Spotlight on '09 Tigers pitchers: how did it come to this?

illustration by Samara Pearlstein

I will be honest, I can’t even think seriously about the Tigers’ pitching this season. WHAT IN THE HELL, MAN. What was this buggery? How did we… what were they… argh. Deep breaths. The blog must go on, words must be written, etc.

Way the heck back in April we took a brief look at the ’09 pitching situation, what each pitcher had to do in the coming months and what his major obstacle might be. Since things like trade rumors and Scott Sizemore’s ankle just infuriate me even more, let’s instead peek back at that post and see how it all came out.

(italics from the April post, regular text from, uh, the present)

Justin Verlander: trying to bounce back from a fairly dismal season. Will have to contend with the pressure of supporting a listing, drunken 400lb gorilla of a rotation.

He did bounce back in a serious way. He went from leading the AL in losses in ’08 to leading the AL in wins in ’09. He issued 106 more strikeouts while only facing 102 more batters. His ERA dropped by 1.39 (from 4.84 to 3.45) and his WHIP dropped by 0.228. Hawt.

Of course there was the issue of efficiency, which caused him to rack up so much wear and tear on his arm, to no particular negative effect this season, but the future, people, THE FUTURE. He averaged 112 pitches per game, the highest such average of his career. He pitched in 35 games this season, and threw 100+ pitches in 30 of those. I could go on at length about this, but you cats have read my rantings all season long. You know my feelings there.

He just could not, in the end, support that damn gorilla all by himself (or with the help of only one or two other starters), and he got barely any help from the gloves– his BAbip went from a near-average .298 in ’08 to a fairly bad .323 in ’09. He suffered from a combination of bad luck and poor defensive support this season, and this despite the fact that guys were getting on base against him at a much worse clip overall this season. Frustrating, yes, yes, very.

Arrrrrmando Galarraga: trying to prove that ’08 was not a fluke. Will have to contend with opposing batters at this level who are much more used to him and his pitching wayz.

Poor Arrrrmando. He had inflamed elbow bits, he had a nasty flu, he had a most unfortunate season. Was it a result of the league figuring him out (as opposed to 2008, where he was a mostly unknown quantity)? It is hard to say. It certainly looked that way at times. Practically speaking, that’s how it worked out, and maybe that’s all that matters. You have to wonder how generous with his leash the Tigers are willing to be in 2010, although this may end up heavily influenced by what other pitchers the Tigers manage/fail to pick up in the offseason.

Edwin Jackson: trying to finally deliver with his ‘stuff’, instead of continuing to burgeon with not-quite-realized potential. Will have to contend with the pressure of not being Matt Joyce, Rescuer of Kittens.

OK, OK, OK. This was a wicked good trade. I am admitting it. Jackson delivered with his ‘stuff’. He was a veritable fountain of ‘stuff’ness. He did not rescue any kittens, but he did take his shirt off for charity, so it’s close to a wash in that sense too.

He also got, like, no run support at all, which was wildly unfair of the bats. How could anyone deny the pitching hotness that is Edwin Jackson a million runs, a Win-with-the-capital-W every time out, shiny batting performances to complement the gorgeousness of his pitching? Should be irresistible, right? Somehow the Tigers resisted, and the suffering was shared by all of us. Sigh.

Rick Porcello: trying to go directly from single-A to the starting rotation. Will have to contend with the fact that he is 8 years old.

FredFred has faced and overcome this challenge!

An ERA under 4! Fourteen wins! A full season of starts for his tender youthful arm! Basically we were just hoping that the huge jump from single-A straight up to the Big Cats wouldn’t take a disastrous turn. If he’d just made it through the summer with his body more or less intact and his psyche more or less unsullied (the anti-Joey-Harrington-type season), it probably would have been counted as a victory.

But FredFred went above and beyond that. He did not have a flawless season, but he was one of a very few constants on the Tigers’ pitching staff this year (a staff that rather desperately needed constants). He didn’t just refrain from screwing up, he was actively helpful. He even got into a fight in Boston and held his own against a rage-prone infielder with a terrifying goatee and at least twenty pounds on FredFred. This is so much more than we could have ever hoped for… now we just hope that we don’t come to regret calling him up this early later on in his career.

(And that the league doesn’t make a massive correction and hit the kitty litter out of him next year.)

Zach Miner: trying to prove that he belongs in the rotation and not the ‘pen. Will have to contend with management’s somewhat inexplicable dislike for his face.

Remember back in March, when the Tigers declared that Zach Miner was out of the running for the starting rotation, and then like a week later declared him a starter? That was like Miner’s entire season. How prescient of the Tigs.

Jeremy Bonderman: trying to get his arm back to normal. Will have to contend with the usual struggles that come when one is a member of the undead.

That whole ‘trying to get his arm back to normal’ bit? Yeah, that didn’t really work out.

Dontrelle Willis: MIA.

