June 10, 2013 at 1:00 am

Kurt Mensching

Tigers' starters make a case as MLB's best

According to one stat, Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello is one of the top pitchers in baseball. (Elizabeth Conley/The Detroit News)

Twenty years ago, the Tigers had the best offense in the game. Led by a combination of aging stars and younger ones — think Alan Trammell. Lou Whitaker, Cecil Fielder, Travis Fryman and more — the team seemed unstoppable in 1993.

At least, it must have felt that way to opposing pitchers.

Unfortunately, being able to score runs is only half the equation. So the organization’s highest-scoring team since 1937 could only watch as the Blue Jays continued play in the postseason.

The pitching just wasn’t there. The Tigers gave up nearly as many runs as they scored and finished 10 games out of first place in the American League East.

Fast-forward to now.

On pace to score the second-most runs in baseball this year, the Tigers again have a powerful offense. This time their fortunes look much brighter because their starting pitching is there, too. In fact, a good argument can be made the team has the best rotation in baseball.

Rotation hasn't peaked

True, Detroit doesn’t have the best ERA. The Cardinals’ rotation has that, 2.68 on Sunday. The Tigers sit fifth at 3.51.

But if you look at that number, you’re not just looking at the guys on the mound. A pitcher doesn’t strike out 27. He asks the eight guys around him on the field to do a little work, too. Sometimes even the best pitchers have a few bad bounces go against them and end up in their ERA.

So the start tells the past, but might not cue you in on the future.

What the Tigers’ staff excels at is still the kinds of stats you find on the back of baseball cards. They strike people out. They don’t walk many. They don’t allow many home runs.

More than a quarter of the batters who face the Tigers’ rotation strike out. Batters walk less than 6 percent of the time. That’s the most strikeouts and the best ratio of strikeouts to walks in the game. That translates to an MLB-best 2.55 Fielding Independent Pitching stat.

In other words, this rotation might be even better than it has performed.

That’s not just one or two players lifting the whole, either.

Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Doug Fister are all among the best 11 pitchers in baseball in FIP.

What about Rick Porcello?

It turns out an argument can be made for him, too, but based on SIERA — skill interactive earned run average.

Like FIP, it tries to model a predictive “ERA” based on what pitchers control. However, SIERA admits there’s a little more to pitching than walks, strikeouts and home runs. Some pitchers with identical FIPs are going to be more successful than others. Some pitchers succeed despite lower strikeout rates.

Why?

The ground game

Ground balls. A pitcher who forces batters to put the ball on the ground might give up a few extra hits, but he’s also going to make it easier to turn double plays and erase runners.

Fielders, too, seem to perform a little better when they play behind these kinds of pitchers.

In other words: SIERA was built to be a better model for all pitchers — not just the strikeout variety.

When you sort the best starting pitchers in baseball by the SIERA stat at FanGraphs.com, all five Tigers starters show up in the top 13 — with Sanchez (2.57) and Scherzer (2.62) ranking behind only Rangers starter Yu Darvish (2.50).

Porcello ranks 10th in baseball at 3.08. There’s a good chance his bad luck earlier in the year is holding his ERA back. He’s probably a lot more likely to pitch like the player we saw in May and June (3.09 ERA) than in April (8.85).

As for the Cardinals? Two starters rank in the top 10 in SIERA, with Adam Wainwright fifth (2.67) and Shelby Miller seventh (2.96).

But only three total rank in the top 50.

A few teams go three deep, including the Braves in the National League and Rangers in the AL, but none go five like Detroit.

The Tigers can hit, and they have the best rotation in baseball — top, middle and bottom. When you start to talk about the postseason, that’s a starting point any team would like to have.

Now, about that bullpen … .

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com).
He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com