Detroit Tigers' cerebral K crew striking back against the opposition

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Little things get baseball players through the 162-game slog that is their season, stupid games that involve rating women in the stands or consuming foodstuffs that humans ought not consume. By comparison, the Detroit Tigers' starting pitchers are Tri-Lambs to the rest of the sport's Alpha Betas. They pass the time playing a game that helps reveal who's got the smartest baseball mind.

Every game, the four Tigers starters who aren't pitching will cluster together on the bench and hazard a guess at what their cohort on the mound will throw next. It's a tricky exercise because it involves understanding every part of the situation: pitchers' stuff and mindset, hitters' tendencies and weaknesses and the situational nuances that can render everything else moot. What makes it most enjoyable are the pitches they get to see. Justin Verlander's fastball and curveball. Anibal Sanchez's slider and changeup. Doug Fister's sinker and changeup. Rick Porcello's sinker and curveball.

Max Scherzer, the Tigers' most cerebral pitcher, the one who has embraced sabermetrics and married it with one of the best arms in the game, relishes these moments where he can leap into others' minds and deduce how and why they're thinking what they're thinking. Just as they see his stuff – plus fastball, slider and changeup, along with a burgeoning curveball that gives him four wipeout pitches – and understand how it's halfway through June and Scherzer still hasn't lost a game, he sees theirs and it makes all the sense that the Tigers are going to shatter the major league record for strikeouts by a pitching staff.

In 646 innings this season, Tigers pitchers have struck out 683 hitters. At 9.52 strikeouts per nine innings, they're on pace over 162 games to punch out 1,558. It would be a staggering 11 percent increase over the previous high, set a decade ago by the Kerry Wood-Mark Prior-Carlos Zambrano Cubs. They walked 617. The Tigers are on pace to walk 431.

Considering the struggles of their bullpen, the Tigers rely as much on their rotation as any team, and with good reason. It is, with all due respect to St. Louis and Cincinnati and Atlanta, the best in baseball. And those moments together on the bench only serve to reinforce the collection of talent and how each can grow even still.

"We all know the hitters," Scherzer said. "We're cognizant of who's an aggressive hitter, who's a fastball hitter, who's a breaking-ball hitter. And by sequencing each other out, trying to figure out what pitch we'd throw in that spot, we can learn. At times, we'll be sitting there, like, you've got to get a strikeout in this situation, and based on how you approached the guy last time, you need to throw this pitch."

Just as the Houston Astros personify the strikeout era on the hitters' side, the Tigers embody it from the mound. Strikeouts are the highest they've ever been, 7.55 per nine innings, and walks are below three per nine for the first time since the mound was lowered in 1968. The Tigers' 3.61-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is incredible, and the 4.33-to-1 among their starters borders on the absurd.

[Related: Jhonny Peralta's walkoff HR lifts Tigers past Red Sox ]

"We've got a lot of guys with really good stuff, and that breeds strikeouts," Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "We don't really talk about it much. In certain situations, guys need that, but I don't think they go out there thinking they're going to strike guys out."

They just do. Sanchez, on the disabled list with a shoulder strain, has 101 in 81 2/3 innings. Verlander, who has led the big leagues in strikeouts the last two seasons, has 106 in 92 innings. Fister (76 in 92 2/3 innings) is no slouch, and even Porcello, who has struggled to strike hitters out in years past, seems to be figuring it out at 24 years old with 63 in 76 innings.

The best of the bunch is Scherzer, who over 96 1/3 innings has 116, second in baseball to Yu Darvish. Already with an intimidating countenance – Scherzer's heterochromia makes him baseball's version of Harvey Dent – he has grown more efficient and confident and, at 28, could make an excellent case to start the All-Star Game. His 10-0 record is unmatched in baseball, and his peripherals indicate that his ERA should be even better than the 3.08 at which it sits.

Scherzer spent his offseason addressing the marked weakness in his game: pitching to left-handed hitters. Teams loaded their lineups with lefties against him because of the relative success: .292/.366/.465 last season and .273/346/.440 for his career entering this season.

The problem was a limited arsenal. Scherzer never felt comfortable throwing his slider against lefties – he had trouble backdooring it on the outside corner and couldn't seem to throw it to their back foot, the two most effective spots for a righty facing a left-hander – so he stuck with his fastball and changeup. It left him vulnerable.

By developing his curveball, a pitch he can bury inside against lefties, Scherzer has turned into one of the best in the game. Their .199/.254/.332 line against him is more than 200 OPS points lower than his career mark, and only Matt Harvey, Clay Buchholz and Alexi Ogando have held them to a lower batting average. "It just gives me another pitch to play with," Scherzer said, and he did so with a nonchalance that belied just how unfair it can be to face him – or, hell, any of the Tigers starters.

"The main reason I came here was the pitching," said outfielder Torii Hunter, who signed a two-year deal with the Tigers this offseason. "I just looked at the teams and said, 'OK, who don't I want to face?' And it was these guys. When you'd play these guys, you'd be like, 'We have Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal. That sucks.' "

Hunter happily lets the rest of the league bear that burden, and it's palpable even without Sanchez. Because he's still there on the bench, still playing the sequencing game, still learning, still progressing, aware that the Tigers lead the American League Central and will hold that spot so long as the starting pitchers do their jobs.

Here's to guessing that won't be a problem.

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