The Tigers Rotation: Not as Good, But You Knew That

The Detroit rotation trailed only the Washington staff in WAR last year, and the Nationals went out and signed Detroit’s best starter. Along with Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly will be pitching elsewhere this year, so the Tigers are without three of the six starters that made at least 10 starts for them last year. The pitchers filling those voids are….underwhelming. It’s an understatement to say the gap between the Washington and Detroit rotations is going to grow this year.

With Scherzer gone, recently acquired David Price steps in as the staff ace. Price maintained all the gains he made in his walk rate in 2013 by continuing to throw a very high percentage of first pitch strikes, so that part of his game appears here to stay. He coupled that control with improved swing-and-miss stuff and a 26.9 percent strikeout rate. His 23.1 percent K-BB% trailed only Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale. Podhorzer has pointed out that the strikeout gains came from more swings-and-misses on his fastballs, which is unusual and means the gains may not be sustainable. In that way he’s comparable to Jordan Zimmermann. But even with a plain old above average strikeout rate instead of an elite strikeout rate, he’s still one of the best in the game in the strikeout/walk department.

The other factor to consider is a full season in Detroit as opposed to two-thirds of the season in Tampa. It’s a less favorable ballpark, and the defense behind him is quite a bit worse. But the Tigers should win a few more games than the Rays and are a more likely candidate to post a big win total. All told the move to Detroit probably hurts a bit. Combined with the possibility of fewer strikeouts it sounds like I’m being pessimistic on Price. But really it’s just that his upside is probably limited. Among the guys going in the top 10 at the position, he might have the longest odds to finish as the top fantasy pitcher at year’s end. But his floor is among the highest of that group.

The only other Tiger starter I’m interested in drafting is Anibal Sanchez. It so happens that I wrote up the Tigers staff for DCD last year, and what I had to say about Sanchez does not seem bright in retrospect.

A big reason for the increase was a higher usage of his change up which has been his best pitch according to our pitch values in each of the last three seasons. It’s probably not reasonable to expect him to post top five swinging strike and strikeout rates again, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think those rates won’t continue to be well above average.

Well, it’s only half dumb. The strikeout and swinging strike rates weren’t anywhere near well above average. They fell right back to where they were prior to 2014, which is around league average. In my defense, he didn’t throw his change nearly as much despite the fact that it remained an effective pitch, even if a bit less so. The other mitigating factor is his injury. He missed some time in early May and made his last start in early August, so how much did the injury affect him? But even if he’s healthy now and you were to hope for some of the strikeouts to come back, you have to be wary of his lack of durability. He’s not been injury prone necessarily as he made at least 29 starts in the four seasons prior to last year. But he has yet to top 200 innings and is now 31.

With an ADP of 39 among starters, Sanchez may be a hair overpriced. I’ve got him at 45 among starters. But his price isn’t unreasonable and there’s some hope for upside beyond a top 40 pitcher. But unless my fellow drafters are wary enough to push him towards the top 50 SP mark on draft day, I’ll probably let someone else gamble on that one.

This is insane, but last year’s discussion of Justin Verlander in this same post mentioned the top 10 SP price you’d have to pay to acquire him. Thankfully, I didn’t recommend such a course of action. If you’ll recall, the narrative last offseason was that it was an injury that had held Verlander down in 2013. Unless Verlander made another 32 injured starts last year, it would appear it wasn’t the injury’s fault.

The blame falls on his declining velocity, which fell again last year and reached a new low of 93.1 mph with his fastball. His swinging strike rate also fell to 8.7 percent, which is where it sat his first few years in the league. That led to a 10.5 percent K-BB% that was below average. I’m not big on drafting pitchers with a below average K-BB% at any point, but I’m certainly not interested in drafting one going among the top 35 starters, which is where Verlander’s ADP currently sits.

Rounding out the rotation are newcomers Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene.

Simon outperformed his peripherals last year with a 3.44 ERA and 4.17 SIERA. You could cite his three-year run of an above average strand rate as evidence that he’ll continue to outperform his peripherals, but he was a reliver in two of those seasons. Steamer and ZiPS aren’t buying the strand rate holding up at all, and if he loses that ability/mojo, he’s in for a world of hurt.

Simon had a well below average strikeout rate last year and won’t be facing pitchers this year, so he could lose additional ground in that department. The ballpark is better, the defense is worse, so let’s call that a wash and just focus on the fact that Simon has a ton of downside all on his own. The only thing that gives me pause here is questioning Dave Dombrowski doesn’t often work out. But it’s hard to see Simon remaining fantasy relevant.

If there’s a sleeper in this rotation, it’s Greene. He does things we typically like such as generate groundballs at a healthy rate and generate some swings and misses. He’s also potentially got a really nice arsenal; check out Eno’s FG+ profile of Greene for the full breakdown on that. He’s not quite in sleeper territory in 12-team mixed leagues, but once you get to a 15-team mixer, he becomes a guy to consider late in the draft to fill out your staff.

Among the guys we have projected to pick up stray starts, none are projected to be above average in either run prevention or generating strikeouts. If there’s one guy who might have some AL-only value at some point, it’s probably Buck Farmer, but the Tigers seem pretty thin on replacement options.

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trailed only Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale