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Can the Detroit Tigers' starting rotation actually be good this season?

Can Tigers starters keep preventing runs with low strikeout totals?

Michael Fulmer has been one of the Detroit Tigers' best starting pitchers since joining the team in 2016. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Michael Fulmer has been one of the Detroit Tigers' best starting pitchers since joining the team in 2016. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers aren't expected to be very good this season, but through the first nine games they've exceeded expectations thanks to the pitching staff.

While the offense has scored fewer than two runs in four of its last eight games, including three shutout losses, the starting staff has picked up the slack and kept the Tigers competitive.

What was supposed to be a weakness has been a strength so far under new pitching coach Chris Bosio. Other than Opening Day starter Jordan Zimmermann, the entire starting staff is pitching well to begin the season.

Talented young arms

The least surprising performance so far has come from ace Michael Fulmer, who has allowed 10 hits and one run in 13.1 innings to start the year. Fulmer, 25, was dominant in his first start, holding the Pirates to four hits and two walks in eight one-run innings.

Michael Fulmer pitches against the White Sox on April 7, 2018. (Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Michael Fulmer pitches against the White Sox on April 7, 2018. (Jon Durr/Getty Images)

It was a little tougher against the White Sox over the weekend, as Fulmer allowed six hits and three walks over 5.1 innings. But he managed to hold Chicago off of the scoreboard and picked up his first win.

In an era of home runs and strikeouts, Fulmer is a rare commodity in that he has success pitching to contact. He's only struck out seven batters in his first two starts, and though it can be difficult to have success with strikeout rates that low, he's proven he can be effective with lower strikeout numbers.

Fulmer would like to get up to at least seven strikeouts per nine innings, and if he does, he will be the Tigers' best starting pitcher this season.

The other returning young starter in the Tigers' rotation is Matthew Boyd, who has shown signs of brilliance over parts of two seasons in the organization, but hasn't been able to avoid disastrous starts.

Matthew Boyd pitches against the Royals on April 3, 2018. (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Matthew Boyd pitches against the Royals on April 3, 2018. (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

Boyd, 27, was good in his first outing, allowing four hits and one run over six innings against the Royals. Boyd lived dangerously, recording just one strikeout and 15 fly balls, but he induced enough weak contact for a quality start.

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Boyd and Fulmer are the only members of the current rotation who could be a part of the Tigers' future plans, so their success is more important than overall results in a rebuilding year. They need to miss more bats, but for the first few turns of the rotation, they've shown positive signs.

Surprising newcomers

It's extremely early in the season, and they've only made three combined starts, but Francisco Liriano and Mike Fiers have been pleasant surprises early in their Tigers careers.

Liriano, 34, has been nearly unhittable through two starts, allowing just seven hits and three runs through 12.2 innings. In his most recent start against Cleveland, he carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning before a single and a home run from the Tribe proved to be the only damage of the game.

Walks are still a problem for Liriano, who has issued five free passes in two games. It's especially problematic when he's not getting swings and misses. Liriano has just seven strikeouts so far and has induced just 13 swinging strikes in 191 pitches (7 percent).

Manager Ron Gardenhire congratulates Francisco Liriano after his first start for the Tigers against the Royals. (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Manager Ron Gardenhire congratulates Francisco Liriano after his first start for the Tigers against the Royals. (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Mike Fiers pitches against the White Sox on April 8, 2018. (David Banks/Getty Images)
Mike Fiers pitches against the White Sox on April 8, 2018. (David Banks/Getty Images)

Fiers, 32, missed the first turn through the rotation but was activated from the disabled list in time to make a start in Chicago. He stumped the White Sox, pitching six scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and a walk.

On a staff otherwise lacking strikeout potential, it was encouraging to see Fiers strike out six batters on 15 swinging strikes. He's whiffed 8.53 batters per nine innings throughout his career, so he has potential to rebound from last season's struggles in Houston.

Jordan Zimmermann

Since signing in the off-season before 2016, Zimmermann has been a disappointment for the Tigers, and so far, this year hasn't been any different.

Zimmermann has allowed 10 runs on 15 hits in 10.1 innings so far, despite being named the Tigers' Opening Day starter. He struck out eight batters in six innings against the Pirates, but he got rocked by the White Sox, allowing nine hits in 4.1 innings.

Jordan Zimmerman is taken out after a game against the White Sox on April 5, 2018. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jordan Zimmerman is taken out after a game against the White Sox on April 5, 2018. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Zimmermann, 31, leads the Tigers with 11 total strikeouts, but he's only had eight swinging strikes in each of his first two outings, and he misses over the heart of the plate too often.

He's had some bad luck on balls in play -- hitters have a .455 batting average on balls in play despite a 30.3 percent soft contact rate -- but the results over the last two years don't give Zimmermann the benefit of the doubt.

Could he turn things around? His 41.2 percent strand rate will likely increase to at least 65 percent, and some of the batted balls will find gloves. That alone would bring him closer to what he's been the last two seasons in Detroit: a replacement-level pitcher.

If his strikeout rate, which certainly won't stay above 9.00, can stick around his career rate of seven batters per nine innings, and he continues to induce weak contact at this rate, Zimmermann will be much better than he was last season.

Overall starting pitching assessment

The Tigers' starting staff has obviously been very good in terms of preventing runs and keeping the team competitive despite a struggling offense. Through nine games, the Tigers have gotten six very good starts, and only one start has been disastrous.

Tigers starters have allowed only 69 hits through 85 innings, and while the strikeout rate is reasonable in comparison to the walk rate, it's difficult to survive in the current baseball landscape while striking out fewer than seven batters per nine innings.

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Fulmer, Boyd and Liriano are off to excellent starts, but they'll need to increase the strikeout numbers in order to sustain this success throughout the entirety of the season. On the other hand, Zimmermann needs to stay out of the middle of the plate when he's not whiffing batters.

It's been an encouraging start for the pitching staff, and over the next couple of weeks, we'll find out if there's really something going on, or if it's just a hot stretch.

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