Welcome to the Walkoff Woodward Spring Training Preview Series, where we’ll be previewing the Tigers roster position by position. Today, we’ll be looking at the rotation — a very deep, very prolific group of arms that look to propel Detroit to a 3rd straight Central Division crown.
The Tigers made the World Series last season on the strength of their rotation — Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez all had outstanding performances in the playoffs. In the ALDS, Detroit held Oakland to a .194/.269/.284 slash line and won in 5 games, after Verlander’s brilliant performance (CG, 0 ER, 4 H, BB, 11 K) in the deciding game. In the ALCS, they swept the Yankees, held them to a .157/.224/.264 batting line, and considering the offseason New York had, The Evil Empire © might not see an ALCS field in the near future.
The rotation remains the strength of the team, solidified by the re-signing of trade deadline acquisition Anibal Sanchez to a 5 year, $80 million deal. It’s a hefty price to pay, but GM Dave Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch wanted so badly to keep this venerable rotation intact. One could criticize the recent offseason signings — Prince Fielder‘s $214 million is a gigantic chunk of change — but it comes from an owner who sacrifices personal wealth, not leveraged monies — because he loves his team. Verlander, Cabrera, Fielder and now Sanchez are signed to big deals, and this reflects the philosophy of the organization. Spend big, win big. It’s been successful the past two seasons, but is 2013 the season they finally go all the way?
Justin Verlander (30) 2012: 238.1 IP, 2.64 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 6.8 WAR, 9.03 K/9, 2.27 BB/9, .273 BABIP, 17-8
Justin Verlander has solidified himself as not only the ace of the Tigers staff, but as the best pitcher in baseball, with his Cy Young worthy season in 2012 after winning the MVP and Cy Young in 2011. Verlander continues to dominate hitters with his velocity and breaking ball. He can get you out with any of his 4 pitches (Fastball, Slider, Curve and Changeup) and he can throw them all for strikes. He continues to grow as a pitcher, each season throwing his fastball less and less and learning to beat hitters with all of his pitches. In 2009, he threw his fastball 67.9% of the time. In 2012, he threw it 55.9% of the time. His slider, which he started throwing in earnest in 2010, is now his 3rd best pitch according to PITCHf/x, behind his absolutely disgusting curve and of course his 4 seam heat. Verlander is simply a completely dominant pitcher in his peak years. Look for much of the same in 2013.
Doug Fister (29) 2012: 161.2 IP, 3.45 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 3.6 WAR, 7.63 K/9, 2.06 BB/9, .296 BABIP, 10-10
An injury plagued 2012 was slightly disappointing for the 2011 deadline acquisition Doug Fister, who pitched so brilliantly in the stretch run that season. Fister still pitched very well in 2012, and despite hitting the DL a few times, he still made 26 starts and had a 1.40 ERA in 3 starts in the 2012 playoffs. Fister is a control pitcher who doesn’t wow you with his velocity like Verlander or Scherzer will, but still has a respectable strikeout rate. Fister’s 4 seamer touches 88-90, and he utilizes a slider, curve and changeup in his repertoire. Fister loves his curveball, throwing it nearly 20% of the time in 2012, a jump from 15.1% in 2011. Fister is at his best when locating his fastball and fooling batters with his curve. If he can stay healthy, Detroit’s probable #2 starter will give them a very strong season.
Max Scherzer (28) 2012: 187.2 IP, 3.74 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 4.6 WAR, 11.08 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, .333 BABIP, 16-7
Scherzer was the surprise of the season for the Tigers rotation in 2012. Previously viewed as a solid young pitcher with lots of potential (and thus, room to grow) seemed to step into his own in the 2nd half of the season. Scherzer, electrifying with his 4 seamer touching 94-97 (and sometimes 98-99), he led the league in strikeouts per 9 innings and gave Detroit some much-needed stability in the rotation, with Fister (oblique) and Porcello (no strikeout pitch) nursing injuries. They were able to overcome their lukewarm start to the season, acquire Sanchez, and win the division due to Scherzer’s 2nd half dominance. He is a big key to the team’s success in 2013 — they need him to be the same guy if their lofty aspirations are to be met.
