Why the 2020 Detroit Tigers have the worst rotation in franchise history

Detroit Free Press

Ryan Ford
| Detroit Free Press

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Spencer Turnbull’s start Sept. 8 — in which he shut out the Milwaukee Brewers for six innings on three hits, three walks and three strikeouts — proved to be the highlight of the Detroit Tigers’ 2020 season. The win put the Tigers just two games under .500 (with 20 to play) and a game out of a playoff spot, something no one saw coming after Detroit finished 2019 with 114 losses.

It was also the exception that proved the rule: Turnbull’s gem was the lone start by a Tiger this season of at least six innings and no runs allowed. (For comparison’s sake, the woeful 2019 Tigers had six such games.)

The story was the opposite in the 57 other games in 2020, with Tigers starters pitching to an ERA of 6.37 — nearly  a run worse than the next team, the Angels at 5.52. (The Tigers’ bullpen, while bad at 4.92, wasn’t historically so, at least.) 

For all that went well for the rebuilding Tigers — playoff contention into September, more than a dozen games of seasoning for pitching propects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal and breakout seasons from Jeimer Candelario and Victor Reyes — there was this: Statistically, the 2020 rotation was the Tigers’ worst of all time.

How so? Read on, if you dare ….

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A horrid ERA

Ten pitchers started for the Tigers in 2020 and only two finished with an ERA below 6 as starters: Jordan Zimmermann (we’re surprised, too) and Turnbull.

The starters by ascending ERA: Zimmermann (0.00), Turnbull (3.97), Skubal (6.00), Matthew Boyd (6.71), Mize (6.99), Tyler Alexander (7.04), Ivan Nova (8.53), Michael Fulmer (8.78), Rony Garcia (9.00) and Daniel Norris (10.80). Ouch.

The good news for the Tigers is that they gave the majority of the starts (39) to the five starters with an ERA under 7. Then again, an ERA of seven (!!) is not really the dividing line you want for your rotation thus, that ugly 6.37 ERA.

That’s nearly two-thirds of a run higher than the next-worst starters’ ERA in franchise history: The 2003 squad, generally the gold standard for putrid Tigers teams, had a 5.71 ERA en route to a 43-119 record.

Still, 2003 and 2020 are put to shame by the 1996 Tigers, who lost 109 games with a rotation ERA of 6.64. How?

While rookies Brian Moehler (4.35) and Justin Thompson (4.58) and veteran Omar Olivares (4.89) had sub-5.00 ERAs in 38 combined starts, the team also handed 26 starts to five pitchers with double-digit ERAs: Greg Keagle (10.88), Todd Van Poppel (11.39), Tom Urbani (11.42), Clint Sodowsky (11.84) and John Farrell (14.21). In fact, all five of those pitchers made at least two starts; Sodowsky made seven(before a five-run, four-out April stinker in a 24-11 loss to the Twins cost him his spot in the majors for a few months).

A product of their times

Of course, that 6.64 ERA by the 1996 Tigers’ starters doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Run scoring spiked with American League starters’ ERAs going from 4.87 in 1994 and 4.85 in 1995 to 5.17 in 1996. That season still features the highest ERA for starters in AL history; it dropped to 4.75 in 1997 and 4.77 in 1998 before topping 5.00 in 2000-01. It has stayed below 5.00 each year this century.

In 2020, AL starters have actually been a bit more effective than they were last season, with rotation ERAs falling from 4.76 in 2019 to 4.52. The 2020 Tigers’ starters have posted an ERA nearly TWO runs higher (1.85 to be exact) — than the AL average.

And remember, the league average includes the Tigers’ starters. If they’re removed from the AL totals, the league’s ERA drops to 4.41. (Yes, the Tigers starters have been so bad they single-handedly raised the league average by more than a tenth of a run.)

Compare that to the 1996 Tigers, who were “merely” 1.47 runs worse than the league average. While we’re here, the 2003 Tigers are the only other squad in franchise history with a rotation ERA a full run worse than the AL average, at 5.71 to the league’s 4.66.

Searching for quality

So why are the 2020 Tigers’ numbers so dreadful? Despite the outsized ERAs, we know it’s not the result of a few bad starts distorting the numbers in a short season. It’s simply been a lot of bad starts. The Tigers have gotten just nine “quality starts” — defined by former Free Press sports writer John Lowe as any start of at least six innings and three or fewer earned runs allowed — in 58 tries, or 15.5% of the time. Only the playoff-bound Rays, with six, have fewer quality starts this season. The Indians lead the majors with 37.

Those numbers are explained by the haphazard nature of the return to play in 2020 and the Tigers’ patchwork rotation: You can’t pick up a quality start if you don’t go six innings, and that’s been unlikely this year, thanks to varying pitch limits on Fulmer, Mize and Skubal. Tigers starters had issues getting through five innings averaging 4⅓ innings a start in 2020. Likewise, Detroit starters have averaged 73 pitches per start. Only one Tiger this season has reached 100 pitches in a start: Boyd, who threw 105 in 5⅔ innings in a 6-0 win over the Royals on Sept. 15. (Turnbull needed just 88 pitches in his six-inning gem against the Brewers.)

In any event, that 15.5% quality start rate is the lowest in franchise history since earned runs were reliably tracked beginning in 1913, well off the previous worsts: 24.8% in 2019 and 27.2% in 1996. (The 2003 Tigers were surprisingly not awful at racking up quality starts, with 40.1% hitting the mark.)

Any room for improvement?

Good news for the Tigers: The other candidates for “worst Tigers rotation ever” made big strides in the following season.

In 1997, Moehler and Thompson each topped 30 starts and improved with 4.67 and 3.02 ERAs, respectively. An overhauled rotation featured only two pitchers with ERAs above 6.00 as the team’s starters finished with a 4.46 ERA, an improvement of 2.18 and about a third of a run better than the league average ERA for starters (4.75). That bodes well for the Tigers, with Mize and Skubal seemingly likely to step up in 2021.

The 2004 Tigers starters, though, had a less dramatic adjustment, posting a 4.93 ERA, down .79 from 2003, but higher than the AL average for starters. They, too, did it by counting on experience; the 2003 Tigers got a whopping 49.4% of their starts from a total of seven rookies (the most for the franchise since its inaugural season of 1901, when a majority of AL players were rookies). The 2004 Tigers didn’t get a single start by a rookie. Seven different pitchers started a game in 2004, and four of those made it through at least 32 starts. If the 2021 Tigers can get that level of health from their rotation, they could be set up for a return to the playoffs after six seasons in the postseason desert.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.  Oh, and the Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.

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