Led by Verlander, Tiger starting rotation is their best since ’68

Power pitchers Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander give the Tigers their best 1-2 starting pitching tandem since at least the 1960s.

Soak in every start, every inning, every pitch in 2013. The Detroit Tigers starting rotation is a mix of the Best Pitcher in the Universe and three others engulfed in their prime. If they stay healthy, a third straight AL Central Division title and second consecutive trip to the World Series is imminent.

It’s arguably the franchise’s best staff since the magical 1968 postseason. That’s when Joe Sparma’s 3.70 ERA was the highest among a quartet of Tigers starters featuring Denny McLain (1.96), Earl Wilson (2.85) and Mickey Lolich (3.19).

1968 was premium viewership. A once-in-a-lifetime sight.

Well, maybe not. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez have the capability to mirror those great days of the ’60s. We already saw a glimpse of it in the 2012 postseason, when they turned the Bronx Bombers into a bumbling mess, a group of studs-turned-whiffers who recorded more strikeouts (36) than hits (22) in a four-game sweep.

There were electric performances atop the bump, from Sanchez’s gem at Yankee Stadium, to Scherzer’s 10-strikeout mowing in the ALCS clincher. It was part of a post-season record of 30 1/3 straight scoreless innings – the longest in MLB history.

Oh, yeah. Seventeen innings of that streak belonged to Verlander, who started it with a tear-jerking performance in Game 5 of the ALDS, a masterpiece for the ages that silenced a raucous Oakland crowd and tattooed an imprint onto the hearts of Tigers fans forever.


If they stay healthy, they will be the best staff in the American League. Consider last year’s post-All-Star break ERAs: Fister (2.67), Scherzer (2.69), Verlander (2.73) and Sanchez (3.55).

The biggest challengers could be the Tampa Bay Rays (Cy Young winner David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore). But even the Rays do not have two mega-power arms like Verlander and Scherzer, who were first and second, respectively, in strikeouts last season in all of baseball.

Then there’s Fister, who had a 1.40 ERA in three post-season starts last October and delivered a fantastic performance at Yankee Stadium in Game Five of the 2011 ALDS. Not many rotations have a third starter with his pinpoint control and playoff resume. And when your fourth starter (Sanchez) is coming off a post-season that featured a microscopic ERA (1.77) and opponents’ batting average (1.92), the odds say a special season is in the making.

Imagine if Rick Porcello or Drew Smyly emerges as a solid fifth starter. That means this rotation could very well be mentioned in the same breath as the Atlanta Braves of the late-1990s (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Denny Neagle, Kevin Millwood). That group owned the best team ERA in the majors twice (1997, 1998).

But, the Braves also provide evidence that championships are not won on paper. Consider 1993-2002: Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz were in the midst of a magical run of 14 division championships in 15 seasons. Yet, during that time, they won one World Series (1995).

The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies can relate. Their four-horsemen approach of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels looked like a virtual lock to win a title. They were odds-on favorites in every Las Vegas sports book. Yet they found themselves at the mercy of St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter and lost Game Five of the NLDS.


The Tigers rotation of the 1984 World Series team had the best team ERA in the American League, sixth best in the majors. It was led by Jack Morris (19-11, 3.60 ERA), Dan Petry (18-8, 3.24), and Milt Wilcox (17-8, 4.00).

The 1987 Tigers were stellar, too. It included the above trio along with Frank Tanana, Doyle Alexander, and Jeff Robinson. They were awfully good, leading the team to the ALCS. But they weren’t like Lolich and McLain, who dominated from 1967-’69.

And those 1980s Tiger rotations didn’t have the bang-for-your-buck factor: Verlander, Scherzer, Fister, and Sanchez are all in their prime.

Cherish these next two seasons. Coming soon, Verlander will ask for the moon – and will get the moon, the stars and Neptune, since GM Dave Dombrowski already called him a lifetime Tiger. That means Mad Max could be gone at the end of 2014 when he’s a free agent. If not, then maybe Fister leaves via free agency in 2015.

Then again, maybe nobody will leave.

