Why Doug Fister Had To Go (instead of Rick Porcello):
Before we get into the importance of starting pitching vs having a dominant bullpen in today’s game, let’s look at the core of the Tiger’s starting pitching staff as they will stand at the beginning of next season:
Justin Verlander = 31 years old. Salary = $20 million. He is worth every penny just to stop him from ever pitching for another team. Never slowing down since his debut season when he won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2006 – his MVP and Cy Young award speak for themselves, but one thing he would love to add to his resume is a World Series MVP.
Anibal Sanchez = 30 years old. Salary = $8 million. Apparently learned a few things from being around the guys on the staff as he finished 4th in Cy Young voting after lowering his ERA to a career best 2.57 and his WHIP to a career low 1.154, while tying his career best with 202 strikeouts.
Max Scherzer = 29 years old, but turns 30 in the middle of the season in July. Salary will increase this year with arbitration to ~$13 million. Coming off a Cy Young season of his own, he is worth the money to keep and watch how he develops into his 30s.
That’s a core of pitchers that makes any manager happy come playoff time, when every game counts. Not unrelated is the fact they command over $40 million annually, or about the salary of the whole Miami Marlins team.
Here is the root of the problem: Doug Fister will be 30 when the season starts and Rick Porcello will be 25. That would mean our top four pitchers are all on the wrong side of 30.
To give that some scale, while Porcello has had some below average years, he has postseason starting experience and has potential to keep improving. On the other hand, Fister made his MLB debut when he was 25, in one inning of relief during a blowout loss! While Fister had arguably the best year of his career last year with career highs in strikeouts and wins and has really come into his own as a pitcher, his WHIP has increased each of the last three seasons, reaching a career worst 1.308 last year.
First off, at age 30, like the rest of the Tiger’s expensive core starters, how many years of elite production does he have left?
The Tiger’s didn’t want to ask that question about a fourth pitcher that costs over $5 million. Instead they calculatingly gambled that Porcello will continue improving through his prime, similarly to how Fister did, while they still have him on contract for only $3 million.
While the Tiger’s infield was just retooled to reduce our crippling defensive deficiency, both Fister and Porcello are groundball pitchers. The defense will be improved, but it is unreasonable to expect it to become an area of strength for various reasons.
Miguel Cabrera is moving back to his old position and may not be as sharp as he once was, that is debatable. Ace shortshop Jose Iglesias and newly-acquired veteran Ian Kinsler will man the middle for years to come, but their chemistry needs to be developed before the results start exceeding expectations. Especially considering the uncertainty at third base, where Detroit will be installing a new starter at the position for the first time since Cabrera switched positions.
Secondly, the value of starting pitchers only goes so far. Since the Tigers first reached the World Series again in 2006, teams with stellar relief pitching have won all the World Series titles – whereas the Tiger’s bullpen has been and is still an area of concern. While starting pitchers eat up innings throughout the year and provide high value, games are rarely won in the first six inning.
Powerhouse Bullpens and World Series Championships:
2006: St. Louis Cardinal’s closer, Jason Isringhausen, is the Cardinals highest paid pitcher.
2007: Boston Red Sox have eight relief pitchers who pitched in 20 or more games that have an ERA less than 4.0 – four of which are near a 2.0 ERA!
2008: Philadelphia Phillies have six relief pitchers with an ERA 3.5 or less who each pitched 40-90 innings.
2009: New York Yankees. Two words. Mariano Rivera.
2010: San Francisco Giants had a loaded bullpen – in addition to All-Stars Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo, this team was boosted in the playoffs by a midseason trade for relievers Ramirez and Lopez, who put up ERAs of 0.67 and 2.34 respectively
2011: St. Louis Cardinals. A midseason trade for Edwin Jackson allows a respected pitcher, Kyle McClellan, to transition to the bullpen filled with solid righties and lefties to allow for situational substituting (righty vs righty, lefty vs lefty).
2012: San Francisco Giants, led by Sergio Romo, has a bullpen with five pitchers under 2.9 ERA.
2013: Boston Red Sox star closer Koji Uehara had a 1.09 ERA while over 12 pitchers clocked 20 or more innings in a true bullpen by committee.
Instead of mimicking the unsuccessful starting pitcher strategy of the post-2008 Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tiger’s executive Dave Dombrowski prudently dealt away one of his aging starting pitchers in exchange for two young lefties that provide extra support in the bullpen. More importantly, he signed All-Star free agent closer Joe Nathan to a two year contract worth $20 million, addressing the main issue.
In the end, the Yankees have proved to us there is never enough money in the budget to guarantee a championship. All Dombrowski can do is learn from the mistakes of teams in the past, and spend money on positions that have directly hurt the Tigers in the past. I believe he has done just that.