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How the Detroit Tigers Super-Rotations That Failed to Win a Title Explain Playoff Baseball Today

With Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Aníbal Sánchez poised to star in the World Series, let’s look back at the legacy of the 2012-14 Tigers teams that taught us that sometimes tremendous starting pitching isn’t enough

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In games 1 and 2 of the 2013 ALCS, Detroit Tigers right-handers Aníbal Sánchez and Max Scherzer both went at least five innings into their starts without giving up a hit, a feat that they improbably repeated as members of the Washington Nationals in the 2019 NLCS.

Sánchez and Scherzer have combined to allow just five runs and 14 hits over 32 2/3 postseason innings this year, and in the six games they’ve combined to appear in, the Nationals have lost only once. Scherzer and Sánchez played a huge role in sending the Nationals to their first World Series—in fact, the first in the 51-season history of the Expos–Nationals franchise and the first for Washington, D.C., since 1933, which was 86 years and two departed MLB teams ago.

In this World Series, these two ex-Tigers will face a former teammate, Justin Verlander, now ace of the Houston Astros. It was Verlander who came in behind Sánchez and Scherzer to start Game 3 of the 2013 ALCS. Verlander took a loss in that game and the Tigers went on to lose the series to Boston, four games to two. Boston was the higher seed, but before David Ortiz’s game-tying grand slam in Game 2, the Tigers were four outs from taking a 2-0 series lead on the road. That would’ve been a nearly insurmountable lead given the quality of Detroit’s rotation. Throwing that opportunity away just a year after being swept in the 2012 World Series made for a pair of heartbreaking playoff exits.

The same rotation had pitched the Tigers to the 2012 World Series and fallen short there as well, so during the 2014 season, Detroit reloaded and added David Price in a midseason trade. In 2014, the Tigers had four past or future Cy Young winners on their staff—Price, Scherzer, Verlander, and Rick Porcello—as well as Sánchez, who finished fourth in 2013, and closer Joe Nathan, who racked up two top-five finishes during his time with the Twins. They lost in straight sets to the Orioles in the ALDS, and that was it for one of the deepest rotations of the 21st century.

After the 2014 season, Scherzer left as a free agent and Porcello went to Boston in the second Yoenis Céspedes deal. Price was traded to Toronto the following summer, while Sánchez went from an above-average starter in 2014 to a fringe big leaguer with a 4.99 ERA in 2015. Verlander, who suffered the worst season of his career in 2014, went on the IL for the first time in 2015, and one season after Detroit trotted out a four-ace rotation, Alfredo Simón ended up leading the Tigers in innings pitched. In the late hours of August 31, 2017, the Tigers sent Verlander to Houston. He won his first five starts with the Astros and pitched them to a World Series title two months later.

The 2014 ALDS was the last gasp of competitiveness for a team built around starting pitching, a method of team-building that’s fallen out of style as it’s become difficult to find just one of the caliber of pitcher Detroit had bushels of in 2013 and 2014. Those Tigers teams were the last of an era when teams chased titles under the mid-’90s Braves blueprint of stockpiling as many Cy Young candidates as possible. That year, the Kansas City Royals won the pennant behind an iffy rotation and a dominant bullpen, which set a new model. Not just for low-payroll teams like the Rays and A’s, who stockpiled cheap, hard-throwing relievers instead of chasing top-end free-agent starters, but for the Yankees, who have constructed their playoff pitching staffs in the past three years from the ninth inning forward.

In 2019, the trend has started to reverse itself, as 110-pitch playoff starts have again become the norm for the Cardinals, Nationals, and Astros. The feared multi-ace playoff rotation is coming back into style. It’s not quite the same as it was in 2013, as even the Astros, with Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke, ended up clinching the pennant in a bullpen game, but the pendulum is swinging back the other way. And the top three pitchers on the 2013 Tigers are a huge part of that shift.

The Orioles team that beat Detroit in 2014 counted its bullpen as its greatest strength, as the Orioles had zero top-end starting pitchers but a relief corps that included Andrew Miller, Zack Britton, Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, and Tommy Hunter.

The Orioles lost the ALCS to the Royals, who had an even deeper bullpen and would go on to win it all in 2015. The next year, the Indians paid a king’s ransom at the deadline for Miller, who went on to win ALCS MVP as a middle reliever, and lost the World Series to the Cubs, who’d paid a king’s ransom of their own for Aroldis Chapman. In 2017 and 2018, the world champions—Houston and Boston, respectively—eroded the distinction between starter and reliever. In 2017, Charlie Morton started Game 7 of the ALCS while Lance McCullers pitched the last four innings; in Game 7 of the World Series, their roles were reversed: McCullers started and Morton pitched the last four innings. In 2018, every Red Sox pitcher who started a game in the playoffs also pitched out of the pen at some point, and it was no. 1 starter Chris Sale, not All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, whom manager Alex Cora called on to get the final three outs of the decisive Game 5 of the World Series. Even the 2019 Nationals won the pennant through liberal use of their starters as relief options.

