Completely arbitrary cutoff points:
Justin Verlander since May 11: 5.22 ERA.
Doug Fister since May 9: 4.55 ERA.
Anibal Sanchez since May 18: 3.33 ERA plus DL time.
Rick Porcello since start of season: 4.49 ERA.
Max Scherzer: He's fine.
With Verlander getting rocked again on Thursday -- 11 hits and seven earned runs in a loss to the White Sox -- concerns about him continue to mount. He hasn't struck out more than five batters in his past eight starts and has averaged 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings over that stretch, which ranks 89th out of 110 qualified starters. We know his fastball velocity is still down from previous years and hitters are taking advantage, batting .306 against it after hitting .233 the previous two seasons.
But Verlander isn't the only pitcher in the rotation Tigers fans should be concerned about. After a hot start, Fister has hardly dominated. Using an even smaller sample size, he's allowed 45 hits, including seven home runs, over his past 34 1/3 innings. Sanchez has allowed just one run his past two outings, but the Tigers are being cautious with his shoulder, and he hasn't pitched more than six innings in four starts since returning from the DL. Porcello continues to run hot-and-cold, with four scoreless starts since May 28 mixed in with several blow-up outings.
Not long ago, we were talking about the potentially historic stature of this rotation. Since May, Detroit's starting rotation has posted a 3.87 ERA, not much better than Cleveland's 3.98 mark. To be fair, Tigers starters are still averaging more innings and allowing a lower OPS since May 1 (.690 versus .719), but the gap between the two rotations isn't as dramatic as it appears when just looking at the names. And since June 25, Indians starters have actually allowed a lower OPS than Tigers starters. (Yes, team defense factors in here.)
Look, the Indians don't have anyone as good as Scherzer, and moving forward you would certainly be more likely to bet on Verlander and Fister than Scott Kazmir and Corey Kluber, but baseball has a funny way of proving us wrong. Take away the 13 starts the Indians gave Carlos Carrasco (9.10 ERA), Brett Myers (8.02 ERA) and Trevor Bauer (5.29 ERA), and the five guys currently in the rotation -- Justin Masterson, Kluber, Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez and Zach McAllister have been pretty solid -- with Jimenez's 4.49 ERA the only one over 4.00.
The Indians are just three games behind the Tigers, but Detroit's run differential is much better (plus-99 to plus-36). Since May 1, the Indians are 42-35 and the Tigers are 41-35. Miguel Cabrera has missed the past three games with an injured hip flexor, and while nobody is saying it will be a lingering issue, you never know. Prince Fielder has hit .256/.339/.407 since May 1, which means he's hardly that big second threat behind Cabrera, and Jhonny Peralta is returning to more normal levels of production of late (.244/.299/.378 over his past 33 games). Right now, the offenses are comparable.
I'm still betting on the Detroit to win the division -- the Indians, after all, will have to play better than the Tigers to catch them -- but I think we're heading to a similar scenario as last year, when the Tigers didn't put the White Sox away until the final week of the season. Ryan Pinheiro of It's Pronounced Lajaway isn't quite so optimistic, arguing the Indians are a still a big hitter and ace starter away from playoff contention. Maybe so, but I believe the Indians are going to hang in there.