Check this out: This will be the sixth consecutive season the Tigers payroll has surpassed $100 million. Their 2012 attendance of 3,028,033 was a 14.6% increase from the previous year. It will likely be higher in 2013, considering the team is fresh off a World Series appearance and a second consecutive division title and post-season appearance – the latter being a feat that hasn’t been achieved since 1935. They have the son of a longtime fan favorite at first base, a Triple Crown winner on the other corner, and the Best Pitcher in the Universe packing the house every five days.

The Tigers are a star attraction and will be for the rest of the decade. The point is: owner Mike Ilitch might open the pocketbook for his rotation in 2014 and 2015, because he wants that elusive World Series ring to go alongside the Stanley Cup memories on his mansion mantle. We’ll see what happens.

What we do know is this: These next two years will be special. Soak in every start, every inning, every pitch. You might not see it again in your lifetime.

8 replies on “Led by Verlander, Tiger starting rotation is their best since ’68

  • Rocky

    Three of the five guys you list in the Angels rotation no longer play for the Angels. Greinke and Harem both signed with different teams and Santana was traded.

  • Tom

    Looking forward to great things this year! Pitching aside, what a lineup. Jackson, Upton, Cabrera & Fielder!! I love that!!!

  • rick

    Yep the only thing that could possibly screw this season up is ole Jim Genius Leyland! How this guy is thought of as a great manager is just mind boggling! This guy is the worst manager of talent but let him shed a few tears and everybody falls for it. He blew the 06 and 12 W.S. by being badly out managed by LaRussa and Bochy. And before all you supporter’s of him and haters of me start sounding off check out his career record. He has won 1,676 games and lost 1,659 for a winning percentage of .503! Over 3,000 games managed and a .500 record? Are you kidding me? How has he ever been allowed to manage over 20 years with such a sorry record? What has he ever won? One W.S. that was bought for him and won only because of Cleveland choking? A great Pirate team in the early 90’s that he couldn’t win with? C’mon people wake up he sucks! Also, I don’t mind when the pundits call him the winningest active manager but call it straight he’s also the active leader in losses! It’s a shame that Mr. Illitch gives everything to his team only to be undermined by old Jim Genius’ arrogance and my way or the highway attitude. Almost any other manager in baseball would have already won a title with this team! I saw last year where he was ranked the #1 manager in the A.L. by his peers. What a joke! I’m sure they were just suckering and feeding his enormous ego and it worked he blew the series! At best he’s middle of the pack. Showalter, Francona, Girardi, Gardenhire, Washington and Sciosca are all better and arguably have less talent then Detroit. So enjoy the year and I truly hope the Tiger’s win it all but with Jimbo on board I’ll wait till the final out of October before I’m comfortable and hopefully if or when he blows it this year upper management will finally show him the door!

  • Terence

    Yes, nice lineup in pitching and batting. AJ, Hunter, Miggy, Prince, V-mart! There’s no Upton on our team Tom. Then mix in Omar, Peralta and a share of Avisail, Dirks, Boesch, and Berry, we should be be in for an exciting run.

  • Stone

    Lets hope they all stay healthy. Remember what happened to Fister in the second game last season. He wasn’t right until August.

  • Cliff Parker

    2013 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS-THE DETROIT TIGERS!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is a core line up with Verlander, Max, Fielder, Cabby, Jackson, Berry, and Fister; Go get ’em Tigers! Another great article Bruce; you and Dan keep up the great work!!

  • Gary Steinke

    Mistakes everywhere! Rocky caught them too. Tom, did you mean Hunter? The last I heard the Upton brothers were both playing for the Braves. Don’t forget V-Mart is back. I think if Fister stays healthily all season he’s the number 2 guy on this pitching staff. I don’t have a crystal-ball so I don’t know who’ll win the World Series (I hope its the Tigers), but in Cabrera’s first year in Detroit, the Tigers were suppose to win it all that year (’08”) and didn’t even play .500 baseball that year. Its a long season and a lot can happen.

    • Dan Holmes

      Gary – we missed the sentence on the Angels. Of course those three pitchers have moved on. The article has been tweaked and the error removed.

      – Dan

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