The State Of The Tigers’ Rotation

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Partly due to my own fascination with starting pitching and partly due to the fact that the Tigers had one of the best rotations in baseball history last year, New English D covered that quintet in great detail. We had a couple of posts on their record setting ways as a unit:

But we also analyzed each of the starters quite heavily. Here’s a quick summarization of the coverage of each starter and then a preview of what we should expect in 2014.

Justin Verlander

The story on Verlander was the tale of three seasons. He dominated in April for the first time in his career and looked poised for another Cy Young season but his April triumphs turned to struggles during the middle months as he fumbled with release point issues that affected his ability to utilize all of his pitches. But with the team coasting to a playoff berth, Verlander took his time to return to form and was absolutely lights out across his final 9 starts (including the postseason), leaving him with another 5 win season. Disappointing for Verlander? Sure. But not disappointing for almost anyone else.

Going into 2014 it reasonable to expect another great season from Verlander. He’ll be 31 this year, which is the back end of a starter’s peak, but he’s coming down from a HOF type peak, so there’s plenty of room to have good seasons as he ages. Steamer has him down for 3.9 WAR, Oliver at 5.7 WAR, and ZiPS at 6.1 WAR for the 2014 season with the Steamer number coming in part from projecting only 192 innings. We’ve probably seen the end of Verlander as the consensus #1 starter in the league, but all signs point to another ace level season in 2014.

Doug Fister

Fister, the erstwhile Tiger, had two major storylines in 2013. First, he had another quietly fantastic season (4.6 WAR, 3.26 FIP, 54.3 GB%) that would have made him the ace on 22 of 30 MLB teams even though he was the fourth best arm in the stocked Tigers arsenal. His ability to limit walks and induce ground balls made him an under 90 mph force to be reckoned with in his second full season in Detroit. Unfortunately for us, it was his last as he was dealt to the Nationals in December. The other Fister storyline was his incredible HBP number, which ended up only being 16, but those 16 came quite early and for a while he was actually hitting more batters than he was walking. Needless to say, no one had ever done that. We’ll miss you, Doug!

Rick Porcello

Porcello is really good. He’s a personal favorite of mine because his style of pitching (heavy grounders, low walk rate) is something I really enjoy but also because he’s an undervalued guy whom I’ve been trumpeting for a very long time. I encourage you to read the links above which chronicle a pitcher who added strikeouts, cut walks, and added ground balls over the last few seasons and turned himself into a really nice major league starter. He was easily the best #5 starter in the league and would have been a 2/3 on most clubs. And Porcello will only be 25 entering the 2014 season, which is still shy of the years in which a starter is usually at their best. I’m a huge Porcello believer, and with the addition of a curveball instead of a slider in 2013, he took another step forward. It also so happens that the middle link above was one of this site’s first big breakout articles, so there’s always going to be a connection between my success and his, which I think is pretty cool.

For 2014, he’ll be asked to shoulder a little more of the load with Fister in DC, but Porcello is more than equal to the task. He’s been a 3 win pitcher in each of the last two seasons and has shown consistent improvement over his entire career. He should be able to build on what he accomplished in 2013 as he heads into the new year and I would expect another very solid 3+ win season, and it will be a little more obvious now that he has some quality defenders behind him. (Steamer/Oliver/ZiPS WAR: 3.2/2.8/2.2)

Max Scherzer

Scherzer was all over the baseball world in 2013 as he had a breakout season and also lucked into a huge win total which caught the eye of less analytically minded. When push came to shove, I had him second on my Cy Young ballot (he won easily) to teammate Anibal Sanchez, but he was a very deserving candidate. Max added a curveball and continued his improved mechanics to the tune of more strikeouts, fewer walks, and fewer dingers. That’s a great formula for success as he posted career bests in ERA/FIP/xFIP and turned in 6.4 WAR. Max was great and it was great fun to watch him all season long.

Going into 2014, Scherzer’s contract status (FA after 2014) and potential trade rumors surrounding him have been the talk, but he looks poised for another very good season. He’s still in his peak years and the improvements he made in 2013 should carry over and help him produce this year. He’s almost certainly going to regress a little bit just because that’s how the world works, but there’s no reason to think he won’t have another season of ~5 WAR. (Steamer/Oliver/ZiPS WAR: 4.2/4.6/4.8)

Anibal Sanchez

I adored the rotation in its entirety, but I had already developed my affection for Verlander, Porcello, Fister, and Scherzer, so it was Anibal Sanchez who really caught my eye during the 2013 campaign. He made excellent use of his changeup (as did all of the Tigers pitchers this year) and dramatically improved his strikeout and homerun numbers in 2013 while posting career bests in ERA/FIP/xFIP and a 6.2 WAR season. He also earned my Cy vote as the only knock on his campaign was that he missed three starts early in the year with an injury. When I vote on Cy, I pay more attention to rate stats than innings totals, which is why he got my vote over Max. All in all, it was an amazing season.

It’s probably not fair to expect a repeat performance, but Sanchez is a very good starting pitcher who should be right in that class with Scherzer going forward. He’s got good command and a lot of weapons, but he also looked very healthy down the stretch as his velocity ticked upward. Sanchez is very good and should be again in 2014. (Steamer/Oliver/ZiPS WAR: 4.0/4.6/4.2)

Drew Smyly

Smyly is the wild card here because he was a reliever in 2013. He was a great one, but relieving and starting are different and it’s been a full season now since he’s made a start. He was very solid in his partial season in the rotation in 2012, but we can’t just look at his stat line and look for trends because we don’t know if the changes we saw were about his role or his ability. The question for Smyly will likely be durability as he’s been pretty effective during his career when he’s been healthy, but isn’t exactly a workhorse. A reasonable expectation is something like an average starter (~2 WAR) for the 2014 season, which is still just his age 25 season. That’s right, he and Porcello are the same age. You’re going to lose something from Fister to Smyly in 2014, but the Tigers should still have an excellent rotation given that their worst starter should still be pretty good. (Steamer/Oliver/ZiPS WAR: 2.0/1.5/2.2)*

*Oliver still has Smyly projected to relieve.

All told, the rotation was amazing in 2013 and still looks to be very good in 2014. There was absolutely a case to be made that the Tigers should trade some pitching depth for offense or prospects this offseason, the only complaint is how they went about doing so. The rotation will be worse in 2014, but it’s coming down from a season in which they were 9.3 fWAR better than the second best rotation in the sport. They were an entire Sandy Koufax better than the second best rotation in the league, so even if things get worse, things will still be pretty great.


7 responses

  1. KalineCountry Ron | Reply

    The Tigers Pitching Coach ‘Wimpy’ Jeff Jones deserves a shout out. He advised Max and Rick to use the curveball on lefty batters. He seems to be under-rated.

    1. Absolutely. He’s mentioned in most if the individual links within this piece. And all of the things I wrote about the coaching turnover this year. Huge Jones fan.

  2. […] week, we looked back at the Tigers rotation from 2013 and ahead to what they might become in 2014. Today, we’ll do the same thing with the […]

  3. […] roster, we’ll pick up today with the new Tigers infield. Earlier this month we covered the starting rotation and outfield. Since the infield is pretty much different at every spot, this one will take some […]

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  5. […] 2013 Tigers and looking forward to the 2014 version of the team. We’ve taken a look at the rotation, bullpen, infield, and outfield – and somehow Avila and Holaday ended up not finding a home […]

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