The Tigers Need Another Right-Handed Starter


Hopefully that contentious statement (not meant as a joke, really) caught your attention. We hear a lot that the Tigers ought to have at least one lefty in the rotation. I don’t think that’s true, not in the least. It does look, though, with Jacob Turner‘s tendonitis that we are going to see a lefty in that five slot – barring a trade or FA signing.

The idea, of course, is that righties will struggle to get lefties out – so the Tigers will struggle to beat teams that can field a lineup with a lot of left-handed hitters (good ones in particular). However, if you look at last year’s splits the Tigers as a team (and this is a team which had one lefty starter for one half of one season) actually did a little better against left-handed batters than against right-handed ones. The team ERA split was 4.40 against righties and 3.70 against lefties, a pretty big gap and in exactly the opposite direction to the one you would expect. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m a little skeptical of the accuracy of an ERA split – after all, if a righty drives in a lefty which split should get the run charged??? The peripherals tell much the same story, though: against the Tigers righties were less likely to strike out, more likely to get hits and more likely to hit home runs.

The Tigers had and have a lot of right-handed arms, but different righties have different repertoires and different splits. So that begs the question… should the Tigers be looking for a right-handed starter that can actually get righties out? The guys they have (or had, in some cases) didn’t seem to struggle against lefties anyway.

It also begs another question… how could this possibly be? A team of righties that can only get lefties out…?

There are a couple of reasons for this, but first I’ll tell you one thing that it wasn’t due to – it wasn’t because the Tigers big 4 right-handed starters (Verlander, Porcello, Scherzer and Fister) were better against lefties than righties. Verlander was much less likely to walk righties, but also a little less likely to strike them out, give up hits and give up homers – all in all you’d have to say that righties fared a little better. For Fister, righties got a few more hits but were much less likely to walk or hit home runs – lefties fared a little better. For Porcello righties were a little less likely to strike out, but much less likely to get hits, walks or homers. For Scherzer there was even less ambiguity: a right-handed batter was 35% more likely to strike out, 53% less likely to walk, 38% less likely to get a home run and 7% less likely to get a hit.

It also isn’t because the righties in the Tigers bullpen did a great job against left-handed batters. Though Joaquin Benoit was good against lefties – one of the big reasons to sign him in the first place – that wasn’t universally true for Tiger righties. We’re all aware of now-departed Ryan Perry‘s struggles against lefties, but he wasn’t alone. Al Alburquerque struck out just as many lefties, but they were also a lot more likely to get hits off him – his ERA vs. R was only 40% of his ERA vs. L. Jose Valverde was 4 times more likely to walk lefties than righties, giving him an ERA vs. L 3 times higher than his ERA vs. R. A similar story could be told for Brayan Villarreal.

Part of it is that it’s difficult to ensure that your lefties see a lot of lefties and the Tigers left-handed pitchers were pretty darn awful at getting righties out. Combined, Tiger lefties faced 24.6% of opposing righties but only 15.5% of opposing lefties. That gap was even more pronounced for Phil Coke, who in his time as a starter would see righty-heavy lineups stacked against him. But the same was true for LOOGY relievers like Dan Schlereth, David Purcey and Brad Thomas who all faced more righties than lefties. For Coke, those righty-stacked lineups made perfect sense as righties were only half as likely to strike out and 45% more likely to get base hits. Same story for the southpaws in the ‘pen: Purcey’s K rate against righties was only 20% of what it was against lefties – for Below 40%, for Schlereth 56%, for Furbush 54%, etc…

Part of it was Brad Penny: Throughout his career Penny had featured a repertoire that would give him very minimal splits, performing much better against righties than the average right-handed starter. Last season – while he struggled to get outs in general – he especially struggled against right-handed batters with an ERA vs. R 54% higher than his ERA vs. L, with more hits, more homers and fewer Ks.

Also note that Brad Penny was more likely to see righties than any other right-handed starter on the Team. In fact, he was the only one to face more right-handed bats than left-handed bats. This is not unusual – there are more righties in the game than lefties. In fact, 57% of all the plate appearances in the majors last season were by right-handers. What is unusual is the number of right-handers faced by Tigers pitchers as a whole in 2011 – only 48.8%. That’s the second lowest percentage in the majors, trailing only the LA Angels. The Tigers and the Angels were actually the only two teams (with their right-handed rotations) to see more righties than lefties.

Which brings me to what I would point to as the biggest reason why the Tigers did well against lefties and the reason why they’re better off (all else equal) with another right-hander in the rotation. Since the Tigers weakest starters (Coke and Penny) faced a disproportionate number of righties, that would also mean that – in terms of aggregate stats – the Tigers tended to faced lefty bats with better all-around pitchers.

Teams typically run right-leaning lineups and have a balanced bench – against the Tigers they tend to sub out a weak righty for an even weaker lefty off the bench. So… guys like Verlander, Fister, Scherzer and Porcello aren’t just seeing more lefties than righties they’re probably seeing (on average) lower quality lefties than righties and lower quality lefties than the ‘league as a whole’. Of course, that biases the splits but it shouldn’t be taken too far: if a guy has genuine trouble getting hitters out from the opposite side (like Phil Coke) he would have big splits despite the fact that the subs he faced were inferior. But… thankfully, the Tigers righties were nowhere near as inept in that regard as Phil Coke. Phil Coke would typically face 5 right-handed regulars in addition to righties off the bench, the right-handed starters would typically only face 4 left-handed regulars (+ bench right-siders). So while Coke would also see some low-quality righties (and only high quality lefties) as a percentage, the right-handers he would face would be more likely to be regulars.

To put that in simple terms: it looks to be harder to stack a lineup completely against a righty than it is against a lefty. We’d always prefer to see a starter with minimal L-R splits – since a guy like Scherzer will wind up facing 45% righties as compared to the league average of 57% and we don’t want that stacked lineup to do too much damage. However, if we’re talking about a lefty starter with big splits he’s going to see something like the 66% right-handed lineups that Phil Coke did or the 77% that Cliff Lee did last year.

Which brings me to the front-runner for the Tigers open rotation slot – Andrew Oliver. Can he get right-handed hitters out? I’m always worried about splits for a guy that relies on a good slider and that’s Oliver. In his (very limited) time in Detroit last year, he faced twice as many right-handed batters as left-handed batters. Those right-handed batters were 20% less likely to strike out and 33% more likely to get hits – all three of the home runs he allowed were also to right-handers. Consider me concerned.