Tigers can't turn it around without better pitching

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — There really isn't any mystery as to why the Tigers are playing .500 baseball.

You can parse the numbers any way you want. You can bemoan, justifiably, the injuries to Victor Martinez, Justin Verlander, Alex Avila and Miguel Cabrera. You can cluck your tongue at some of the mental mistakes, poor baserunning and the astounding number of double-play balls (97).

But it still comes back to one thing: The Tigers haven't been able to find any traction because of inconsistent pitching. Nobody knows that better than president and general manager Dave Dombrowski.

"Overall, as a group, I am surprised we haven't pitched a little better," he said. "There are some reasons for that. We haven't had Justin Verlander in the rotation most of the first half and now we are finally to the point where we are seeing what he's capable of doing. That was a big mountain for us. Kyle Lobstein got hurt and was pitching well for us in that role.

"Other guys haven't pitched as well as we would have thought."

That is an understatement.

Here's where the Tigers pitching ranks in the American League:

■14th in ERA (4.31);

■14th in runs allowed (379);

■15th in home runs allowed (98);

■13th in WHIP (1.34); and

■13th in opponents' batting average (.265).

Is it bad starting pitching or bad relief pitching? How about both.

The starters rank 14th in ERA (4.48) and have allowed more home runs than any other staff (68).

The bullpen ranks 13th in ERA (3.97), 14th in WHIP (1.39) and 15th in opponents' batting (.270).

The Tigers may have overcome the injuries, even with Cabrera being out until at least mid-August. They averaged nearly six runs (5.77) in the nine games they played without him before the All-Star break.

The offense, in fact, has been good. The Tigers lead the American League in batting average (.281) and on-base percentage (.337), are second in OPS (.771) and third in runs scored (398).

Yet, their run differential is minus-15. The Royals, whom the Tigers trail by nine games in the AL Central, have a plus-63 run differential.

So if the Tigers are going to climb back into contention — they are 41/2 games behind the second-place Twins — it has to start with pitching.

"We have to get on a roll at some point. We have to," Dombrowski said. "We're not going to be able to play a couple of games, get three games above, then one game above and then back to .500. We are not going to be able to do that and make the postseason.

"We have to get on a roll and the only way to do that is with good starting pitching."

Dombrowski made it clear the first 10 or 11 games after the break will go a long way in determining whether his orders are to go out and get more quality pitching or start selling off some of the pending free agents and restock for next season.

Here, then, are five players who could impact how these next couple weeks go.

Verlander: What a boost it would give the rotation if he can consistently pitch like he did in Minnesota last Friday. Not only was his velocity good (he was still hitting 95 in the eighth), but his command was pin-point. He will have three starts before the trade deadline. If the Tigers can get consistent quality starts from David Price, Anibal Sanchez and Verlander, that changes the dynamics of the rotation.

Alfredo Simon: His last five starts have been abysmal — 28 earned runs, 47 hits in 222/3 innings. His funk began after his father died, so perhaps his heart and focus were elsewhere. He insists his arm is fine and he will turn it around. The Tigers can maybe work around a spotty No. 5 starter, but not spotty No. 4 and No. 5.

Neftali Feliz: Manager Brad Ausmus would love to assign roles to his bullpen pieces, but as he said, nobody has shown the aptitude for the seventh and eighth innings. Feliz, who was throwing 97 mph in his Tigers debut, could lock on to that eighth-inning role. That would allow the ever-inconsistent Bruce Rondon to work in the sixth and seventh with Al Alburquerque, Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson.

Ian Kinsler: Going on the assumption the big bats — Yoenis Cespedes, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez — will continue to produce as they have been, then Kinsler becomes the trigger man. Since he was moved to the leadoff spot, he has hit .350. He's also been getting more extra-base hits. He's streaky and overdue for a hot stretch.

Nick Castellanos: If the Tigers are going to stay in contention until Cabrera gets back, Castellanos has to produce. He's going to be hitting fifth or sixth most nights, so he's going to have RBI opportunities. He had fought his way out of his two-month funk and was hitting it well going into the break.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/cmccosky

On deck: Orioles

Series: Three games, Friday-Sunday, Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: 7:08 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 1:08 p.m. Sunday

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Probables: Friday — RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (7-4, 2.81) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (8-7, 4.63); Saturday — RHP Chris Tillman (6-7, 5.40) vs. LHP David Price (9-2, 2.38); Sunday — RHP Miguel Gonzalez (7-6, 4.24) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (0-2, 5.34)

Scouting report

Jimenez: He has allowed one earned run his last three starts, and hasn't allowed more than three in any start since the end of May. But his career numbers against the Tigers are not good: 5-9 with a 4.93 ERA and 1.500 WHIP. At Comeica Park, he is 2-7 with a 6.80 ERA and 1.699 WHIP.

Sanchez: He has turned his season around since the end of May. He is 5-0, and the Tigers 6-0 his last six starts. His ERA during that span is 2.84 with opponents hitting .182 with a .576 OPS. Home runs still are biting him more than usual: 19 this season, one shy of his career-high.