Tigers’ pitching trio poised for long-term greatness
DETROIT – Are we witnessing long-term greatness coming together again? Is there another pitching triumvirate in the game that someday will come knocking on Cooperstown’s door together like the Atlanta Braves are doing now?
Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and likely 2015 inductee John Smoltz first pitched on the same staff for the Braves in 1993, beginning a 10-year run of distinction together.
Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer had formidable Anibal Sanchez join them in the Detroit Tigers’ rotation during the 2012 season before having their first full year of domination together in 2013.
Comparing Atlanta’s "Big Three" in their first season to the "Tiger Trio" at the same beginning point provides an eerie string of similarities:
Both staffs had the Cy Young Award winner (Maddux and Scherzer) and the pitcher who had or shared the highest victory total in the majors with Glavine’s 22 and Scherzer’s 21. And both staffs had another high finisher in the Cy Young voting with Glavine placing third and Sanchez coming in fourth.
Sanchez (14-8, 2.57 ERA) and Maddux (20-10, 2.36 ERA) led their leagues in earned run average, and Scherzer (0.97) and Maddux (1.049) had the lowest WHIPs in their leagues.
Those three Braves were a combined 57-27 (.679) with a 3.04 ERA and 525 strikeouts.
Those three Tigers were 48-23 (.676) with a 3.00 ERA and 659 strikeouts.
And despite having other double-digit winners in their rotations – Doug Fister and Rick Porcello with the Tigers and Steve Avery with the Braves – both teams came two victories shy of the World Series, losing in Game 6 of their league championship series.
Jim Leyland, who managed the Tigers before moving into the front office as a consultant after last season, also managed against those Braves with his Pittsburgh Pirates and Florida Marlins teams.
"The one thing they all have in common is they are top-notch competitors who get you to chase pitches and expand the strike zone," Leyland said. "The Braves already have two Hall of Famers and one coming up. Smoltz was one of the best big-game pitchers I ever saw. Scherzer, Verlander and Sanchez all are power pitchers. The Braves’ pitchers were more of the crafty kind.
"But remember that our guys in the AL have to face the DH. They were pitching in the NL, and facing pitchers who had to bat."
Leyland took the Tigers to the World Series twice, but got his only Fall Classic triumph with the 1997 Marlins, who took the NLCS from the Braves in six games.
"It makes me feel good that in ’97 we had to beat Maddux (twice), Glavine and Smoltz to win that series," Leyland said. "We beat the best.
"Glavine would throw off the outer edge of the plate and had a great changeup. Maddux had great movement on the ball and would jam you. Smoltz had an over-powering fastball, a plus slider and a splitter later on. They were really smart and knew how to get hitters out. They knew their strengths and pitched to them. They did everything right – everything professionally – and were in control of the strike zone and their emotions."
Those Braves won seven Cy Youngs with Maddux winning four (one with the Chicago Cubs), but only Smoltz won league strikeout titles with 276 in 1996 and 215 in 1992. Smoltz, a Lansing native whom the Tigers traded as a minor leaguer for Doyle Alexander in 1987, has more in common with the current Detroit aces.
Verlander, who was the AL MVP in 2011, has led the AL in strikeouts three times with 269, 250 and 239 totals. Scherzer hasn’t won a strikeout title yet, but has fanned 231 and 240 the last two seasons. Sanchez set Detroit’s single-game record last year with 17, and finished with 202 for the second time in his career.
"Power pitchers win in the postseason and that’s why our three guys performed as well as they did in the postseason," Leyland said. "They each have that extra fastball to reach down for. And they’ve each learned how to attack hitters, make adjustments and not just rely on their stuff.
"Verlander has three above-average pitches (fastball, curve and changeup) and another (slider) that is right there. Scherzer’s fastball is well above average and he has that slider and changeup. Sanchez throws 95 (mph) but puts speed on and off the ball like nobody and has a great changeup."
Both staffs had quality pitching coaches in common, with Leo Mazzone grooming the Braves and Jeff Jones doing likewise for Detroit.
"Jonesy has done a really great job with our guys," Leyland noted.
And both groups were and are close off the field. The Braves played golf together on the road most days – with that day’s starter dropping out of the links rotation. Leyland said his pitchers also often golf together during the season.
"Some people think you shouldn’t golf during the season," Leyland said, "and relievers and position players can’t. But it’s fine for starters on days when they don’t pitch. That’s really healthy and helps with camaraderie."
Atlanta’s "Big Three" came together when each was between 25 and 27. The "Tiger Trio" ranged between 28 and 30 last season.
Still, there’s plenty of time for Detroit’s threesome to make a long-term impact. Each pitcher should have at least another half dozen seasons in their primes remaining.
There’s no question our three have a chance to be very good together for a long time
Verlander and Sanchez are locked up through 2020 and 2018, respectively, should Detroit pick up their options for the final seasons of their long-term contracts. Scherzer, who has filed for arbitration and still could sign a long-term deal before this season begins, can become a free agent after 2014 and is represented by Scott Boras, who encourages clients to play the field.
"There’s no question our three have a chance to be very good together for a long time," Leyland said. "Who knows how things will go, but I hope we can put something together to satisfy all parties. Max is a winner and he knows the Tigers have a chance to win. Hopefully, that works to our advantage in keeping him."
Contracts and injuries often become obstacles in keeping a pitching staff together. The Braves didn’t let anything break them up, and the Tigers must face those challenges as surely as opposing hitters to make a claim to long-term greatness.