Tigers’ starting rotation “Big Three” will need to carry the load

Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, and Anibal Sanchez lead the 2016 Detroit Tigers' rotation.

Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, and Anibal Sanchez lead the 2016 Detroit Tigers’ rotation.

The Boston Braves once had a starting rotation immortalized as “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” This year’s Detroit Tigers’ rotation could be similarly, though not as elegantly, characterized as “JV, Sanchez, and Zim—and then the forecast is dim.”

The Big Three starters were fine as the season unfolded. Justin Verlander no-hit the Miami Marlins for five and a third innings before tiring in the sixth and allowing three runs. Anibal Sanchez went five and yielded two runs against the same Miami lineup. And newcomer Jordan Zimmerman pitched seven impressive shutout innings in his Tigers debut against the New York Yankees at the chilly but sunny home opener.

Then the weather got worse, and so did the Detroit rotation. It is a big step down from No. 3 to No. 4. Verlander, Sanchez, and Zimmerman are all proven quality pitchers. Mike Pelfrey is a proven mediocrity.

All four pitchers are in the same general age range with substantial track records that are reliable guides to their potential performance this season.

Zimmerman, a month from turning thirty, has pitched 1,100 innings with a career record of 71-50. His WHIP is 1.156. His lifetime ERA is 3.29. These are very good numbers—for a pitcher, not far below superstar status. He’s been very consistent in his career. The most important measure is his ERA-plus, which compares him to the average major league pitcher. His is 119. Replacement-level is 100.

Anibal Sanchez, who just turned thirty-two, has had a more up-and-down career. When he’s been good, as in 2013, he’s been very good (2.57 ERA); when he’s been bad, he’s been awful (4.99 ERA last year, but that performance is mainly attributable to injury). For his career, for 1,339 innings, his WHIP is 1.289 and his ERA-plus is 111.

Verlander, of course, is the staff ace, with career marks of 2,117 innings, 157-97, 1.201 WHIP, and ERA-plus of 121. He just turned thirty-three.

By any measure, this is a fine three-man starting rotation. Not too many teams can match it for consistency and proven success.

But three is not enough. And, at this point anyway, the No. 4 is Pelfrey, a thirty-two-year-old who has pitched 1,241 innings as a major leaguer, with a 61-82 record, 4.55 ERA, and 1.485 WHIP. Pelfrey’s ERA-plus is 89, which means he is substantially worse than an average hurler. Calling him a mediocrity is generous; he’s just a step above a disaster.

And we haven’t even gotten to No. 5, now occupied by Shane Green with the hope that Daniel Norris will recover soon enough to step up, or that Michael Fullmer or Matt Boyd will arrive at some point.

It is reasonable to expect the Big Three can continue all season to rack up the cumulative ERA of 3.50 they compiled in their first starts. But can they start 100 games? That’s doubtful, since only one MLB pitcher (Chris Archer) started thirty-four games in 2015, and only fourteen others (included Zimmerman) started as many as thirty-three.

Let’s say they get close and start ninety-six times. How many of the remaining sixty-sixty games started by Pelfrey and Company are the Tigers likely to will win? Not half, and probably a lot less than half.

You can do the math. Can the Tigers win two-thirds of the starts by the Big Three, an optimistic sixty-four? That’s pretty unrealistic, but how else do the Tigers get anywhere near ninety wins and a playoff spot? Pray for a lot of rain?