Poised to win the American League Central for the fourth consecutive year, the Detroit Tigers' fortunes this October will rest squarely on the right arm of one Justin Brooks Verlander.
Admittedly, that's a bold statement, especially when you consider Detroit's $164 million roster includes the likes of 2012-13 MVP Miguel Cabrera, 2013 Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, 2013 A.L. ERA leader Anibal Sanchez, five-time All Star Victor Martinez and new arrival David Price, who happened to win the Cy Young in 2012.
But Verlander is the Tigers' No. 1 starter. Their Big Dawg. Their hombre. Their bouncer. Their ace. And to win in October you need an ace.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Verlander has done everything this season but pitch like an ace. In fact, his 4.66 ERA this season is more than a full run higher than any of the Tigers' other starters, and his WHIP of 1.42 also ranks as the worst among his rotation mates. Those are definitely not results the Tigers' front office envisioned when it gave Verlander a seven-year, $180 million extension last year in the hope he would be the horse the organization could ride to its first world championship since 1984.
It's imperative Verlander rights the ship before the start of the playoffs for three reasons. First, the rest of the Tigers' rotation does not eat enough innings to compensate for the team's weak, overworked bullpen, which will leave Detroit vulnerable in the late innings against playoff-caliber offenses like the A's, Angels and Orioles.
Price is a horse, but in Scherzer and Sanchez, (we'll assume No. 5 starter Rick Porcello will head to the bullpen in the playoffs), manager Brad Ausmus has two capable starters who've averaged only 6.1 innings per start since the beginning of last season. This means Ausmus will be relying on the bullpen to get eight highly leveraged outs in what will likely be razor-tight pitching duels where one misplaced fastball or hanging curve could have disastrous results.
Let's look at Detroit's bullpen for a second. Closer Joe Nathan has enjoyed a stellar career with 363 saves and a 2.88 ERA, but this year he's already blown five saves in just 27 attempts, and his ERA is a bloated 5.45.
Setup man Joba Chamberlain has had an excellent season, but he's just two years removed from Tommy John surgery and on pace to nearly equal his personal best of 73 appearances in a season.
Right-hander Al Albuquerque has also posted good numbers this season; However, his heavy workload may already be affecting his dynamite stuff. His FIP, per Baseball-Reference.com, of 4.32 suggests his current ERA of 3.26 will rise and his K/9 of 10.5 is his worst mark by almost two full strikeouts.
Finally, left-handed specialists Ian Krol and Phil Coke's aggregate ERA and WHIP of 4.77 and 1.60, respectively, have caused Ausmus to reach for the Rolaids on more than one occasion this season.
Recently acquired Joakim Soria is solid, but even after his arrival from Texas, Detroit's bullpen will still be a little short. This is where Verlander comes in. Vintage Verlander—assume the 2012 model when he had a 2.64 ERA to go along with a 1.06 WHIP and averaged 7.1 innings per start—would give his manager the luxury of saving his beleaguered bullpen for other games when an eight-out effort will be necessary to achieve a win.
The second reason why Detroit needs Verlander to return to form is that he and his fellow starters must mask an inconsistent offense. Although Detroit's 495 runs scored ranks fourth in the A.L., and its OPS of .765 paces the junior circuit, the Tigers' offense has gone in the tank for extended stretches this season and has been particularly susceptible to power pitching.
For example, during a 9-17 stretch from May 19 through June 18, Detroit faced hard throwers like Trevor Bauer, Yu Darvish, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Drew Hutchison and Chris Sale and hit only .258, or 20 points below their full-season average.
It will only get tougher in October, when the Tigers will probably have to face the likes of Gray (remember his eight shutout innings in Game 2 of the AL Division Series last year?), Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija, Felix Hernandez and Garrett Richards multiple times in a series. Detroit will need its starters to bring their "A" games for such matchups, meaning Verlander pitching like he has for most of this year simply won't cut it.
The Tigers' poor defense is the final reason why Verlander will need to regain his old magic once the leaves start to change color. Although second baseman Ian Kinsler and rookie shortstop Eugenio Suarez make a solid double play combination, Cabrera and Nick Castellanos offer below-average range at the corners. And Torii Hunter and J.D. Martinez, who has earned a starting job because of his hot bat, are among the A.L.'s worst outfielders according to Baseball-Reference.com's Range Factor per game rankings. Hunter's RF/G is 1.69 and Martinez is at 1.67, while the league average is 2.23.
Simply put, Detroit's starters will need as many strikeouts as possible to negate the team's porous defense. While Scherzer, with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings, has actually improved his pace from last season, Sanchez's and Verlander's K/9 are down significantly. Verlander's drop—from 8.9 in 2012 to a pedestrian 6.6 this year—is particularly alarming and will have to be improved.