By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – This season the Detroit Tigers have enjoyed the luxury of an All-Star Game starter and likely Cy Young winner; a former MVP and Cy Young winner; an ERA champion; and a fourth starter with a 3.67 ERA.
Still, it generated a little buzz when skipper Jim Leyland, who has been in the game for half a century, called the group of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister the greatest playoff starting rotation he has ever managed.
“We had a very good rotation in Florida in ’97 when we were fortunate enough to win the World Series, but it wasn’t as good as this one,” Leyland said. “This is the best I’ve ever had. I’m not talking about other teams, other organizations, but for me, yes, it’s the best postseason starting rotation I’ve ever had.”
That Florida rotation included Livan Hernandez, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and Tony Saunders. Hernandez came in second in Rookie of the Year voting that season. Brown, who came in second in Cy Young voting and after that year received the first $100 million contract in baseball, was selected to the All-Star team. Hernandez had a regular season ERA of 3.18. Brown’s was a staggeringly solid 2.69, Leiter’s a respectable 4.31 and Saunders’ a decent 4.61.
Since allowing three runs in six innings means a 4.50 ERA, looking at the Marlins numbers that year, it is clear that Florida had the benefit of a quality start almost every time one of those guys took the mound.
The 2013 Tigers rotation, though it has not yet won a World Series as that Florida group did, matches up very comparably.
Scherzer amassed a 2.90 ERA and won 21 games. Verlander, even in what he considered a down year, finished with a 3.46 ERA and allowed two runs or fewer in 16 of his starts. Sanchez, in a season shortened slightly by injury, recorded a league-best 2.57 ERA. Fister, the often overlooked fourth man in the rotation, ended the year with a 3.67 ERA.
The group broke the Major League Baseball strikeout record of the 2003 Chicago Cubs, who recorded 1,404. The Tigers surpassed the mark by a large margin, setting the new record with 1,428 by the time the regular season ended.
“Strikeouts are important,” Scherzer said. “Any time you can generate an out without the ball being put in play, there’s nothing that can be done in those situations. That’s something as a staff we’re pretty good at, is generating swings and misses, because we have such quality off-speed pitches among all of us. When we’re able to execute our off-speed pitches, that’s what makes us a tough team to face.”
Leyland noted that the plethora of Tigers’ strikeouts, while helpful, has something of a downside.
“We’ve done that during the regular season a little bit, struck out a lot of guys,” Leyland said. “Sometimes that’s a catch-22 because it’s good because they’re outs, but it’s bad because the pitch count gets so high.”
The trade-off seems to have produced a net positive so far, though.
As great as the Tigers starting rotation pitched in the regular season, it has looked downright stellar in the postseason. The group’s collective ERA is 1.97, the best of all teams by a significant margin. The starters also have 81 strikeouts between them through nine games, 20 more than any other team’s playoff rotation.
The ’97 Marlins starters did not combine for that many strikeouts in their entire postseason. Hernandez finished the playoffs with a 3.18 ERA, by far the best of the group. Brown’s postseason ERA was 4.91. Leiter’s playoff ERA was 5.48, and Saunders, who only pitched in two games, racked up a 9.82 ERA.
Looking at the numbers, Leyland’s pronouncement of these Tigers as the best is really not surprising at all. Scherzer said the group’s ability to throw off-speed pitches, including Verlander’s phenomenal curveball and Sanchez’s change-up that can be slowed way down or thrown with more velocity, has been key for Detroit.
“Just how we’re able to execute with multiple off-speed pitches and pitch backwards, pitch with fastballs, we’re just able to do a lot of different things,” Scherzer said. “When we combine all our strengths together, I feel like we can be one of the best rotations in baseball.”