The AL Central is home to a team with arguably the best rotation in the entire league and a (potentially) potent offense, a team that is assumed to cruise to a division title and go far in October. For the first few years of this decade, that sentence would describe the Detroit Tigers, not the Cleveland Indians. Saying the former team had “arguably the best rotation in the league” would be an understatement, since it was home to three future or former Cy Young winners and an MVP; regardless, if you squint a bit, there’s some similarity with the current division favorite.
We could poke holes in this comparison — bullpen, manager, fan support — but suffice it to say, the Tigers have certainly given up pole position to the Indians. A large part of that has been slow attrition to their rotation, once so replete with talent. It’s still led by their warhorse, Justin Verlander, but lined up behind him are a bunch of young guys. It’s always hard to trust young pitchers; we just know so little, even with scouting and projection systems. Lack of track record means no way to properly judge and the dangers of boundless expectation. But what if the Tigers actually have a good pitching staff?
For the moment, we will ignore the presence of Jordan Zimmermann. It’s a bit intellectually dishonest to just say “they’re good except for this smoking ruin of a pitcher,” but no team has five aces, top to bottom. Even the 2011 Phillies, the best rotation I’ve seen in a long time, started Joe Blanton 11 times. It’s doubtful Zimmermann sticks in the rotation if he keeps being 6.04-FIP bad. If he does, GM Al Avila isn’t paying attention to games anymore. It’s an amazing fade into terribleness for Zimmermann from where he was, and a contract the Tigers will probably regret for a long time. But one bad pitcher does not a dreadful staff make.
That’s because more than balancing out Zimmermann’s otherworldly, sudden badness is Verlander. While his numbers this year aren’t sterling yet (11 percent walk rate, 4.34 ERA), the underlying numbers — such as his 2.68 DRA — suggest all systems are normal. His 22.6 percent strikeout rate is right at his career average, and it’s being dragged down by a four-strikeout game against Boston where he still went seven innings and allowed just one unearned run. His still-impressive velocity makes the baseball world’s suggestion of his demise back in 2014 look like a huge mistake. In baseball, there are aces and there are Aces, and Verlander is most certainly still the latter.
It gets really interesting as we delve further into the rotation. First, there’s Michael Fulmer, 2016 AL Rookie of the Year. He was excellent a year ago and only looks better in the early goings. His strikeout rate has climbed almost two points to 22.2 percent from his award winning 2016, his walk rate hasn’t moved much, and his FIP is holding steady thus far in 2017. He’s already very good, and you can surely see more space for him to grow. He’s mixing in a changeup a bit more this year, but other than that he seems to be replicating what was an excellent 2016. If he can keep that level of skill, he’s already on his way to an excellent career. But if he keeps these subtle evolutions — featuring a pitch like the changeup more while his slider takes a backseat a bit, using his fastball to make the change even more effective, and of course throwing in the mid-90s — he’s on his way to being the second part of a two-headed dragon staff along with Verlander.
Detroit also has two young, intriguing lefties after Fulmer, although they’re pitchers you have to project a bit with some optimism to see where the good is. With Daniel Norris, the talent is more evident. He’s a lefty that can throw 95 and, along with his young teammates, is showing some improving secondary stuff. As with Fulmer, he’s throwing a changeup that works well with his solid fastball. It’s in the mid-80s, giving good space for the fastball to deceive, and its relatively low spin rate allows for drop and hopefully more swing-and-miss stuff. He’s throwing it a bit less this year (12.5 percent of the time compared to 14.1 percent a year ago), but he’s getting more swings and misses (14.7 percent of the time against 12.2 percent). Could this judiciousness in usage, along with relying on both a solid four-seam and decent slider, make him a more complete pitcher? We’re in a wait-and-see mode, but we did see a bit of it in 2016.
The fourth horseman in this rotation is perhaps the least flashy, but the one that interests me the most. Matt Boyd is a fantastic Middling Lefty. He throws in the low 90s, he has that Madison Bumgarner three-quarters delivery thing going, and he seems to get by on guile and lucky bounces more than raw stuff. But because he’s a southpaw, he’ll have a job for a decade. I think he could be a bit better than just a journeyman, though. At least he could find a home in this rotation for a while. Perhaps that’s because my main memory of Boyd is him silencing the Cleveland Indians, but he can pitch.
The low-90s fastball stays consistently low in the zone and doesn’t give sluggers a floater to club too often, and a high-spin changeup gives a Marcus Stroman-esque wrinkle to his game , tricking the hitter into thinking fastball even longer. Between that and his 2017 penchant for throwing nearly as many changeups (25.4 percent) as four-seamers (30 percent) and keeping hitters honest with another 15 percent in two-seamers, he’s at the least an interesting junkballer, if not a truly valuable pitcher.
It’s amazing that in these days of higher and higher velocities, the archetype of the Crafty Lefty won’t die, but with Boyd throwing five different pitches at least 11 percent of the time (that’s the curve), it’s evident some things never go out of style. While he’s unlikely to be an ace, an above-average, 2-3 WAR season isn’t out of the question if he can get his walks under control. That is valuable in the back of the rotation. The way he keeps the ball down in the zone tells me he has some mechanical control, so I have faith. Like I said, projection and optimism. Maybe because I’m a lefty too, I don’t know.
None of this is to say the Tigers are about to reassume the level of pitching they had when they were front-running contenders. The bullpen is still spotty at best, and these pitchers are merely good. But you can go quite far in baseball if you have an ace and a half and a few league-average pitchers, especially if your sluggers don’t get slapped too had by an aging curve. The Indians rode one ace and two league-average pitchers (or worse, in Tomlin’s case) through the playoffs just last year. A buzzsaw bullpen helped; so did a great rotation during the regular season. But the starting pitching was far from perfect in October, yet it kept the Tribe in games against excellent offenses. The Tigers could squeak into October, and after that, a few hot starts makes dreaming possible. Probable is a bit far off, but possible they can do.
The Tigers face a small yet evident window right now, not wanting to waste the late primes of Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, and wanting to get something trophy shaped for all the money spent on those two, Justin Upton, and Victor Martinez (and let’s not even talk about Zimmermann). They need pitching to do that. Detroit probably can’t overpower people like it could a couple of years ago when Cabrera was a force of raw elemental power, but he’s still good, and most of the division is headed the other direction.
If they can squeeze some quality starts out of these young pitchers, the pairing of Verlander and Fulmer and a solid outing by one of the lefties can lead to some series wins and maybe a playoff berth. Nobody expected great pitching, and it might not be that. But it’s pretty damn solid. More than a lot of teams aiming for October can boast.