Who Should Start Game One For The Tigers?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

As the season starts to wind down, we continue to think about what comes after. For the Tigers, barring something horrific, they’ll open the postseason five days after their final regular season game in Miami in finished. Which means they’ll be able to choose any starting pitcher they want to start the first game of the ALDS – and therefore have the option to bring him back for game five. Who should that be?

It’s pretty safe to say that Rick Porcello isn’t the guy. Despite New English D’s undying love for the right-hander, we clearly recognize he isn’t the Tigers best starting pitcher and he certainly doesn’t have the kind of stamina that the others can offer. He’s likely heading to the bullpen for the playoff run, but even if he gets a start, he won’t get the most important one.

The other four starters are all elite guys. The worst of the four is 14th in MLB in WAR at 4.0. Twenty teams don’t have a pitcher with a higher WAR than the Tigers 4th best guy this year, so the options are very good. Doug Fister (4.0 WAR, 3.77 ERA, 3.30 FIP) is extremely efficient and gets a ton of ground balls. This could be quite useful in the first and last game of a series because you can usually count on him to work deep into games and get out of jams. I’d feel pretty good about Fister in game one, but considering the other options, he doesn’t really have a strong case. He has the worst K% and ERA of the bunch and the 3rd best FIP.

Anibal Sanchez has an extremely strong case because when you consider performance purely on an inning by inning basis rather than an accumulation of value, he’s been the best starter this year. He leads the team in ERA, FIP, and xFIP. He pitches deep into games and the only concern is the time he missed due to injury which appears behind him given the strong velocity he’s demonstrated lately. Playing the numbers, Sanchez has given the Tigers the best average start this year.

Of course, there’s Max Scherzer who is likely going to carry his very good season and fluky-wonderful W/L record to a Cy Young award. He’s been extremely consistent this year, having just a couple of blowup games. He’s had a lesser year than Sanchez inning for inning, but he’s been pretty close to Sanchez while being a touch more consistent. Max has accumulated more value thanks to more innings, but that’s the kind of thing that counts for awards but not for one game. It’s a tossup as to which has better stuff, Sanchez or Scherzer, based on the day. When Sanchez has all his pitchers working, he’s been better than Max, but Max has had all of his pitches working more often.

But the elephant in the room still lurks. Justin. Verlander. Certainly he doesn’t have the one year credentials of Sanchez or Scherzer and he’s had several more blowup starts than either. But the more you weigh past performance the more Verlander is the obvious choice. Since 2009, he’s been the best pitcher in the game even after a “shaky” 2013. And it isn’t close. The track record is Verlander’s case. And the fact that on his best day, he’s still got the best stuff.

It comes down to how you want to make the call. Sanchez has been the best this year, but Scherzer has been extremely consistent without trading much overall value. Verlander remains the one feared most by other teams because of what he could unleash. We haven’t seen vintage Verlander than much this year, but if you knew you were going to get everyone’s best, he’s the obvious choice.

Two weeks ago, I’d have felt really good about choosing Scherzer. But he’s struggled a bit. It’s probably just some random variation, but it could be fatigue. Or new scouting reports against him. Or just basic regression to the mean. Scherzer is great, but when you have so many good options, you wonder which you should choose. Sanchez has been quietly brilliant this year and seems fully healthy. But there’s still Verlander and he’s the guy who planted the seeds of this season.

Maybe he’s slowing down for good, but it’s hard to believe that when the velocity has been good on many occasions. I’m not sure I trust him the way I used to, but I still trust him a whole lot. It comes down to this for me. If the team the Tigers face leans more to the left, I want Sanchez and his changeup. If it’s a right-leaning team, I’ll take Scherzer. But that’s all up for grabs if Verlander shows me he can be JUSTIN VERLANDER over the final few weeks. It’s hard to leave that club in your bag, even if it has seen better days.

The last couple weeks will determine it, and I’m guessing Leyland will take Scherzer, but I’m open to Verlander and thinking about playing matchups when the time comes.

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