Anibal Sanchez (29) 2012: 195.2 IP, 3.86 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 3.8 WAR, 7.68 K/9, 2.21 BB/9, .310 BABIP, 9-13
Sanchez overcame a slow start after being traded to Detroit, recovering with a 3.68 FIP and 3.74 ERA in 12 starts. He was brilliant in the postseason, hurling 20.1 innings with a 1.77 ERA in 3 starts. As previously mentioned, Sanchez signed a lucrative extension with the team in December, hoping to win a World Series with the team. His contributions will of course be important to the success of the team. Sanchez, not a power pitcher, relies on solid velocity (90-93 range on his 4 seamer) and a very good changeup to get hitters out. His slider is a solid pitch, and he’ll occasionally throw you a curve or two, but for the most part he’s a 3 pitch guy. Recovering from shoulder injuries earlier in his career, Sanchez has seen his walk rate drop from 3.23 in 2010 to 2.21 in 2012. If this trend continues, the Tigers should sport one of the deepest rotations in Baseball.
Those 4 spots are for all intents and purposes locked up. As for the 5th spot, there are candidates like Rick Porcello (10-12, 4.59 ERA, 3.91 FIP) and Drew Smyly (4-3, 3.99 ERA, 3.83 FIP). Porcello is the likely winner, as he’s made 120 starts for Detroit since 2009 and is still just 24. He’s been consistent health wise, but as far as his performance on the mound goes, it’s been touch and go. He seems to have trouble maintaining his control/velocity past 70 or so pitches, and gets hit very hard in subsequent turns through the order. His fastball (sinker) velocity was on average 92 MPH in 2012, the highest it’s been in his career, as he’s thrown it less and started to rely on his (average) breaking stuff in the past few seasons. Porcello does not have a true out pitch, and lefties love seeing his slider. He’s still a serviceable pitcher, but with a 5.46 K/9, you’re not going to be fooling many, especially in the current pitcher happy environment. For Porcello to make the next step, he will have to develop a strikeout pitch or he will be forever known as a decent 4th/5th starter who doesn’t do much but induce ground balls.
Drew Smyly was last seen giving the Tigers 4 very good innings of relief in the playoffs, including 2 innings of relief in Game 1 of the ALCS after Jose Valverde had completely melted down and blown a 4-0 9th inning lead. The Tigers went on to win that game, 6-4 in 12 innings, and they completed the sweep 4 days later. Smyly showed a good strikeout rate (8.52 per 9) in his rookie year and displayed good control before various injuries limited his appearances. Still, 99.1 innings and 18 starts at a 3.83 FIP is a very promising rookie year for Drew. A sorely needed lefty arm, Smyly employs a 4 seamer in the 89-94 range and a good slider. Lefties hit .222/.283/.388 off Smyly in 2012, and the Tigers would hope that kind of success continues.
With Smyly and Porcello, and options being thin in the minors, the Tigers have to hope one of them fits. If everything goes their way, they’ll have an outstanding rotation and should win the AL Central for the 3rd straight year. However, the injury bug always lingers, and they’ve stayed relatively healthy in their rotation for a while now. Is this the year one of their big stars goes down? Sorry to bring that disturbing thought into your brains, but the possibility remains. Perhaps both Porcello and Smyly will end up in the rotation at some point.
Overall the Tigers should have an outstanding rotation in 2013. Verlander is the best pitcher in Baseball. Doug Fister has shown signs of brilliance, and even when he’s not brilliant he’s still very, very good. Max Scherzer may be an elite strikeout pitcher. Anibal Sanchez appears to be the complete package. Look forward to this rotation, Tigers fans. It should be a fun year.