The Tigers didn’t sign up for this. Of all the factors that have contributed to Detroit’s fall from grace, the breakdown of the starting pitching is the most puzzling. And it’s potentially the most fatal.
From May 19, when this slump began, to June 10, Tigers starters provided only seven quality starts. You can nitpick at the value of this statistic, but it still provides a useful snapshot of how well a starting pitcher did his job on that day. Of those seven quality starts, Anibal Sanchez is responsible for four of them. The other three belong to Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, and Justin Verlander. Absent from the list is Max Scherzer. Another disturbing trend is the number of games the Tiger starters have allowed at least five runs or more since May 19. Ten times the opposition has put up five runs or more. Verlander leads the way here with five.
Other than Sanchez, Tigers starters have been getting knocked around. That has put a strain on an already vulnerable bullpen and shifted the responsibility of winning games to an offense not constructed to outslug the opposition. That just wasn’t part of the blueprint. The plan was to ride the starting pitching, which was supposed to keep the Tigers in most games and allow them to scratch out the runs necessary to win games 4-2 or 3-1. No wonder the Tigers lost 16 of 22 during a stretch when the rotation allowed five runs or more in almost half their games.
So, what’s going on here? One issue is the rotation’s drop in strikeouts and increase in walks. Last year the Tigers lead the AL in K/9 and K/BB and were second in fewest walks allowed. This year’s rotation has fallen back considerably. They are only fifth in the AL in K/9, seventh in K/BB and eighth in walks allowed. The declining strikeout rates, Verlander and Porcello are the main culprits, has meant more balls in play for a defense that continues to rank well below average. Part of the pitching decline has coincided with a precipitous drop in the Tigers team defensive efficiency ranking. After dumping Alex Gonzalez, the Tigers team defense surged, moving up into the top ten in major league baseball at one point. Now it’s fallen to 21st.
The Tigers can probably address some of these defensive issues, but fixing all of them appears unlikely. The offense is performing to a level most expected. This may surprise, but the Tigers are fifth in runs per game and third in wOBA in the American League. That despite ugly recent slumps by Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, and others.
No, for the Tigers to win the Central Division again they need the starting rotation, from top to bottom, to straighten itself out. The cavalry will not be coming to their rescue, because no one is ready on the farm and help from outside the organization is either too expensive or of limited value. The entire rotation must limit the walks and rediscover the strikeout pitch. If they can, and history suggests the odds are good they can, the Tigers should win the division handily, even with an erratic bullpen. If they can’t, well, plan for the worst.