He had one very good game, and then it was all just a whole lot of very, very Bad. I want(ed) Dontrelle to succeed so badly, and I suppose there’s a slim chance that he could make some sort of comeback– he’ll still only be 28 in 2010– but it’s just not looking good anymore.


Fernando Rodney: trying to close at least some of the time (Paws help us all). Will have to contend with his natural tendency towards the Inconsistent.

Again, you all know my feelings on Fernando. I will grudgingly mention the fact that he blew very few actual saves, and that he did manage to handle a full closer’s load without his usual panoply of slight-yet-nagging-and-persistent arm injuries. He also shaved years off our collective life and generally pitched in such a way as to convince us all that he deeply, sincerely hated us fans, each and every one.

Fernando is a free agent this year and Mr. Dombrowski has already indicated that the Tigers can’t afford to retain all their FAs this time around. I’m not sure who the Tigers go to when it comes to closing games if Fernando leaves, but, even knowing that he had such a ‘good year’, I would probably not mind making him someone else’s cardiac problem in the future.

Brandon Lyon: trying to recover from a scary spring. Will have to contend with everyone watching him like a hawk and pouncing claws-out on his every stumble.

He did, for the most part, recover from that scary spring. The pressure was not on him like we had anticipated, though, because he never really did take the role of closer away from Fernando, and it quickly became apparent that a competition for that spot was not in the Tigers’ plans (insofar as there was a plan at all).

He’s another one who’ll be a FA this upcoming season, so a potential Fernando departure does not automatically mean Lyon closing next year, no matter how tolerable he looked in ’09.

He was a valuable half of the SeayLyon, which was an unexpected bonus.

Joel Zumaya: trying to remember what it’s like to throw a baseball and not have his arm explode. Will have to contend with the fact that the next time he throws a baseball, his arm will probably explode.

One of those times I desperately wish a prediction hadn’t come so precisely and exactly true.

Ryan Perry: trying to get big league batters out after having never pitched above single-A before now. Will have to contend with the fact that he’s still sharing juice boxes and trading Pokemons with Porcello.

OK. He did manage to get big league batters out– 60 Ks in 61.2 innings, anyways. He’s no FredFred, that’s for sure. At best this year he was a typically-mediocre middle reliever… which was FINE. Remember what I said about FredFred just needing to come through the year with his body and psyche mostly intact and we could call it a success? The same holds true for Perry.

He lived with FredFred this year, because they are BFF. Hopefully he didn’t spend any time trying to compare himself and his season to what FredFred did. I feel that may be my largest concern with Perry, actually.

Juan Rincon: trying to show that he can still handle pitching against an AL Central that knows him very, very well by now. Will have to contend with steroid lulz.

Holy cats, Juan Rincon was part of our plans once? What even happened to him? Isn’t he dead or in the National League or something now?

Eddie Bonine: trying to remind people that he exists. Will have to contend with all the cow jokes.

He did have to contend with the cow jokes, but that was mostly my fault. He spent most of the first half in the minors, then bounced up and down several times. He got a few spot starts when the rotation really started crumbling into chaos and ruin. His numbers at the end of the year were just OK. I’m not sure he overcame that whole ‘trying to remind people that he exists’ bit.

OTHER CATS (who weren’t in that original post, but let’s see how they did anyways, because we’re ~*~spotlightin’ the pitchers~*~ and all that)

Bobby Seay: He very quietly had a pretty darn good season. His ERA, not so great, but his WHIP was pretty good. Still, if it wasn’t for the Fu-Te Ni impressions and this unfortunate performance, I would have carried on forgetting that he was even there. Lefties hit him better than righties again this year, something for which I have no explanation.

Nate Robertson: He did have injury problems, what with his teratoma elbow and his groinal inflammation and whatnot. It’s hard to know how much of his particular Suck was directly down to injuries, or to changes in mechanics made to unconsciously compensate for minor pre-actual-injury conditions, and how much was just Nate not being able to pitch. He’s due $10 million next season, though, so if you entertained thoughts of not having to deal with him in some way or another in 2010… sorry. Maybe he’ll be a lot better if he’s uninjured? Maybe?

Jarrod Washburn: Well, that was a disappointment.

Fu-Te Ni: So hard to tell, because the sample size was so small (only 31 innings), but whatever. I love Fu-Te Ni, and I am not afraid to admit it. His numbers were good in his limited number of innings, there isn’t even that much material on him floating around out there for opposing teams to study yet. I feel good about the Ni-Future.

Luke French: I can’t believe the Tigers had Luke French make five starts for them. I know he’s still young and all, but seriously, how many other bulk-of-the-year-division-leading teams would have had Luke French starting?

And then there were a few guys who pitched only a few innings: Alfredo Figaro, Casey Fien, Freddy Dolsi, Chris Lambert, and Clay Rapada. Nothing too vastly thrilling.

What have we learned from the harsh glare of the spotlight?

