The Detroit Tigers currently sit in first place in the American League Central, and they do so in no small part thanks to an embarrassment of starting pitching riches. For all the valid concern over Justin Verlander's declining velocity, he remains an ace who is striking out a career-high 11.18 per nine innings. Behind him, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer are each in the midst of career years, giving the Tigers three of the top four starting pitchers in terms of strikeouts per nine. As great as all three have been, not one of them limits walks or home runs like Doug Fister does; he would be a top-tier starter on many teams but is merely a No. 4 in Detroit.
As you might expect, advanced pitching statistics simply love this quartet. Sanchez (first), Verlander (third) and Scherzer (sixth) all rank among the elite starting pitchers in baseball this season when measured by Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Fister comes in at a more-than-respectable 16th, right behind Yu Darvish, meaning that one out of every four starting pitchers in the top 16 of FIP calls Detroit home. As a result, the collective 2.54 FIP of Tigers starters is the best in MLB (through Thursday).
Yet when you look at ERA, Detroit's starters have a 3.62 mark, and that gap between ERA and FIP of more than an entire run is pretty massive as far as these things go. By contrast, just two other teams in baseball so far have rotations with as much as a half-run distance between their ERA and FIP.
But simply pointing out the Tigers are topping the baseball world in ERA-FIP in 2013 understates this concern by a great deal. Somewhat unbelievably, the 2013 Tigers are on pace to become the first team since the 1942 Washington Senators -- and only the second in the past century -- to have a rotation gap of more than a run between what the raw performance indicates they should have (FIP) and what the actual performance has been (ERA).
Typically, when you have a large gap between ERA and FIP, bad defense and/or luck are the culprits. The Tigers have one of the worst defenses in baseball, but they can solve all of their problems with one simple move: benching Victor Martinez.