Tigers’ pitching woes make Scherzer loss more lamentable

The manner in which the Tigers' starting rotation has struggled has made the decision to let Max Scherzer walk look that much worse.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

By Ian Casselberry

On Wednesday, the Detroit Tigers used reliever Alex Wilson as a starting pitcher in a 3-2 win over the Oakland A’s. Thursday night, Detroit started Buck Farmer, freshly called up from Triple-A, to start against the Angels and lost 12-2.

This is quite a sobering change for a team that rolled out a rotation boasting three Cy Young Award winners — David Price, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander — last season, with Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello filling out the last two spots. The Tigers have been fortunate enough during the past few years to field a strong five-man rotation that routinely ranked among the best in baseball.

But very few teams can stick to the same five starting pitchers throughout a 162-game season. Arms get hurt or need rest. Schedule quirks such as postponements and makeup doubleheaders require an extra starter. Or some pitchers that began the year in the rotation simply don’t turn out to be as good as hoped, and thus need to be replaced. Detroit has had to deal with those issues, just like virtually every other MLB club.

This season was already set up to be different, of course. The Tigers lost Scherzer to free agency and a gargantuan seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals in January. And with Porcello set to become a free agent after this season, Detroit traded him to the Red Sox for a much-needed slugging outfielder in Yoenis Cespedes.

Yet if the Tigers had to do it all over again, knowing what they know now, would they have tried harder to keep Scherzer and ensure that their starting rotation would continue to be a strength, rather than a question mark? Detroit certainly didn’t want to lose him, offering a six-year, $144 million contract (which would have been $160 million, including Scherzer’s salary last season) last spring. But once Scherzer turned that deal down, knowing he’d cash in via free agency, the Tigers essentially wrote off re-signing him — even when a slow-developing open market made Scherzer returning to Detroit look enticingly possible.

Scherzer has been everything the Nats could have hoped for after opening the vault for him. He leads MLB starting pitchers in strikeouts, punching out 85 batters in 71.2 innings and his 1.51 ERA ranks fourth. Opposing batters have a .199 average and .518 OPS against him. While Washington’s other top starters, such as Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg, have struggled, Scherzer has provided stability, allowing the Nats to right themselves after a slow start and take their rightful place atop the NL East. Ascending to the top record in the league could soon be within reach as well.

To say Scherzer would be making a difference for the Tigers right now is both glaringly obvious and an understatement. Detroit is only 1.5 games out of first place in the AL Central, trailing the Royals and surprising Twins. Yet with their former star in the rotation, the Tigers would likely be challenging the Astros for the best record in the AL and perhaps the Cardinals for MLB’s top overall mark. At the very least, the team would look ideally situated for establishing itself as a World Series favorite.

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski took steps to fill the two openings in his rotation, acquiring Alfredo Simon from the Reds and Shane Greene from the Yankees. Though both seemed like capable pitchers, this was an obvious downgrade for Detroit. Porcello was coming off his best season and is remarkably accomplished for a 26-year-old, already logging six seasons as a major leaguer. And of course, Scherzer had become one of the best pitchers in MLB over the past three years, which his lavish contract with the Nats reflected.

As an alternative, the Tigers were going with a pitcher who had worked most of his career as a reliever, but had surprising success as a starter last year with the Reds, compiling a 3.44 ERA in 32 appearances. However, Simon’s numbers were much better in the first half of the season (12-3 record, 2.70 ERA), indicating that he could very well have been a fluke. Meanwhile, Greene only had one year (14 starts) on his big league résumé. Though his performance (3.78 ERA, 81 strikeouts in 78.2 innings) hinted that he could be a potential steal for Dombrowski, Greene probably wasn’t ready for a 200-inning workload.

Simon’s 2.67 ERA in nine starts actually looks pretty impressive. But a closer view of his performance indicates that he’s not pitching as well as that shiny number says. His FIP is 3.59, and even worse is his xFIP of 4.22, showing that Simon is benefiting from the Tigers playing good defense behind him and only allowing four home runs to this point. Greene pitched well in his first three starts, allowing only one run and 12 hits in 23 innings. In four of his subsequent seven appearances, however, he’s given up four or more runs.

Elsewhere in the Tigers’ rotation, Sanchez has been terrible so far this year. In 10 starts, he’s compiled a 6.12 ERA with 63 hits allowed in 60.1 innings. Sanchez has also served up 11 home runs, the third-highest total in the AL, ranking him among pitchers like Phil Hughes, Matt Shoemaker and former teammate Porcello. That number is especially stunning, considering that Sanchez allowed 21 homers combined during the previous three seasons. The most he’s ever given up in an individual season is 20.

Kyle Lobstein has had to fill in all season for the injured Justin Verlander, and has been adequate. Well, that might be putting it kindly. The 25-year-old left-hander has a 4.34 ERA with 53 hits allowed in 47.2 innings, and is striking out fewer than four batters per nine innings.

To be fair, Lobstein wasn’t projected to be part of the Tigers’ rotation, though he would have been the first to get the call if injury or a spot start required. With Verlander’s triceps strain, that’s obviously exactly what happened. However, Lobstein just went on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, which has been an issue since the spring, further thinning out Detroit’s starting staff. Farmer took Lobstein’s spot in the rotation Thursday and was battered for seven runs and nine hits over five innings.

Why did Wilson get the call for the Tigers on Wednesday? Simon went home to the Dominican Republic to visit his seriously ill father, thus requiring Detroit to put him on the bereavement list. Triple-A left-hander Kyle Ryan was tabbed to be the replacement starter, but could not get from Toledo to Oakland in time to prepare for the beginning of Wednesday’s afternoon game time (1:35 p.m. PT).

That put Wilson in the unusual position of starting, something he hadn’t done in his previous two major league seasons. (However, the right-hander did pitch as a starter for his first three minor league seasons, until the Red Sox converted him to a reliever in 2012.) Wilson pitched three innings, something he’s done three times out of the bullpen for Detroit this season, before Ryan took over to pitch another three frames in relief. The two combined to allow no runs and three hits over six innings, given the Tigers what they needed in a pinch.

Unusual, unforeseen circumstances put the Tigers in this situation, of course. No team could have planned for a family emergency and injury occurring at roughly the same time. Other clubs may have been in a better position to cover their needs with stronger pitching depth at the major league and minor league levels. But Detroit was already operating at less than full strength, with everything needing to go right and problem-free to succeed as they have in recent seasons.

Unfortunately, very little has gone right with the Tigers’ starting pitching. The rotation has been anything but problem-free. Would shelling out an extra $50 million for Scherzer have solved those issues? Well, it certainly would have helped, even if ponying up the money wasn’t that simple with the other expensive long-term deals Detroit is committed to over the next few years. Yet if this turns out to be a season squandered amid what looks to be a very mediocre American League, Scherzer’s loss will look even more lamentable — perhaps truly regrettable.

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