When you’re 9-19 in your last 28 games and you lost a seven game division lead in the process, people are going to point fingers at pretty much everyone. The manager isn’t doing a good job. The bullpen is hacking up leads left and right. The starters are putting the team in the hole early. The defense is awful. The offense can’t score enough runs.
Both winning and losing are team efforts. Rare is the game when everything goes right or everything goes wrong. There’s usually one reason that stands out above all others behind why you won or lost, both in a single game and over the course of a season.
For the first 39 games of this season, the Detroit Tigers won, and they won a lot, and they won because their starting pitching was awesome. That same starting pitching is the same reason they’ve made their playoff pushes, particularly in 2012 and 2013. Since then, the team has struggled mightily – and the root cause of those struggles has been inconsistent starting pitching.
You can point fingers at Joe Nathan, who has been automatic runs lately and certainly deserves some of the blame. You can criticize Torii Hunter, who has been below replacement level. You can be angry at Rajai Davis, who is woefully miscast as a regular outfielder. You can even yell at Phil Coke and Evan Reed if you want. But this comes down to the rotation.
Over the 9-19 stretch, the Tigers have given up seven or more runs ten times. That’s over half of their losses, and you obviously cannot ask your lineup to score you eight runs per game. You can’t blame the bullpen for most of this, either – in those ten games, Tigers starters have given up seven runs four times, six runs twice, and five runs once. Only twice did the starter give up three runs only to see the bullpen turn it into a disaster. This doesn’t even include losses where the bullpen actually did their job, but they were mopping up damage done by a starter, a la Rick Porcello giving up five earned runs in a 6-5 loss at Chicago, or Justin Verlander giving up five in six innings at Cleveland, or Drew Smyly’s inflated pitch counts limiting him to 4 or 5 innings. It’s hard to win when you’re staring at five or six run deficits that your starter put you in after five or six innings.
Not only that, but the rotation’s struggles are directly responsible for some of the bullpen struggles. There’s no real excuse for Nathan, but some other members have been forced to pitch far more innings than they should. Even the best bullpens in baseball have a guy or three who simply do not have the trust of their manager to get key outs. These guys end up in long relief and mopup duty. Every bullpen has that soft underbelly, but teams with good rotations are able to hide it more often than teams that don’t. Right now, guys like Coke and Reed – who simply are not very good – are having to pitch a lot because starters are struggling to pitch deep into ballgames and keep games close. Thus, Coke and Reed have to mop up a lot – and bad pitchers who pitch a lot give up runs a lot, and the Tigers’ bullpen ERA has taken a hit because of all the innings the likes of the aforementioned pair, as well as stopgap guys like Corey Knebel, have had to eat in relief of ineffective starters. Similarly, all the blowouts and mopup innings have limited the Tigers’ use of Ian Krol, Al Alburquerque, and Joba Chamberlain, who have been effective more often than not when called upon (and, particularly in Krol’s case, deployed in the right spots). Because Tigers starters are giving up piles of runs, putting the team behind by several runs, and not pitching deep into ballgames, the Tigers have been using their worst relievers more often than they’ve been going to their good ones. This, combined with Nathan’s ineffectiveness when called upon (as I said, can’t blame the starters for him), has caused the bullpen ERA to suffer accordingly.
The quality start – at least six innings and no more than three earned runs allowed – is a simplistic and arbitrary stat. I’ll be the first to admit that. But for the purposes of this piece, it’s a good barometer for the Tigers. When Detroit gets a quality start, they’re 26-11. When they don’t, they’re 10-20. Last year, the Tigers got a quality start 67% of the time. This year, it’s down to 56% – with just 11 of them in their last 28 games, a rate of just 39%. No wonder they’re 9-19 in that time frame. Obviously, quality starts don’t guarantee victory – Anibal Sanchez has six of them and the Tigers have only won two of those games – but when the Tigers get one, they have a much better chance of winning. At the very least, the team is in the game in the later innings, hitters aren’t stuck trying to chip away at six or seven run deficits, and Coke and Reed aren’t coming into games in the fifth or sixth innings to just make things worse.
Incidentally, this is part of the reason I’m still optimistic – Drew Smyly has been better in his last two starts, Rick Porcello is improved this year, Anibal Sanchez is great, and, while the recent results don’t necessarily bear it out on the surface, there doesn’t appear to be anything terribly wrong with Max Scherzer physically or stuff-wise. Justin Verlander is the only one I harbor any real long-term concerns about, and if you want to read about what’s wrong with him, every baseball website in the universe has a theory on it, so I won’t go into that here. There doesn’t seem to be anything terribly wrong with most of the rotation. It’s just a bizarrely awful stretch unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and there are no easy answers as to how to fix it.
For the last two years, everyone has said that the Tigers will go as far as their starting pitching will carry them. That’s still true. In the last 28 games, there has been the odd game where the team pitched well but got no offense to go along with it, or the bullpen completely blew up in a close game, or porous defense let the club down. But more often than not, when the Tigers have lost, it has been because their starting pitching has not been good enough. When the unit as a whole is stringing good outings together, they’re a legitimately excellent team, as they displayed during the 27-12 start in which they pitched great on a consistent basis. When the entire rotation struggles? Well, you get 9-19. And that won’t turn around until they get back in form. Luckily, there’s a lot of season left for them to do it – because, as bad as they look now, it has been demonstrated countless times by numerous teams that anything can happen in October.