Leyland Must Allow His Starters to Work Deeper


As the Detroit Tigers prepare to open their series with the Seattle Mariners tonight at SafeCo Field, the first game of an 11 game, 11 day road trip that will take them also through Anaheim and Arlington, their bullpen has already been taxed. No Tiger starter has pitched into the seventh inning all season to this point, pitch counts being the culprit.

The entire rotation has worked an average of just 5.1 innings per start so far this year, and those numbers have come against teams (Cleveland and Kansas City) that shouldn’t give the Tigers this much trouble. The average start has included 94 pitches over those 5.1 innings.

Simply put, the Tigers must get deeper into games with their starters.

Jeremy Bonderman is the only starter yet to make his second turn, but he takes the mound tonight against Felix Hernandez. Bonderman, a Washington native, last pitched in Seattle back in 2008, it was his final start before undergoing surgery that cost him almost two years. In his first outing of 2010, Bonderman held the Indians to one run on one hit and two walks in five innings. The outing, while strong, took him 91 pitches.

The worst offender in the pitches per inning department is, as expected, Justin Verlander. Verlander threw almost 300 more pitches than any other hurler in the big leagues last season and has averaged 18.9 pitches per inning this season. Bonderman is next at 18.2 per inning, followed by Max Scherzer and Dontrelle Willis at 17.5, and Rick Porcello, who has averaged 16.6 per inning.

This is a problem that will hopefully fix itself a bit. Like most managers, Jim Leyland is hesitant to allow his pitches more than 100 pitches per game in the early part of the year. As the season progresses, Leyland will allow guys to throw more pitches, up to even 130 or so, which will allow them to work deeper into games. Until then, however, it is up to the pitchers to be a bit more economical.

The problem with asking this group to do that however, is that they are by and large, power pitchers. Power pitchers throw harder than finesse guys, obviously, and rack up more strikeouts. Strikeouts don’t often come in the three-pitch variety, so strikeout pitchers generally throw more pitchers than your typical sinkerballers.

In short, you probably can’t have it both ways.

Dave Dombrowski has spent his entire tenure in Detroit stockpiling power arms, which is a good strategy in building a pitching staff. No one is questioning if any of these starters have the stuff to be very good pitchers in the big leagues. But these pitchers as a group will have to allowed to throw more pitches in order to take an inning or two per game off of the bullpen’s workload. Limiting their pitch-counts, even in the early season, can and has put strain on the bullpen.

Of course, conventional wisdom says that the more pitches a person throws, the more likely an injury could occur. Certainly that should be taken into consideration, but that’s where you have to trust you veteran guys and allow them to do their job. Injuries can happen even if a pitcher is on a strict pitch-count, just ask Rich Harden, who has been handled with kid gloves throughout his injury-riddled career.

If the Tigers sustain an injury or two, and they will because all teams do, they have options to step in. Eddie Bonine has shown some ability to eat innings as a starter, and there is help available on the farm as well. Armando Galarraga, the forgotten man in this year’s fifth starter battle, has been outstanding in two AAA starts, racking up 12 strikeouts to just one walk in 11.2 innings so far. When Zach miner returns from injury, he could also step in to help out.

If the Tigers are going to keep up with Minnesota, there has to be more innings worked by the starters than have been so far. In order to accomplish that, Leyland must loosen the reigns a bit and allow his pitchers to throw 110-115 pitches per outing starting with the next turn through the rotation. After that, let them run as far as they can go.

We must change the idea that a starting pitcher should throw 100 pitches and be done. Starting pitchers should have the ability and desire to complete games. They should have the mindset that they are going to be in the game until their performance dictates a pitching change, not their pitch count.