Rumors of a starting rotation in the Detroit Tigers lineup was, for the last few seasons, about as mythical as great moments in The Hangover. The hopes of the '09 team regaining that depth were not very high coming into Opening Day.
Justin Verlander was a Riddler-sized question mark. Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis were written off after their injuries. Zach Miner. (That's all. Just Zach Miner.) Armando Galarraga couldn't do it alone. New acquisition Edwin Jackson would need to learn what a strike zone was. And Rick Porcello, the not-old-enough-to-drink rookie, rounded out the only chance of Detroit to contend in the AL Central, which in turn caused Tigers fans to consume the alcohol instead.
"They won't win without starting pitching." — Something I may have said, April 2009
So get this. The Tigers are winning with starting pitching. Statistically they have the best pitching in the Central — even better than the Greinke-led Royals staff. Their sub-4.00 ERA for starters is tops in the American League.
Justin Verlander, the ace fallen from grace, no longer looks like Mark Fidrych. He's looking like ... well, someone who, 30 years from now, when a Tigers pitcher is pitching great, will be compared to him. Through his last seven starts, he's gone 6-0 with a 1.30 ERA. Six of those starts have also featured 110 pitches or more, which still remains disturbing. But all seven pitches have been filled with hate.
Verlander may be the ace, but Edwin Jackson has been the MVP. Traded straight up for rookie outfielder Matt Joyce, the ex-Ray was known as a walkhorse, averaging about 1.4 strikeouts per walk. This year it's an impressive 2.9 K/BB ratio, and his WHIP is a lean 1.04, better than guys like Roy Halladay and Johan Santana.
Playing the role of Jeremy Bonderman is young Rick Porcello. Was he ready to come up and pitch every fifth? It looks like it. At 6-3 and a better ERA than Verlander, Porcello became the first sub-21-year-old pitcher since Dwight Gooden to notch a win in five consecutive starts. Please do not make any more comparisons between the two.
And then there's Zach Miner... wait, Dontrelle Willis is back in the major leagues? Really? So far the 6 1/3-inning, zero-run performance against Texas is the only good sign for Willis. The other three outings were pretty dismal. But the fact that he's back in the major leagues, with a win under his belt, is probably more than most saw coming.
This means that Armando Galarraga, the only bright spot on the nihilistic '08 pitching staff, is now the weak link in the rotation. After going 3-0 in April, The Little Cat has lost five straight starts and saw his ERA gestate from 1.85 to 5.50.
Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson are both starter-caliber pitchers on the disabled list, but at some point they'll be back soon. Miner is also in the bullpen. It's what we call "starting depth." Only a few teams can brag about it every year. Detroit gets it this time. Hopefully they make the most of it, because next year, when The Hangover DVD will be on sale for $4.99, Tigers fans will wonder what the heck happened to the pitching.