The Detroit Tigers designated reliever / proven closer Jose Valverde for assignment on June 21 following a string of poor outings. He had an ERA over 9.00 in the month of June, the bullpen couldn’t hold leads, and the Tigers had to do something about it. Valverde wasn’t the only problem with the team – or even the back end of the bullpen – but he was the most obvious problem, and cutting ties was the most reasonable solution.
Since that move, however, the Tigers have won only four of eleven games and have fallen out of first place. But this time, the biggest problem might be that there really isn’t a problem. I mean, it’s a problem that they’ve been losing more than they’ve been winning, but it doesn’t appear that this most recent rough patch has been caused by an obvious flaw in the team’s construction.
There was a “struggling offense” narrative tossed out there by a national writer or two during this stretch, but the Tigers have scored six or more runs in more than half of these games and have averaged 5.1 runs per game over the stretch. That’s ever so slightly more than their current seasonal 5.0 runs per game average (second in the AL) and it would match Boston’s league leading run scoring pace. So if run scoring hasn’t been the problem, then run prevention must be the issue. And it has been.
The Tigers, as a team, have managed an ERA of just 5.29 over this 11-game stretch. The problem all year with high ERAs has been the bullpen, but this time the bullpen ERA is 3.96. That’s not particularly low for a bullpen, but considering their FIP is 3.04 I think it’s reasonable to say that the pen has performed mostly pretty well here. And to take it one step further, Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, Al Alburquerque, and Bruce Rondon – the back-end guys that Jim Leyland has used in the last couple of “late and close” type situations – have produced a 2.50 ERA and 2.27 FIP in their combined 18 innings of work during this stretch.
The problem has been the starting rotation.
In basically the last two times through the order (three for Doug Fister), the Tigers’ starting staff has recorded an eye-popping 6.06 ERA. The associated 4.70 FIP paints a slightly rosier picture, but it’s still below average, and not something you would expect to see out of baseball’s best rotation.
Max Scherzer has been just fine – his ERA is 3.21 – and the struggling Justin Verlander has put up a you-could-still-deal-with-it 4.15 ERA, but Fister (7.16 ERA), Rick Porcello (8.71 ERA), and Jose Alvarez (8.31 ERA) have not performed well at all.
I find this to be terriffic news because of all the groups of players on the team, I might be least concerned about the starting rotation. Scherzer has been excellent all year, Fister has been good this year and mostly excellent since joining the team two summers ago, Porcello has shown flashes of taking the “next step” and maintains the best peripherals of his career, Verlander will continue to compete while trying to figure his mechanics out, and Sanchez is due back from the disabled list to make a start on Sunday.
There are some danger signs, obviously: Verlander hasn’t been himself lately, who knows which Porcello we’ll get for the rest of the season, and the jury is still out on the health of Anibal Sanchez’s shoulder, but even so, there’s no way this rotation can be this bad for much longer. Even at worst case: if Sanchez is on and off the DL for the rest of the season, if Porcello only rebounds to the 4.00’s ERA guy, and if Verlander can’t quite find his old self, the Tigers still have a pretty good rotation. An average rotation at the very worst, and certainly one that’s still good enough to win the division.
The Tigers haven’t been very good lately, and that makes them frustrating to watch. But the very good news is that the reason they’ve not been very good isn’t endemic to the construction of the team.