Chicago — On the brink of one of the best pitching matchups of the Tigers season so far, Max Scherzer vs. Chris Sale, here’s a question.
Do you really care that it’s Scherzer and Sale?
Or is it more important the Tigers get back to playing good baseball, — which means getting consistent starts from their rotation again?
Before Wednesday night’s game at U.S. Cellular Field, the Tigers were at the 60-game mark with a 33-27 record and a 2˝-game lead in the American League Central.
Last year at 60 games, they were 34-26, but with a 4˝-game lead.
It wasn’t even at this point they suddenly got a whole lot better. They went 9-12 and saw their divisional lead dwindle to nothing. Less than nothing, in fact.
When the Tigers lost at home to the Blue Jays on July 1, they fell into second place, a half-game out. So they were almost as baffling at times last season in the ability to play beneath their potential.
But there was always a deep rotation to save them.
And the rotation this year just isn’t generating the same kind of confidence about being as deep, even though it still looks to be, by far, the best in the division.
A year ago through 60 games, Scherzer was 8-0 with a 3.24 ERA. He was getting a lot of run support, but that alone won’t get you wins. He was already looking like the Cy Young winner he would become.
This year through 60 games, Scherzer is 7-2 with a 3.38 ERA, but a weird 3.38 ERA. Through his first nine starts, it was a lights-out 1.83. In the last four, it’s an elevated 6.84.
Even so, the Tigers are 9-4 in his starts, so it comes down to this: You can’t hang Scherzer out to dry by limiting comparisons to his best year.
Being 7-2 at this point, and your team being 9-4 in your starts, is more than acceptable.
“When he gets in trouble, it seems he misses over the middle, and they get the bat to the ball,” manager Brad Ausmus said of Scherzer’s recent struggles. “But overall, he’s good. I’m not concerned about it. You can slice up the stats any way you want, but he’s still one of the best in the game.”
Justin Verlander, who started Wednesday night’s against the White Sox, was 8-4 with a 3.71 ERA through the first 60 games last year. That was up from being 5-4 through 60 games in 2012.
This year, he was 6-5 with a 4.19 ERA through 60, needing to improve his numbers, obviously, but still looking like a candidate to take off from the same point in time he’s used as a springboard before.
Through 60 games in 2011, the year he won 24 games and the Cy Young Award? Verlander was 6-3 with a 3.04 ERA. In his next 20 starts that year, he went 18-2 with a 1.81 ERA.
So this is what you have to remember about Verlander: It’s always what he does from this point on that decides the degree of excellence in his season. The Tigers are 8-5 in his starts, same as last year through 60 games. In 2011 at this point, his best season, they were 7-6.
One of Verlander’s first two months always seems to cancel out the other. A good May offsets a bad April, and the other way around. But he always seems to be on the same launch pad at the same time of year.
Rick Porcello, meanwhile, is 8-4 with a 4.04 ERA. A year ago, he was 3-3 at this point with a 4.86 — so no complaints there.
Anibal Sanchez has pitched superbly, but is 2-2 with a 2.24 ERA after being 6-5 with a 2.65 ERA through 60 games a year ago.
A big difference — and let the howling continue — is that through 60 games last year, Doug Fister was 5-3 with a 3.27 ERA for the Tigers, always giving the rotation the look of enviable depth whenever another starter hit a bump in the road.
Drew Smyly hasn’t served the same purpose yet. The Tigers are 3-6 in his nine starts.
Through the first 60 games last year, the combined records of the top five Tigers starters were 30-15. This year they are 25-17.
As a group, they’re not doing badly. They’re just not doing as well as they can.
Or as well as they need to do from this point on.