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2011 AL Playoff Rotations: Detroit Tigers

At the season’s outset, we noted in our Tigers Season Preview that the team had a good front two in Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, but there was a drop off after that. The front office seemed to agree, as they went hunting for pitching at the deadline, and came up with possibly the biggest steal of the deadline in Doug Fister, who has been so brilliant since coming to the Motor City that he has slid into the number-two spot. At this point, you could call both the Tigers’ hitting (their team wRC+ ranks fourth) and its pitching underrated, but what you can’t call them is losers. They were the first team in the American League to clinch their division. It was their first division pennant since 1987, back in the good old days when Jack Morris was still pitching to the score. As they were the first to clinch, they will be the first of the four playoff teams who I will examine as we lead in to the playoffs.

For the season, Tigers’ starters rank seventh in WAR, 17th in FIP, 14th in xFIP, 13th in SIERA, 11th in xFIP-, 9th in FIP-, 12th in ERA-, and 8th in K/BB. Some of those marks are pretty nice, some of them are merely average. But all of them include nearly 300 innings from Duane Below, Phil Coke, Charlie Furbush, Andrew Oliver, Brad Penny and Jacob Turner, none of whom had an xFIP below 4.46 as a starter. As October dawns, the Tigers’ rotation is a bit stronger than all of those numbers.

Justin Verlander: 2.40 ERA, 3.12 xFIP, 77 xFIP-, 4.39 K/BB, 0.86 HR/9, 7.0 WAR
If Verlander hasn’t been the best pitcher in the AL, he’s certainly no worse than the second-best. He’s thrown essentially the same mix of pitches as he always has this season, but his fastball and curveball have been dramatically more effective. The one cool thing about Verlander’s career is how much more frequently batters are swinging at his offerings. In every season of his career, his O-Swing% has increased, from 22.8% as a rookie to 33.6% this season, a top-10 figure. Add up swinging outside the zone with his devastating repertoire, and you are not going to see a lot of hard contact, and in fact Verlander’s LD% is tied for the lowest of his career. He hasn’t been as efficient on the road (4.68 K/BB at home, 4.16 on the road) and has been a bit more homer prone on the road, but that’s splitting hairs — his home and road xFIP’s are only 0.11 apart. He has been dominant this year no matter where he pitches.

Doug Fister: (with DET) 2.02 ERA, 2.87 xFIP, 71 xFIP-, 9.6 K/BB, 0.58 HR/9, 1.9 WAR
It’s hard to picture how the Fister trade could have — in the short term at least — worked out any better for the Tigers. In his brief time in a Tigers uniform, Fister has been as good as, if not better than Verlander. While Verlander’s O-Swing % is top 10 this year, the top dawg has been Fister, whose opponents swing at his pitches outside the zone 36.5% of the time. Fister though, gets there in a much different way than does Verlander. While Verlander is blowing cheese in the mid-90’s, Fister averages in the 89’s — though if you look at this velocity chart, you will see that his range has increased a great deal this year. With this lower velocity, Fister also generates less swinging strikes, something that has led to skepticism of his talents. And in the playoffs, that could bear itself out, as the potential teams he will face in the LDS and LCS are all the patient sort, content to foul off pitch after pitch. But while Fister doesn’t generate a bushelful of K’s, he has been efficient — his 3.70 K/BB for the season ranks 13th in the game, ahead of other AL luminaries like David Price, James Shields, Josh Beckett, Jered Weaver and Felix Hernandez. And again, he’s been even better with Detroit, walking just five (!) batters in 62.1 innings, which is essentially one batter every two starts.

Max Scherzer: 4.37 ERA, 3.72 xFIP, 92 xFIP-, 3.09 K/BB, 1.38 HR/9, 2.4 WAR
Superficially, this has not been Scherzer’s best season, but xFIP and SIERA both paint a different picture. They show a guy who has been essentially the same pitcher three years running. They are seeing Scherzer’s 1.88 HR/9 on the road and saying, ‘my my, that shouldn’t be.’ In particular, Scherzer was victimized in his first start of the year by what will surely be the last two-homer game of Jorge Posada’s career. That’s not to say that the homers haven’t been a season-long problem, because they have — the only month in which he didn’t allow two homers in a game at least once was June. Whether you subscribe to the notion that his homeriffic tendencies are an aberration or a new pattern, they have been an issue all season. Since his fly ball percentages are essentially the same as in the previous two years, I would vote for aberration, but I’m open to the other side of the argument. On the no-doubt-about-it positive side, we can see that Scherzer is enjoying a greater level of efficiency on the mound than ever before. For the season, Scherzer’s K/BB is a robust 3.09, and he has improved that as the season has gone along — 2.63 in the season’s first three months compared to 3.95 the past three. Part of the reason for that could be that he is getting strike one much more frequently — a career-high 61.9% of the time.

Rick Porcello: 4.76 ERA, 4.04 xFIP, 100 xFIP-, 2.27 K/BB, 0.92 HR/9, 2.5 WAR
Porcello is assuredly the weak link in the Tigers’ playoff rotation, but as far as weak links go, he isn’t awful. His K/9 and K/BB both sort of scream middling, but while his BB/9 isn’t especially noteworthy on a staff with Verlander and Fister, his 2.25 mark is tied for 25th overall on the season. Porcello has changed the mix of his pitches slightly this year, throwing his fastball five percent less than he did in his first two years, with his slider and changeup seeing upticks to make up for the difference. Porcello has also been the least fortunate of the group, as his BABIP is the highest, particularly at home, where his .327 BABIP is higher than everyone on the staff’s except Phil Coke. Finally, while Porcello’s results haven’t been great overall, he has seen slow progress — his FIP, xFIP, SIERA and WAR all career-high numbers.

Overall, the Tigers have a pretty formidable rotation. The back end could get tricky, but the same can be essentially said for every contender outside of Tampa Bay. Porcello is not as iron clad as the other three, as there is a small chance that Penny could get the nod in a potential Game 4, but it is a very slim chance. What there is no chance of is Verlander pitching on short rest, as Jim Leyland has supposedly ruled that out. But as the Tigers move into the postseason, they can rest comfortably knowing that they have one of the best pitchers in the league, and perhaps the best one-two punch as well. It’s unlikely that pitching will be responsible for a quick Detroit exit.