Aces riding high for Cardinals, Tigers
Central leaders have built deep staffs around a big-name stopper
In some fortunate places, incumbent aces now have company.
If your club is lucky enough to have a true No. 1 starter at the top of the rotation, think how much better baseball life would be with one, two or even three other pitchers on your team performing like they, too, are aces.
This pitching dream is reality right now for the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Both are first-place clubs as we speak -- the Tigers with a 4 1/2-game lead in the American League Central and the Cardinals with a 3 1/2-game edge in the National League Central and the best record in the Major Leagues at 43-23.
The Tigers, given the quality of their rotation and the production of their offense (second in the league in runs scored per game), might appear to be underperforming at 36-28. They have had shortcomings in the bullpen, but there won't be too much pressure on the bullpen if the starters continue to excel.
Reigning ace Justin Verlander is not at his 2011 AL Cy Young Award-winning level, but he is close to career norms at 8-4, with a 3.41 ERA and a WHIP of 0.97. His 1.16 strikeouts-per-inning mark suggests that he is not in danger of slippage.
Detroit has three other starters with numbers in this neighborhood or better. Doug Fister is 5-4 with a 3.28 ERA and has given up just 12 walks in 85 innings. Max Scherzer has a 9-0 record, a 3.19 ERA, a WHIP of 0.87 and a strikeouts per inning in the Verlander neighborhood at 1.17.
By the conventional measurement of ERA, Anibal Sanchez leads the group at 2.65. His strikeouts-per-inning mark is even better at 1.26, making his 6-5 record an understatement.
None of this has to be an aberration. Scherzer had a breakthrough season last year and is now building on it. Sanchez has been seen for some time as a talented pitcher who is now in a position to reach his potential with a first-place team.
The Cardinals' starters have some imposing numbers of their own. This club is excelling in all facets of the game, but no part of its game has been more impressive than the starting rotation. The fact that St. Louis has four starting pitchers on the disabled list makes these achievements even more remarkable, but by now, the Cards' organizational pitching depth has become a fact of life.
The Cardinals' incumbent ace, Adam Wainwright, has done his part and more, coming all the way back to become the first 10-game winner in the Majors this season. Wainwright is 10-3 with a 2.18 ERA. Wainwright's command has been supreme. He has allowed nine walks in 103 innings and thus has an otherworldly strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 10.78.
Right behind Wainwright is hard-throwing rookie Shelby Miller, who is 7-4 with a 2.21 ERA and a WHIP of 0.97, and 91 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings. Miller is 22 years old, too, making his numbers even more staggering.
Lance Lynn is 8-1 with a 3.00 ERA, a WHIP of 1.11 and 82 strikeouts in 81 innings. Lynn, 26, just wins. He was an 18-game winner for the Cards last season.
These performances don't look like flukes, either. Wainwright had already established himself as one of the very best in the game. Miller is a top-tier prospect. Lynn has already had a big season.
The question of which numbers mean the most invariably enters the discussion when there are so many impressive numbers from which to choose. Asked about this recently, Wainwright took the traditional approach.
"It's all about wins and losses, isn't it?" he said. "As soon as somebody gets into the postseason based on their WHIP or their slugging percentage, we'll start worrying about that. Winning games is what it's all about."
One way or another, superb performances by Miller and Lynn have helped keep the Cardinals on top in the absence of, for instance, Jaime Garcia, who was 5-2 with a 3.58 ERA before going on the disabled list, and Jake Westbrook, who had a 1.62 ERA in six starts before going on the DL.
In the cases of both the Tigers and the Redbirds, the best of both worlds scenario has existed. Each has a legitimate ace, now joined by other starters pitching like aces. In cases like this, first place should not be a temporary condition.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.