We knew going into the season that the Tigers’ pitching staff wouldn’t be a strikeout heavy staff. Bonderman as the ace would pile up quite a few, and Nate Robertson would be okay. But we knew that Jason Johnson at best was near average and Maroth and Ledezma would be below average. That’s why after the opening series against the Royals when the team piled up 24 strikeouts against 3 walks over the 3 games, things were looking pretty good. (Even if it was the Royals). Unfortunately in the 11 games since that series, the Tigers’ staff only has 51 strikeouts.
The starters in particular have been having a hard time getting K’s. In those 11 games the rotation has only accounted for 29 strikeouts or a K/9 of 4.26. Bonderman has struck out the most batters with 9 in two apperances, but his resulting K/9 is only 5.79. Jason Johnson hasn’t struck out a batter since his first apperance on April 7th (granted in one of his two apperances since, he only retired one batter). As Danny Knobler pointed out Johnson was the first Tiger to win a game without recording a strikeout since Nate Cornejo did it in 2003. Johnson wasn’t the only starter to make a K-less appearance for the Tigers this season though. When Nate Robertson was battling a virus and was roughed up by the Twins he failed to record a strikeout in 5 innings of work despite allowing 5 walks and two hit batsmen.
So why is the strikeout so important? Because it is the only out that pitchers have complete control over. It’s the only out that minimizes bad luck. If you look to the first game of the Minnesota series, Ugueth Urbina might have gotten out of the inning if a hard chopper into the ground didn’t take a turf bounce over the head of Brandon Inge. Even the Tigers benefited from this as Omar Infante drove in a run on a broken bat blooper. It’s also an out that pretty much ensures a runner won’t advance. Looking again at the Minnesota game, Jamie Walker got Jacque Jones to hit a weak grounder to second. Unfortunately there was a runner on third who scored on the play.
While putting more pressure on the defense is never a good thing, it is especially true of a defense that wasn’t expected to be that good. Fortunately, the Tigers defense hasn’t been bad. While the Tigers have 12 errors as a team, 3 have been by pitchers. And of those errors, only two have allowed runners to reach base (which is actually fewest in the AL). Their defensive efficiency, which is the percentage of balls in play that are converted to outs is .7107. That’s slightly above the league average of .6976 and 6th best in the AL.
Also fortunate for the Tigers, is that the starters have been pretty stingy allowing walks as well. While Nate Robertson has struggled and has a K/BB ratio of 1.0, the remaining starters have a ratio of 3.27. Robertson alone has accounted for 8 of the starters’ 19 walks. As long as the staff can supress the walks, it will help mitigate the low strike out rate.
Looking forward I’d expect Jeremy Bonderman to increase his strike out rate. He’s had higher rates in the past, and he has looked good enough this season for it to continue. Mike Maroth will probably stay about the same – he’s just not a strike out guy. Jason Johnson should improve slightly. He’s a little below his career numbers. However, if he can keep inducing ground balls with his sinker/two-seamer that isn’t a bad way to go either. Ledezma struck out quite a few guys at Erie last year, but was about a 5k/9 pitcher at the major league level. He clearly is still developing so I’m not sure where he’ll end up. Nate Robertson is the starter I’m most concerned with. His strikeout rate was very high early in the season (8.1 K/9 through June 30th), but it faded as the season wore on last year (6.1 K/9 from July 1st on). That combined with his struggles early this year has me a little worried. The good news is that this is only through three starts and he could just be in a slump. However, it is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.