One way or another, managers have spent the past six postseasons scrambling to fill the late innings with the highest-quality pitchers possible. The playoff defeats the Tigers suffered in 2013 and 2014 serve as a great illustration of what happens when the bullpen gives way at the worst possible moment.

In 2013, the Tigers won Game 1 of the ALCS behind Sánchez, but in Game 2—even though Scherzer didn’t allow a hit through five innings and left the game after seven innings with a 5-1 lead—the Tigers’ bullpen contrived to allow five runs while recording just three outs between Scherzer’s exit and the end of the game. In Game 3, Verlander allowed just one run in eight innings, but took the loss when the Tigers managed not to score at all against John Lackey and three relievers, and Detroit won Game 4 7-3 behind Doug Fister.

In the first four games of the 2013 ALCS, Tigers starters allowed three runs in 27 innings of work (and struck out 42 batters along the way) for an ERA of an even 1.00. But instead of sweeping Boston, Detroit ended that stretch tied because Tigers relievers combined to allow seven runs in eight innings of work. Sánchez gave a mediocre performance in a Game 5 loss (six IP, four runs, and three ER). And in Game 6, Scherzer left the game with a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning. But he left two runners on base for relievers Drew Smyly and José Veras. The only batter Smyly faced, Jacoby Ellsbury, reached on an error. The first batter Veras faced, Shane Victorino, clubbed a series-winning grand slam, and since two of the runs that scored were charged to Scherzer, that year’s Cy Young winner took the loss.

In 2014, the divide between rotation and bullpen was just as stark. Scherzer started Game 1 and left the game with one out in the eighth inning, a runner on second, and the Tigers trailing 4-3. Not an ideal situation—Baseball-Reference says Detroit had a 12 percent chance of winning at that point—but not a hopeless one, even against a bullpen as good as Baltimore’s. Joba Chamberlain entered and allowed that inherited runner to score (again on an error), and then he and two other Tigers relievers allowed the Orioles to tack on seven more insurance runs in the inning as Detroit went on to lose 12-3.

In Game 2, Verlander pitched five innings and left with a 5-3 lead. Sánchez—who was squeezed out of the postseason rotation by Price’s arrival—followed with two perfect innings of relief. Then Chamberlain and Joakim Soria allowed four runs in the eighth inning in a 7-6 loss. Price lost a 2-1 pitcher’s duel to Bud Norris in Game 3, and if Norris is outpitching Price, maybe it’s just not your year.

Essentially the same thing happened in 2012. In the ALCS, the Tigers swept New York in such a dominant fashion it rattled the Yankees to their core. Fister, Scherzer, Sánchez, and Verlander combined to allow just two runs in 27 1/3 innings of work. In the World Series, however, the Tigers were swept by the San Francisco Giants. Even so, the only real stinker the Tigers’ rotation chucked up in that series was Verlander’s four-inning, five-run effort in Game 1. The Tigers lost back-to-back 2-0 shutouts in games 2 and 3, and Scherzer allowed three runs in Game 4 when he pitched Matt Cain to a draw and left with the score tied. The Tigers lost the games that eliminated them with a relief pitcher on the mound, as they would in each of the next two seasons.

Building a rotation like Detroit’s takes a lot of luck, and building a competitive team around it takes a lot of resources. Verlander and Porcello were first-round picks, as was Scherzer, who came to the Tigers as a promising but raw 25-year-old in a three-team deal with the Diamondbacks and Yankees that cost the Tigers Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson but netted them Scherzer, Austin Jackson, and two other players. It was only after his arrival in Detroit that Scherzer’s walk rate dropped, his strikeout rate exploded, and he turned into a no. 1 starter.

Fister was a relatively unknown Mariners starter whom the Tigers acquired in a 2011 midseason challenge trade; Fister posted a 1.79 ERA and walked just five batters over 70 1/3 innings in his first half-season in Detroit and pitched well in 2012 and 2013. After the 2013 season, the Tigers traded Fister to Washington for a three-player package that included talented but unpolished lefty Robbie Ray. A year later, the Tigers dealt Ray in another three-way deal involving the Yankees and Diamondbacks, and in Arizona, Ray blossomed into an All-Star.

