We are still pleased about the Detroit Tigers solid start to the season, and by the numbers most things look great. The fact that the Tigers are finally outperforming “fielding independent” pitching measures is great.
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On the pitching end of things there is a big, dark cloud, though. The Tigers are not missing bats. Only two years ago the Tigers had one of the most impressive strikeout swing-and-miss pitching staffs of modern times. Many of the same guys are still around, and some who are gone were the low-K groundball types that held the staff back from record-breaking levels in 2011 and 2012. But now… the Tigers are 28th out of 30 teams in strikeouts per 9 innings – ahead of only the Diamondbacks and Twins and that comes following a marked drop in K’s last season as well.
Is this a cause for concern? Possibly, I might even go so far as to say “probably” though not “definitely”. Part of the reason that the Tigers are outperforming fielding independent measures is that defense (i.e. BABIP) has been good, but part of it is that by those fielding independent measures like FIP and xFIP, the Tigers look pretty bad. It is unlikely that the Tigers will finish with one of better pitching staffs in the league but near the bottom in strikeout rate.
If the Tigers are going to be above average at run prevention overall, it is fair to say that they need to be at least average in terms of strikeouts. Is there hope of that or are they as bad as they have looked in that respect? There are a couple of reasons to be positive. First, the quality of the Tigers defense has meant that Tigers pitchers haven’t seen that many batters per inning – and they look slightly better in terms of strikeout rate (26th) than K?9 (28th).
Second, the two key pitchers that the Tigers are hoping will get off the DL soon may help. Justin Verlander has been well above the average starter in terms of Ks in the past as Bruce Rondon has been for relievers. The guys that have filled in for them have not been missing bats at a league average rate regardless. There is also more random variation in 18 games than in 162, so the Tigers aren’t so likely to be far, far below average come October even if they are still below average.
On other counts I think we have reason to be concerned. David Price and Anibal Sanchez have been and will doubtless continue to miss bats. Joakim Soria will probably miss a few more than he has thus far. But what about the rest of the pitching staff? Alfredo Simon has been effective in spite of a low K rate this year, just as he has in the past – I don’t see any reason to expect a change.
Kyle Lobstein hasn’t struck many out, but we don’t expect him or any other 6th, 7th, 8th starter, etc… to do so. Verlander needs to get back and to be effective when he does. Shane Greene doesn’t have that much of a track record to suggest what his true “stuff” should produce. He does limit damage when he keeps the ball down, but so far that has only resulted in 12 strikeouts in 27 innings. Greene was a true gamble for Dombrowski this offseason, and not a lousy one, but it still won’t be surprising if Greene doesn’t come close to the 9+ K/9 he had last season.
No one in the Tigers bullpen has been especially good at blowing guys away thus far. While Gorzelanny and Chamberlain have it in them, the more innings we see going to AAAA arms like Blaine Hardy instead of raw talents like Ian Krol the lower our expectations should be. It’s worth bearing in mind that even the mediocre Joe Nathan of last year was better than most Tigers relievers were in this particular respect.
If you’re thinking “I don’t care how they get outs, as long as they get them” that’s fair. So far, the Tigers have been getting outs and the ERA is a bit better than last year or 2012 & 2013 when they had so many strikeouts. It is questionable, though, how successful they can continue to be if they continue to allow so much contact.