If you look at the individual player pages for each of the projected Detroit starters, you’ll see that the most recent article in which three of them were tagged was written by me. I’ll summarize the guys I’ve already written about this offseason and then cover the other two.
The only Tiger starter that Steamer projects to have a higher WAR than they did last year is Rick Porcello. I’m with Steamer in thinking Porcello can improve, but unlike Steamer, I think the improvement could be more than slight. Porcello improved in a lot of areas last year. Most notably, he went away from using his sinker as much and moved those extra pitches over to his breaking and off speed stuff. That helped him raise his strikeout rate to league average, and it didn’t hurt his above average ground ball rate. In fact, his ground ball percentage was higher than ever last year. He also improved significantly in a couple of areas in which he had really struggled. He didn’t give up hard contact as much as he had in the past as his ISO allowed was one of the 30 lowest in the league. And after the first month of the year, he almost never gave up anything hard to right-handers. He also got much better out of the stretch. His strikeout minus walk rate out of the stretch was about 3.5% before last year but jumped up to 7.3% last year.
It will be up to Porcello to continue to improve in those areas or at least maintain the gains he made last year. But there’s a factor outside his control that could help him improve this year. In fact, it’s something that will work in favor of all Tiger starters. That’s the presumably improved infield defense. Although the pitcher most likely to benefit from that improved infield is Porcello because he’s easily the most ground ball heavy pitcher in the rotation. Below is a chart showing the runs above or below average (DEF) for the Tigers who played the most at each infield spot last year and the Oliver projected DEF for the Tigers most likely to play the most innings at each infield spot this year.
Drew Smyly will take over for Doug Fister and join Porcello at the bottom of the Tigers rotation. Smyly was downright awesome as a reliever last year with a 2.37 ERA and solid strikeout and walk rates over 76 innings. But I’m concerned about his viability as a starter because of his lack of a third pitch. As a reliever, he threw a version of a fastball more than 75% of the time. Even in his 18 starts in 2012, he only used his third pitch, his change up, about 5% of the time. And when he’s used the change up it has been destroyed. He won’t be bad. In fact he could be average or a little better. But he’s being drafted as a top 50 starter, which is probably too optimistic.
Anibal Sanchez took the big leap forward last year, and the driving forces behind the improvement were a lot more swinging strikes and the ball staying in the yard. We all know HR/FB rate is somewhat out of a pitcher’s control, so there’s a decent chance that Anibal sees a little regression in that area and allows a few more homers this year. As for the swings and misses and strikeouts, 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.
The ace of the staff was Max Scherzer. In 2011, Scherzer got his walk rate, which had been his biggest bugaboo, under league average. In 2012, he got his swinging strike and strikeout rates up to an elite level. And last year he added the final piece of the puzzle by limiting hard contact and getting his BABIP and HR/FB rate well below league average for the first time. BABIP and HR/FB had always been a problem for Scherzer primarily because of his struggles against lefties. Against righties in his career, he was league average or better in those areas, and he was finally better than league average in both areas against lefties last year. As Michael Barr pointed out earlier in the off season, Scherzer’s improvements against lefties were a result of him adding a curve that he used more against left-handers than right. His BABIP and HR/FB might regress a bit this year, but if he continues to deploy the curve against lefties, he should maintain the gains he made last year.
And finally there is former ace of the staff, Justin Verlander. We all know Verlander had a bad year last year, and it may have been the result of injury. Verlander had a muscle injury that had been affecting him for some time and it supposedly caught up with him last year (he had surgery to deal with this issue this off season). As Eno Sarris pointed out in November, Verlander struggled with his release point last year as it was much closer to his body than the year before. If the muscle injury really was affecting him, it would make some sense that he would adjust something mechanical, like his release point, to compensate for the injury. As Verlander stated after a playoff start, he thought he had figured out his mechanical issue late in the year, and his release point had moved back out away from his body somewhat.
It’s tough to say how Verlander will perform next year because it’s tough to say whether this injury/mechanical issue was really the cause of his struggles. But it does seem to be most obvious explanation. If it is the problem, check his early season release points to see if they look more like 2012 than 2013. But to play that wait-and-see game you’ll have to draft Verlander as a top ten pitcher, which isn’t a risk I’d recommend taking.