American league teams at the mid point of the season:

Bullpen Ranking

Metric Value Rank
Metric Value Rank
Earned Run Average (ERA) 5.02 13
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) 5.39 14
Wins above replacement (fWAR) -0.4 14
Save percentage (SV%) 61% 10
Strikeout ratio (K/9) 7.85 15
Walks ratio (BB/ 9) 4.11 11
Home Run ratio (HR/ 9) 1.68 14
Walks + Hits ratio (WHIP) 1.49 13
Batting Avg Allowed 260 12

Shane Greene is among the league leaders with 22 saves, posting a 1.18 ERA and has been worth 0.7 fWAR. Buck Farmer has managed to add 0.4 fWAR despite a 4.40 ERA. The rest of the Detroit bullpen has been a complete failure in the first half of the 2019 season, and they are below replacement level as a group.

Another more obscure metric is inherited runners scored percentage (IS%). The Tigers’ bullpen has allowed 36 percent of inherited runners to score, which is third worst in the American League. This has an impact on the starting rotation’s ERA.

The performances of Joe Jimenez and Victor Alcantara have been particularly disappointing. In fact, Greene is the only Tigers reliever who has logged more than 15 innings with an ERA below 4.00.

The Tigers have managed 36 save opportunities, which ranks third in the league. They have blown 14 of those leads. Saves are a statistic that has some arbitrary components, but they’re still a pretty good measure of the pain index. Ron Gardenhire faces an uphill challenge when he looks to get the ball from the starting pitchers to Greene. That’s where games are lost, even when their league worst offense manages to give them a lead.