Of course, just three weeks into any season, it’s tough to jump to many conclusions. The Tigers have basically taken three turns through their rotation as they sit at 8-8, 16 games into the season. Certainly no reason to panic, but serious cause for concern still exists.
The Tigers’ starting pitching has been inconsistent at best, and excluding Jordan Zimmermann, quite bad. The group has combined for a 4.55 FIP, good for 25th in MLB. Their combined work over 16 starts has been worth 0.7 fWAR, with almost all of that being credited to Zimmermann, whose sparkling 0.00 ERA (and 2.45 FIP) are responsible for almost all of that share of wins of above replacement at 0.6 fWAR.
In other words, take Zimmermann out of the equation, and the Tigers rotation has combined to be replacement level. Can the group straighten things out? Let’s take a look, pitcher by pitcher:
RHP Justin Verlander –23 1/3 IP, 5.79 ERA, 4.74 FIP, 9.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.1 fWAR
Verlander’s numbers aren’t great, but over his four starts, he’s only issued one dud – a poor outing in Pittsburgh that are dragging his numbers down. His strikeout numbers have rebounded (18 K’s in his last two outings, spanning 13 innings), and his fastball velocity is just a tick below 93, very close to where he was last season.
The one oddity thus far in Verlander’s numbers has been a shockingly bad wOBA against vs. right-handed hitters, currently checking in at .421 (wOBA against vs. left-handed hitters is at .293, right in line with his career .291 wOBA). It’s not a luck driven thing (.323 BAbip), and is mostly attributable to walks and a handful of home runs.
In looking at his individual pitches and outcomes against right-handed batters, much of the damage is coming on his fastball – four of his five home runs allowed are off his fastball, and the pitch is being hit harder – for his career, roughly 30% of his fastballs in play are fly balls, and 20% are line drives. So far this year, against righties, fly balls are at 40%, and line drives 30%. The home run rate is abnormally high no matter what, but the pitch still has similar velocity and movement, so this could be a matter of tipping off pitches earlier to hitters, or alternatively, working with a pair of catchers that aren’t used to working with Verlander, and calling a game that leaves him susceptible to getting jumped on early.
Either way, right now, Verlander is the least of the club’s worries in the rotation. He’s no longer the ace, but he’s an above average starting pitcher.
RHP Anibal Sanchez –18 IP, 7.00 ERA, 5.73 FIP, 8.5 K/9, 4.5 BB/9, 0.0 fWAR
Entering the season, many people felt that Sanchez was going to be critical to the Tigers success – they needed him to pitch closer to what he did in 2013 when he won the AL ERA crown and was a six-win pitcher, and less likely last year when his ERA ballooned to nearly five and his home run rate on fly balls jumped from miniscule to 1 in every 6 cleared the fence.
Unfortunately, early returns are not good on either front. As tough as it may be to imagine after Saturday’s rough outing, Sanchez’s HR/FB rate is HIGHER than it was last year, at 17.4% (compared to 16%). One of every 5.7 fly balls leaves the park on Anibal. And he’s giving up more fly balls, with his ground ball falling from his career norm of roughly 45% down to 39% - so not only are fly balls leaving the park at an alarming rate, but he’s giving up more of them.
Four home runs in four starts could easily be written off as an anomaly, if it weren’t for last year when he gave up 29 long balls in 25 starts. Sanchez mixes in a variety of pitches, so it’s tough to pinpoint one issue, and perhaps that could be the problem. Among his breaking pitches, he has a slider, a cutter and a curveball, and the tracking systems aren’t even close to matching on classifying the pitches. PITCHf/x has him throwing a cutter 13% of the time – Pitch Info is 16%. PITCHf/x has his slider at 28%, Pitch Info is also at 16%. Meanwhile, PITCHf/x has his sinker at 12%, and Pitch Info has it at 19%.
In other words, Sanchez’s movement is so all over the place, and the pitches are lacking so much consistency, that classification systems can’t even agree on which pitches are what. Confusing hitters can be a good thing, but when a slider moves just like a sinker, you won’t be able to do much to keep hitters off-balance, and that appears to be a critical issue for Sanchez right now. Hope remains he can right the ship given his track record, but at some point given his struggles and recent injury issues, the Tigers might need to be thinking of Sanchez more like a #5 starter and less like a #2.
RHP Mike Pelfrey –14.2 IP, 3.68 ERA, 6.20 FIP, 4.9 K/9, 7.4 BB/9, -0.2 fWAR
Don’t led the good ERA fool you, Pelfrey has been bad. That ERA is almost entirely thanks to a fielding call change that resulted in four runs he allowed vs. the Yankees being recorded as unearned. Pelfrey’s best start of the year likely came against Houston, where he somehow yielded only one run in six innings, despite walking six and giving up five hits. Effectively wild can work on a given day, but is not a long-term strategy for success.
Pelfrey is walking nearly twice as many batters as he’s striking out. Nearly 1 in 4 of every ball he allows in play is a line drive, indicating while his BAbip (.367) is abnormally high (.315 career average), hard hit balls are more likely to drop for hits. When Pelfrey was effective in 2013 and 2015 for the Twins, he kept the ball on the ground, limited line drives, and only walked 2.5-3 batters per nine.
If Pelfrey can regain his control to reverse that K:BB ratio, he might still be able to be a serviceable fifth starter (though as we mentioned above, the Tigers arguably already have one of those in Sanchez). But without that, he’s a pitch-to-contact pitcher that is giving up hard hit balls or giving up free bases, and that’s a recipe for a quick ticket out of the rotation.
RHP Shane Greene – 11.1 IP, 7.15 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 7.1 K/9, 5.6 BB/9, 0.2 fWAR
It’s probably too early still to draw much conclusion on Greene – as the fifth starter, his turn was skipped the first time around, and so he’s only made two starts this season – one good (six innings, two runs, three walks, seven strikeouts) and one not so good (4 1/3 innings, seven runs, four walks, two strikeouts). Sunday’s game against Cleveland is critical not just for the Tigers to avoid a home series sweep against a division rival, but to see what Greene can do.
When he was effective for the Yankees in 2014, he used his sinker to induce plenty of ground balls (50% GB rate), struck out a batter per inning with his cutter and slider generating plenty of whiffs, and limiting his walks.
It remains to be seen after last season’s inconsistency and injury issues if Greene can find a similar recipe for success in Detroit. But currently, he’s using his cutter more than any other pitch (over 40% of the time, compared to 28% in 2014), and using his sinker quite a bit less. Again looking beyond a couple of outings, Greene has shown flashes of being good enough, especially against right-handed hitters (.230 wOBA against vs. righties, .398 wOBA against vs. lefties), now it’s a matter of stringing a number of outings together. If he can’t, he can likely still be an effective reliever for the club, but that opens up yet another hole in the rotation that the Tigers will need to fill.