Even the most brilliantly good Tigers pitchers suffered from inconsistency (FredFred) and lack of support (Jackson) and inefficiency that brought the bullpen into play far too much (Verlander). And beyond those three, the starting rotation was less a rotation and more a ground-up mash of gooey pitcher body parts, whatever leftovers could be scrounged up at the time. Was the dude breathing? Standing more or less upright? Could he hold and vaguely throw a baseball? Put that cat on the mound.

And the bullpen… that bullpen was not great. There just wasn’t enough. If a game was a save situation, Fernando could usually handle it, but getting the ball to him could be a serious challenge. And there were PLENTY of games that never even approached ‘save situation’ status.

The most disturbing thing is that I’m not, as of right now, sure what could be done to drastically improve the pitcher Tiger’s lot in life. It almost feels like they’ve already tried it all: they tried to pick up the next closer (Lyon), they tried to snag a starting pitcher who was performing at a high level (Washburn), they tried waiting for their own starters to get healthy (Bondo, Dontrelle, Nate), and they tried waiting for their home-grown closer-types to get healthy (Zoom) or to miraculously acquire enough seasoning to pitch with legit confidence (Perry, I guess). NONE OF THAT WORKED OUT AS PLANNED. Where on earth is a cat supposed to turn next?


7 responses to “Spotlight on '09 Tigers pitchers: how did it come to this?

  1. There’s a lot of stuff in there, but this immediately struck me: I’d have rather had Luke French start another 5-6 times than what we got out of Jarrod Washburn. At this point, I’m a little miffed that Dombrowski isn’t asking for his money (or his left-handed pitcher) back.

    Also, I looked up Verlander’s ERA inning-by-inning… When he made it into the 9th, he was generally having a dominant performance, and his ERA there (3 G, 3 IP) was 0.00. But his 8th inning… 15 G, 12 IP (indicating he didn’t finish the 8th inning more than a few times), 8.25 ERA. Look, I’ve been a Leyland backer from the day we hired him, but leaving Fernando out there for the 12th inning in Game 163 WITH NOBODY ELSE WARMING UP, plus this evidence… We’ve got talented arms on this team, and Smoky Jim seems bound and determined to waste them.

  2. Someone asked me who the Tigers starting pitchers were the other day. I immediately said Verlander, Jackson, Porcello… then, um… I honestly couldn’t remember right away who got most of the starts in the 4th and 5th spots. Galarraga and The Merry Go Round of Bit Players, right? That really says somethin if y’ask me.

  3. first – I think the RSS is fixed, Sam, I subscribed to the one you linked and deleted the other and it brought up everything correctly. yay!

    RE: the actual content of this post – I pretty much agree with you, but I do feel like Eddie Bonine deserves a bit more credit than a lot of people give him. He stepped up in a big way after being sent to the farm, especially against the White Sox twice – in that double-header we swept, and in Chicago in September (I think?? the game he had a no-hitter going for awhile). And when he worked out of the bullpen he was ok, too. I don’t have insanely high hopes for him later, I don’t think he’s epically awesome, but I think he deserves another shot somewhere on the pitching staff after being so impressive when it really counted.

  4. Since I follow the season through Rotr, I must agree with most of your points (and enjoy all), but one nit to pick from your summation Sam: Verlander taxing the bullpen. If i recall from the second half Leyland justified some of Verlanders long outings as an attempt to allow the pen to recover. Just went back over the game log. He averaged better than seven innings/start July-Oct, and only failed to go 6 ip once in those 19 starts. For the full season only Jackson was close to Verlander’s innings per start for the team.

  5. Jeff, man, seriously. How could Washburn go from a 2.64 ERA in Seattle to a 7.33 ERA in Detroit that fast, that completely? I know he was kind of hurt, but that still felt awfully sudden. Emphasis on the awful. :(

    FrogMan, not the most memorable crew in Tigers history, no. When you think about it, it’s almost remarkable that they managed to lead the division for so long with essentially three pitchers.

    Alli, he probably WILL get another shot at making the big league roster, just because I can’t imagine the Tigers picking up enough legit pitchers between now and Spring Training ’10 to knock him out of the running. So… it’s a good news, bad news thing? :P

    Emil, ya, he went long quite a bit in the second half… but in 19 starts in the first half of the season (pre-AS-break), he had 5 starts where he pitched fewer than 6 innings, and 10 where he pitched under 7. Also, I dunno how you would quantify this, but because of his huge pitch counts early in games, Leyland would often be getting guys up and sitting them and getting them up again when Verlander was pitching, and that went on well into the latter half of the season. Probably didn’t have a HUGE impact, but I’d guess that counts as stressing the bullpen to some degree.

  6. I should know better than to doubt. I only saw his starts against Cleveland (thankfully better than previous yrs). Also never considered how many relievers were warming up without making it on the field.

  7. So do we get more than 3 starters next season, is that the deal? How does that work? I think we deserve AT LEAST six in 2010, after this past season.

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