Of all the great Tigers starters of that era, only Sánchez and Price were acquired as finished products—Sánchez from the Marlins in 2012 and Price from the Rays in 2014, and both cost dearly in prospects. The centerpiece of the Sánchez deal, hard-throwing righty Jacob Turner, had broken in with the Tigers at age 20 and was a consensus top-25 prospect the previous winter. Price cost the Tigers Smyly, Jackson, and shortstop Willy Adames, who’s grown into an essential part of a 96-win Rays team.

At this point, the Tigers were buying their offense off the shelf: Miguel Cabrera, acquired in a blockbuster eight-player trade with the Marlins in 2007, along with established free agents Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, and Prince Fielder. Building and maintaining that kind of team was expensive. From 2008 to 2017, the Tigers ran a top-10 payroll every year, and top-five payrolls in eight of those 10 seasons.

GM Dave Dombrowski, who’d been in the job since 2002, not only drafted Verlander and Porcello, but gave out the deals that enticed Fielder, Hunter, and Martinez to Detroit, as well as almost $460 million in contract extensions to keep Verlander and Cabrera in the fold. He was also empowered to send three top-10 picks to the Marlins in the Sánchez and Cabrera trades.

That kind of team-building approach itself became scarce in the years since the Tigers were a postseason fixture. The late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was a Michigan native who played in the Tigers’ minor league system for a few years in the 1950s before he founded Little Caesars and made billions of dollars selling pizza. Ilitch spent part of his fortune to buy not only the Tigers but the Detroit Red Wings, whom he turned into the Yankees of the NHL. After spending decades as a last-place club before Ilitch’s tenure, the Red Wings returned to respectability in the 1980s, and from 1994 to 2011 they won 13 division titles in 17 years, never finished lower than second place, and won four Stanley Cups in six trips to the finals, all while employing a cavalcade of Hall of Famers.

The Tigers had their last competitive season in 2016, when they went 86-75 and stayed in the wild-card race until the final days of the season. Though that staff lacked the firepower of its predecessors, it featured an earnest attempt to build a new competitive stable of starters from the ashes of the 2014 rotation. Verlander finished a close second in Cy Young voting to Porcello, who’d since moved on to the Red Sox. Before that season, Detroit signed former Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million free-agent contract to serve as Verlander’s no. 2. Michael Fulmer—acquired for Cespedes, who’d been acquired for Porcello—won Rookie of the Year. Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris, the two young lefties Toronto had sent along for Price in 2015, combined to make 31 starts for Detroit in 2016. But the Tigers fell short of the playoffs nonetheless.

That year, the Red Wings made the playoffs for the 25th consecutive season. Ilitch died in February 2017, Verlander was traded to the Astros that August, and neither club has made the playoffs since; in fact, both are in the throes of scorched-earth tanking projects.

The Tigers of the early 2010s, with their exceptional rotation but risibly overmatched bullpen, showed the postseason limitations of a club built entirely around its starting pitching. Or at least that was the lesson baseball’s movers and shakers took from it at the time, as the archetypal mid-2010s playoff pitchers were not made in the image of Scherzer and Verlander, but of Miller and Wade Davis.

But the success of the individual members of Detroit’s pitching staff down the road—not just this year but in 2018, when Dombrowski’s Red Sox won 108 games and the World Series with Price and Porcello in the rotation—speaks to the enduring quality of those great Tigers rotations. Clearly the early 2010s Tigers had enough pitching to win it all, when properly organized.

The 2017 Astros, 2018 Red Sox, and 2019 Nationals have shown that if anything, Tigers manager Jim Leyland didn’t ride his rotation of aces hard enough. The Yankees, Royals, and Indians have succeeded where the Tigers failed because they took to heart the lesson that in the postseason, every plate appearance is of critical importance, and as many outs as possible must be recorded by some kind of ultra-high-quality pitcher, starter or reliever. The past two World Series winners, plus the Nationals, made up for untrustworthy bullpens by making their rotation less of a rotation and more of a stable of high-leverage, long-stint relievers. No sense saving one’s ace for a tomorrow that may never come. It’s also worth noting that having a homegrown star like José Altuve, Mookie Betts, or Juan Soto helps, and because the Tigers were never able to develop such a position player in the 2010s, it became too expensive to keep that rotation together and buy off-the-shelf run support.

But the way in which those teams broke up, because of cost and because new ownership lacked Ilitch’s commitment to winning, should serve as an even starker cautionary tale than Detroit’s shield-your-eyes bullpen. The Red Sox fired Dombrowski one year after winning a title and are making noise about trading Mookie Betts to shed payroll, and both the Astros and Nationals have hard decisions to make. Ace starting pitchers and Stephen Strasburg are pitching as well as they ever have, and Cole will be a free agent after the season, while Strasburg has the option to opt out of his contract both this winter and next. Once a rotation this good is disassembled, it’s hard to return to those heights again. The Tigers are living proof.