Back End of Rotation is Key to Tigers Success in 2011

At the All-Star break in 2010, the Tigers were just a half-game behind the Twins in the AL Central race. Following the break, Detroit dovetailed. The team lost 19 of 24 games and fell hopelessly out of the race. What happened and how can the team improve in 2011 to contend for a playoff spot?

One need only look at the numbers from 2010 to see the culprit for the Tigers struggles. In 2010, the Tigers were in the middle of the pack in runs scored, but they ranked above league norms in batting, slugging, and on-base percentage (thanks in large part to outstanding Miguel Cabrera). Their fielding woes, which have been a problem for a decade or more, stabilized themselves a bit. The bullpen was spectacular at times, ranking in the top five in the league in ERA. So, what gives? Believe it or not, the main culprit for the 2010 season was starting pitching, which many Tiger fans see as a strength for the team.

But though Detroit boasts one of baseball’s best starters in Justin Verlander and promising hurlers like Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, in 2010 the team just didn’t get enough quality out of the rotation. While Porcello suffered a miserable sophomore season, Verlander and Scherzer could only do so much. In 2010, 3/5 of the Tiger rotation was absolutely putrid. Check these numbers out:

In 2010, pitchers not named Verlander or Scherzer started 99 games for the Bengals. The combined ERA of all those starts was 5.01. That’s 60% of the schedule where Detroit had to overcome terrible starting performances. Their offense – and indeed few in baseball – are capable of overcoming such a hole. Porcello, Jeremy Bonderman, and Armando Galarraga made the bulk of those starts. But Dontrelle Willis (eight starts at 5.06) and Andrew Oliver (five starts at 7.36) didn’t help any as spot starters.

In 2011, if the Tigers hope to be in the race for a post-season berth and stay in it, they must get decent contributions from the back end of their rotation. Verlander will be Verlander, and Scherzer seems poised as one of the better young pitchers in the game.

Porcello has looked brilliant in spring training. If he returns to near his rookie season form, it would help. The addition of veteran Brad Penny will almost certainly be a big improvement over the effort set forth by Bonderman and Galarraga in 2010. Phil Coke has been moved into the rotation from the bullpen for the stated purpose of giving the rotation more depth. He has a lively arm and will be the only lefty in the rotation.

If the Tigers can get even average performances from Coke and Penny, while Porcello, Scherzer and Verlander do what they are capable of, it could be a very fun summer in Detroit. There would certainly be far fewer games where the team is facing a 4-0 hole because their starter has been blown out early. It all comes down to pitching, and for the Tigers in 2011, that means starting pitching.