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Debating Scherzer's postseason slot

8/24/2013

With the Tigers' lead in the AL Central continuing to widen, it would be understandable if thoughts in the Motor City turn to the postseason. My thoughts have certainly drifted in that direction, and really, that's all that matters, right?

Well, there is a potentially interesting situation brewing in Detroit (if, that is, you are interested in this sort of thing). Max Scherzer, of course, has been one of the headline stories this season. Last Sunday, Scherzer pitched eight solid innings against the Royals, running his record to a gaudy 18-1, and further strengthening his case as a top-shelf contender for the American League Cy Young Award.

By any metric, Scherzer has been terrific this season (if not quite as good as Seattle's Felix Hernandez, who is likely the leader in the race for Cy Young glory). His ERA is 2.82, which ranks sixth among AL starters; his fielding-independent numbers are equally good (2.66 FIP, 3.08 xFIP). Scherzer strikes out a lot of batters and doesn't walk many … and how about that gorgeous win-loss record!

One can almost picture it: the bright October lights shining down on the Comerica Park mound, the energy in the stands, television cameras everywhere, red-white-and-blue bunting hanging from the dugout railing. Max Scherzer ambles out, steps across the third-base line. Scherzer reaches back and lets loose with a fastball, the first pitch of Game 3 of the AL Division Series.

Wait … Game 3?

Don't be surprised if Scherzer ends up being the No. 3 starter for Detroit in the playoffs. In fact, there's a strong argument to be made that Scherzer, despite the eye-popping W-L numbers (and excellent peripheral stats), is just the third-best pitcher in the Tigers' rotation.

Imagine for a moment that you’re Jim Leyland. Your feet are propped on the desk, you’re smoking a cigarette and trying to figure out who you are going to start in Game 1 of the Division Series. For the sake of discussion, let’s say that Scherzer has ended the regular season 22-2 or 21-3. What does Leyland do?

He starts Justin Verlander in Game 1, that's what he does. Yes, Leyland is old school, and we know that certain baseball lifers haven't yet come around to the notion that the win-loss record is a very poor way to judge a pitcher's value. Even so, I can’t see Leyland sending anyone other than Verlander to the hill in that scenario.

Certainly, Verlander's numbers haven't been as good as Scherzer's in 2013, but in many ways, this is still the same pitcher who finished second and first in the Cy Young voting the past two years (and winning the MVP in 2011). This season, Verlander is 12-9 with a 3.68 ERA. The biggest reason for his slight decline over the heights reached in recent years is that Verlander is walking 3.19 batters per nine innings; that's his highest walk rate since 2008.

Again, however, this is the guy who has been Detroit's superstar over the past four seasons. He has been Hall-of-Fame good, averaging more than seven wins above replacement per year during that time. Verlander also has that version of baseball's holy grail: postseason experience. Though he hasn't been particularly special in the playoffs (6-4, 4.22 ERA), he has started 12 postseason games, including three in the World Series.

Everyone knows about Verlander's greatness in recent years. What might be surprising to the casual fan is that Anibal Sanchez has posted a season that, in most respects, has been even better than his more celebrated teammates.

Sanchez is 11-7, with the team's best ERA (2.45, which ranks second in the AL), the team's best ERA+ (171) and the best FIP (2.34) in the entire American League. Thanks largely to some added velocity on his fastball this year, Sanchez's strikeout rate is second in the league (Scherzer ranks third). Scherzer does edge Sanchez in wins above replacement thanks to the fact Scherzer has made four more starts, and has thrown 40 more innings. (Sanchez spent some time on the disabled list in late June, with a shoulder strain.)

Yes, Sanchez has "lost" seven games, but do we really need another example of how W-L doesn't tell even half the story? If so, the Scherzer/Sanchez duo is prime proof. Sanchez has been every bit as good as Scherzer, but ol’ Max is sitting pretty with an 18-1 record.

Finally, we already knew this, but: wow. Detroit has some outstanding pitching. It's a testament to the quality of this rotation that we're even engaging in this discussion (and we haven't mentioned Doug Fister, who has had a fine season in his own right). Leyland has at his disposal three shutdown starters, and very few teams can boast that level of pitching talent.

If it were up to me, looking at things in a vacuum (I haven't been to Detroit lately; are they playing baseball in a vacuum there?), I'd start Verlander in Game 1, Sanchez in Game 2 and Scherzer in Game 3 of the Division Series. Verlander has been Detroit's best pitcher over the past five years, and Sanchez has been the club's best pitcher this year.

Of course, even if Leyland understands that Sanchez has probably been his best pitcher this season, he still may choose to make him the No. 3 guy to help him get additional rest for that shoulder. Also, keep in mind that, even if he doesn't start Game 1 of the ALDS, Scherzer could still be in line to start Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. Ultimately, whatever Leyland decides, he probably can’t make a mistake, no matter how he chooses to assemble this rotation in October.

Actually, on second thought, I might start Miguel Cabrera on the mound in every game. After all, there’s nothing that guy can't do, evidently.

Chad Dotson writes Redleg Nation, a blog about the Cincinnati Reds. Follow him on Twitter.