[Note: This post also appeared on ESPN.com’s SweetSpot Blog.]
Coming into this week, the Tigers had a rotation in tatters and a bullpen at risk of being overworked. And though Justin Verlander appears to have solved his customary early-season woes—evidenced by his masterful start on Thursday against the Yankees—the rest of the Tigers’ starting five was causing Jim Leyland to tap into his steady relief corps far too early and far too often. Coming into Friday, Tigers starters have the fewest innings pitched (184) in the American League and rank 29th overall.
Things might be looking up in Detroit, though. Rick Porcello at last may be untracked thanks to his performance against the Yankees on Wednesday and Jeremy Bonderman is showing signs that he might (again) be a reliable starter after all. So, at least for now the Tigers’ rotation appears to be steadying itself. That is, except for a guy they expected to gobble up innings in 2010: Max Scherzer.
After a dazzling debut on April 7 in which he held the Royals to one hit over six innings in a no-decision, Scherzer has been nothing but a question mark in Detroit’s rotation. He hasn’t won in nearly as month, he’s given up 48 hits in 37 innings so far, and in his last two starts alone he allowed 15 earned runs in 9.1 IP.
Scherzer enters his Friday start against the Red Sox with a 1-3 record and a bulky 6.81 ERA. He’s also been a major contributor to the number of innings the Tigers bullpen has pitched in the first six weeks of the season: Scherzer averages barely five innings of work.
Not exactly what the Tigers had in mind when they made him a key piece of the Curtis Granderson/Edwin Jackson trade last winter.
But should we be surprised with Scherzer’s struggles adjusting to the American League? Well, if he were regularly facing lineups like the Yankees and Rays, the answer would be yes. But the fact is he’s getting pounded by the likes of the Royals and Indians—and Twins and Rangers and, well, you get the idea. Even with the DH factored in Scherzer should not be faring this poorly against A.L. opponents.
What should the Tigers do with Scherzer? Unfortunately, they have few choices at this point.
With his 1.68 WHIP, Scherzer’s not a candidate for the bullpen. And even if he did move into a relief role, the Tigers aren’t exactly brimming with capable replacements to slot into the rotation. Maybe Armando Galarraga. Or perhaps recently recalled and even more recently demoted Alfredo Figaro.
The Tigers are enchanted with Scherzer’s potential—after all, he was taken by the Diamondbacks with the 11th overall pick in the 2006 draft—and are likely to let pitching coach Rick Knapp tinker with him and hope things click as they have for Verlander, Porcello and, just maybe, Bonderman.
Yes, Scherzer’s upside is tremendous – the guy throws in the mid 90s and he’s only 25 – which explains why the Tigers were so intent on bringing him to Detroit. Though, presumably the club thought he was ready to elevate his performance to a higher level than what he displayed last year for the Diamondbacks in his rookie season.
For now, the Tigers will have to live with some growing pains and hope he starts pitching past the fifth inning—beginning tonight.