The Detroit Tigers pitching staff is floundering. As I write this, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello—both perennial ‘breakout’ candidates who were each given that same label this year—have the second and third-worst earned run averages among qualified pitchers with a 7.77 and a 6.45 respectively. To make matters worse, bona fide number two starter Doug Fister and top prospect (and potential fill-in) Jacob Turner are both rehabbing from early injuries. Adam Wilk was handed a shot in the rotation and faltered mightily. Justin Verlander has generally been his fantastic self but is coming off his worst game of the season, in which he surrendered five runs (four earned) over six innings to the New York Yankees.
All this has augmented the importance of Drew Smyly’s early major league success. Four starts into his career, less than two years after being drafted, he is the American League’s ERA leader with a 1.23. This achievement has come not at the expense of the offense-starved Oakland Athletics (any team that signs Brandon Inge can be safely described as such) and the like, but against the Kansas City Royals, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers, and New York Yankees—the latter three clubs are all among the top five in the AL by runs scored. The 22-year-old has been intimidated by no one.
Smyly has been aided by a number of factors (a left on base rate of 100%, for example) which point to regression, but that does little to diminish his accomplishments. His punctual triumph has been unprecedented for any recent Tiger pitcher.
Thanks to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, I can tell you that since 1980, 28 Detroit pitchers have earned at least one win as a starter within their first four career games. From that list, I eliminated everyone who didn’t pitch all four of their first games with the Tigers, those who didn’t start in all of them, and those who didn’t do so over the course of a single season. That left me with 16 starting pitchers who have debuted with Detroit—and won early—since 1980. Here are all of their stats through four starts:
It’s somewhat scary to see Zach Miner, Andy Van Hekken, Jeff Weaver, and Justin Thompson filling out the list’s top five (sorted by ERA), considering Weaver is the sole member of that bunch who carved out a decent major league career and his ended with a losing record and a 4.71 ERA. That said, Smyly’s is a full point better than anyone on the list and he also has the best strikeout to walk ratio (a 2.75).
Let’s hope Smyly can buck a certain trend that appears for recent fast starters on the Tigers and that we’re seeing the beginning of a brilliant and prolonged career.