Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The enigma of starting pitching

The Detroit Tigers (and their local media), perhaps rightfully so, boasted all year long about having the best starting rotation in all of baseball. After all, they had the reigning Cy Young winner in Max Scherzer, former Cyster Justin Verlander, and even added a third past winner in David Price at the trade deadline. Anabel Sanchez was excellent, as was Rick Porcello. Quite the formidable five -- at least on paper.

But after winning the American League central division yet again, the Tigers were unceremoniously broomed by the Baltimore Orioles in one of the ALDS match ups. There would be no World Series in Motown. In fact, despite three Cy Young winners in a row taking the mound, they failed to win a single playoff game. So much for "dominant" starting pitching. In turn, the Orioles themselves would be swept away by the KC Royals in the ALCS.

A couple years ago, KC made a trade to obtain James Shields from the Tampa Bay Rays. He was going to be the "ace" of their staff, a leader in the clubhouse, and all that. Shields has even been dubbed "Big Game James" by the KC faithful and their own local media. But is he really? Let's take a peek at his career stats.

Over 7 seasons with TB and 2 with KC, Shields compiled a 114-90 win/loss record with a respectable 3.72 ERA in the regular seasons. Not too shabby, but hardly the stuff of Cooperstown. Yet in the post-season, he had a record of 3-4, with a whopping 5.19 ERA. In all his playoff starts, he had never managed to record a single out after the sixth inning. It leaves one to wonder how in the hell he became known as Big Game James, when he seems to falter so much in the most important contests. Earlier tonight, in Game One of the World Series against the San Fran Giants, he didn't even make it to the fourth inning. He would eventually take the loss in that game as well.

Yet SF is the true enigma when it comes to just how important starting pitching is. Sure, they have ace Madison Bumgarner who posted a regular season record of 18-10. Very impressive. And he cruised through the Royals' line-up for 8 innings in the opener of the Fall Classic.

But after MadBum, look at what the Giants have for starting pitchers. Tim Hudson? He was 9-13 during the regular season. Ryan Vogelsong? 8-13. Jake Peavy is a respectable 6-4 since coming to the Giants in a mid-season trade, but overall he was 7-13 in 2014. Former hot-shot pitcher Tim Lincecum, even after throwing a no-hitter earlier this year, has since crashed and burned. He's been buried deep in the bullpen, and may well not see any action at all in the World Series.

So add it all up. The Tigers had a fantastic starting rotation -- but went nowhere in October.

Conversely, the Giants had one good starting pitcher in MadBum, but the rest of them were shaky at best. But guess who's in the World Series (and leading 1-0) and who's not?

That's likely because the Giants are a team that finds a way to win in many different ways. While the Tigers relied on starting pitchers and a couple sluggers to carry the day, consider their shortcomings.

Their bullpen was shakier than Barney Fife. They don't know how to bunt when the situation calls for it to advance runners, and had little, if any, team speed on the basepathes. Defensively, it's not just centerfield -- the Tigers are below average at several positions.

Now the Tigers face the very real prospect of losing Scherzer to free agency. Aging outfielder Torii Hunter might well retire, or not even be invited back. Former ace Justin Verlander and slugger Miguel Cabrera had "off" years by their standards, and many blame this on the surgery to their "core" muscles last off-season. Balderdash. They had the finest medical care in the world, months to recover, and the experts pronounced them 100% good to go before the season even started. It might just be they're getting older and on the back side of their career bell curves as athletes. It happens earlier to some than others, especially when they already have a few hundred million bucks in the bank.

Between SF and KC, who will ultimately win the World Series is anybody's guess, though the Giants definitely have an advantage having won the first game.

As for the Tigers? President/GM Dave Dombrowski and their local media can spout all the platitudes they wish to the contrary about their "window of opportunity" closing -- but it appears that is exactly what is happening -- and quickly.

Look at it this way. After a fast start, the Tigers faded badly down the stretch, and barely hung on to qualify for the playoffs. Delete Scherzer from the equation, (and does anybody really expect J.D. Martinez, merely a cast-off from the lowly Houston Astros to put up the same numbers next year?) and no matter who the Tigers plug into his spot from within or without, it's likely going to cost them a few wins. Just two less wins and the Tigers wouldn't have made the playoffs at all this year.

Methinks their window is indeed closing, and if Mad Max takes a walk, it will pretty much be nailed shut. Even Dombrowski, with all his slick maneuvering, will be left with the unenviable task of trying to stop the bleeding from gaping wounds when he only has a few band-aids in his pocket.

But ya never know. Maybe it will work out for the Tigers next year.

Hope springs eternal, right?

In the meantime, let's enjoy the World Series which features two teams without dominant starting pitching. They just find a way.

Maybe the Tigers will too. Someday. It's only been 30 years and counting......

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