June 25, 2013 at 10:53 am

Kurt Mensching

Max Scherzer is Tigers' best starter -- at the moment

Max Scherzer, right, has become the first Tigers starting pitcher to start a season 11-0. (Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News/Detroit News)

You could make a legitimate argument Max Scherzer has become the Tigers’ ace.

The right-hander became the 15th pitcher since 1919 to start a season 11-0, an accomplishment most recently done by Roger Clemens in 1997.

Scherzer’s start also matched George Mullin’s 11-0 streak in 1909, though only 10 were as a starter, allowing Scherzer to stand alone in franchise history.

He’s not doing it cheaply, either. Scherzer’s ERA of 3.05 would be his best in a Tigers uniform if he were to finish the season with the figure. He’s striking out batters at the highest rate (per plate appearance) of his career and walking them at the lowest.

In the past you could cite his inability to go deep in games as a sign he’s not yet an ace. Not anymore. This season, he’s averaging nearly seven innings per start, a career-best as well as the best in the team’s rotation.

Maybe the honor of team ace still belongs to Justin Verlander — 2011 MVP and AL Cy Young winner, as well as that year’s AL holder of the pitching Triple Crown (wins, strikeouts, ERA). He came within a first-place vote of repeating as Cy Young winner last fall.

From 2009-12, the Tigers went 90-45 in games he started, and his ERA was 2.95.

Verlander's innings down, ERA up

Except this year, Verlander is averaging just more than six innings per start and his ERA (3.90) is on pace to be his highest since 2008 (4.84).

He’s not saving the bullpen. Sunday, he was struggling just to make it through five.

So is he still the ace?

As I’ve said before in this space, you could actually make an argument that several pitchers in the Tigers rotation are aces — at least when they’re healthy.

Using a sabermetric way of looking at the game, the Tigers have four pitchers among MLB’s top 15 in Fielding Independent Pitching, which uses walks, strikeouts and home runs as its components. Verlander ranks 12th.

Using Skill-Interactive ERA, or SIERA, which includes ground-ball rate in the calculations, Verlander is 18th in MLB (though last in his own rotation) when ranked at FanGraphs.com.

By those measures, the worries over Verlander have been overplayed. Eighteenth is still pretty good.

Still the ace

Sure, his average fastball velocity is down, but he still reared back to throw a 99 mph pitch Sunday. He’s actually getting batters to strike out in 27 percent of plate appearances, good for the highest rate since 2009.

But there’s a certain “I’ll know it when I see it” aspect to baseball that’s hard to overcome, and Verlander just doesn’t look like himself.

Is he showing the lingering effects of throwing an MLB-high 489 innings over the past two years? Is it simply some mechanical issue that can be fixed?

Or are we just making too much of the fact Verlander is, in fact, mortal? Even Clemens had the occasional ERA in the upper-3s or lower-4s scattered among the seasons in the 2s and 3s.

It would be premature to take away Verlander’s title. He was, is and shall remain the Tigers’ staff ace.

But right now, if the question is who you hand the baseball to in a must-win game, the answer is simple:


Just realize it’s probably not going to stay that way for long.

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

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