It’s difficult to look at any statistics from the first week of the season and come to a foregone conclusion about the direction of a player or a team. The Mariners still likely aren’t a World Series contender, Maikel Franco likely won’t win the MVP, the Red Sox will eventually win some games. But when nearly every member of a single pitching staff surprises with how good they perform, it’s worth looking at.
The Tigers began the new season with just about no hope for contention. Fangraphs projected the Tigers to win only 68 games this season, the worst record in the worst division in baseball. Even with a 5-3 start, the chances they make the playoffs still remains minuscule. What may have changed though, is that a pitching staff that was expected to be among the worst in the big leagues has so far been one of the best. Despite having a strong group of pitching prospects, none of the best arms are ready for the highest level yet, they signed starting pitchers that appeared to be closer to retirement than their prime, and Michael Fulmer is now out for the season after Tommy John surgery. Despite all of that, through 8 games, Detroit’s starting rotation has been worth the most fWAR of any starting rotation.
With an average of 6 innings pitched a game, the Tigers rotation has held opponents to 2.25 earned runs per 9 innings, the 5th lowest in the MLB, and unlike the others, they also have peripheral metrics to back up the idea that it’s not just luck. Only the Nationals and Reds have a lower FIP, only 4 teams have a lower xFIP. They rank as a top ten rotation in strikeouts per 9, walks per 9, and home runs per 9. The lowest Game Score from a starter so far has been a 49, with half of the games being over 60.
A rotation with a 2.25 ERA won’t last the entire season. For one, they have produced a low .263 BABIP and a 6.3 HR/FB%. That will rise and hurt them, as well as certain pitchers just not pitching as well as they have so far. But given the eye-opening start, it’s fair to wonder if they really could be a solid pitching team this season, even if not the best.
The Tigers aren’t like seemingly every other coaching and development staff in 2019. They still have older coaches and aren’t making major innovative organizational changes like the Astros or Twins have. With this rotation, the one constant is a new pitching coach, even if he is actually an older pitching coach.
Rick Anderson became the Tigers new pitching coach in June of last season. He followed Ron Gardenhire from Minnesota to Detroit. The Twins pitching staff from 2002-2014 (when Anderson was the pitching coach) ranked 3rd to last in strikeouts per 9, but also had the lowest walks per 9, and by a large margin. Although it’s always hard to give Anderson all the credit for that without knowing what he taught his pitchers, it was a significant reason for his hiring in the first place. Is the lack of walks helping Tigers pitching that much this season? Is there more to it? Let’s look at each of the 3 surprising starters who have already made multiple starts and how they’ve changed so far this season.