The Tigers, it appears, have a type. It's just that before 2015, we couldn't really have known about it. Let's go back to the first season of Statcast™ and look at the starting pitchers who had the highest four-seam fastball spin rates. Something might stand out:
Only Verlander was a member of the Tigers last year, of course. But Scherzer was his teammate in Detroit from 2010-14 before leaving for Washington, and Porcello was there, too, from 2009-14 before being traded to Boston. The Tigers, whether we (or they) knew about it, had built themselves quite the collection of high-spin fastball pitchers for a half-decade.
But since only Verlander remains from that trio, surely the Tigers must have lost some spin on those four-seamers, right? Well, if you were to look at 2016 team spin leaders, you'd find that's not really the case.
Four-seam fastball team spin leaders, 2016
1. Detroit -- 2,363 rpm
2. Cleveland -- 2,358 rpm
3. San Francisco -- 2,345 rpm
4. Kansas City -- 2,323 rpm
5. Toronto -- 2,321 rpm MLB average: 2,260 rpm
Even without Scherzer and Porcello, the Tigers still have a great deal of spin on their four-seamers, ranking No. 1 in baseball.
Now, it's important to remember that despite the impressive names on that first list, having a high-spin fastball doesn't guarantee success by itself. It's a portion of the larger puzzle that includes velocity, control, axis, sequencing, and so on. That said, we've learned a lot about what it does mean. High-spin fastballs tend to defy gravity for slightly longer, giving a "rising" effect that can fool a hitter into swinging under the ball, leading to swinging strikes or popups, which are basically strikeouts. (Low spin does the opposite, leading to a sinking effect that induces grounders.)
Since high-spin fastballs generally stay a bit higher than the hitter expects, they're particularly useful when placed high in the strike zone. Hitters have a tough time laying off, and they have an even tougher time catching up. A high-spin fastball, thrown high, can be devastating -- even without elite velocity, which is pretty much exactly the formula that Chris Young has used to succeed despite rarely ever touching 90 mph.
Just look at the contact percentage for fastballs (of all spin rates) so far this season, via FanGraphs. It's not hard to see that hitters make far more contact low, so an effectively used high fastball can be a good weapon. As Young said, "Most hitters have a hole in the zone, up."
Now, let's look only at fastballs above 2,400 rpm, a line we'll use as a cutoff for high-spin fastballs since 20 percent of four-seamers have been thrown at a higher rate than that this year. Hitters who contact these pitches end up with a .222 batting avergae, which is well below the .252 average on all pitches. They swing and miss at 13.2 percent of these pitches, higher than the Major League average of 9.9 percent on all pitches.
So it's generally pretty good to be able to throw high-spin fastballs high, and getting back to the Tigers, that's exactly what they've done. Let's look at the teams with the highest percentage of fastballs that are 2,400 rpm or higher, and between 2 1/2 and six feet off the ground (with the assumption that not even Vlad Guerrero would go after a pitch higher than that).
Percentage of 2,400+-rpm four-seam fastballs between 2 1/2 and six feet high, 2016
1. Detroit -- 26.2 percent
2. San Francisco -- 21.4 percent
3. Cleveland -- 21.2 percent
4. Toronto -- 17.3 percent
5. Washington -- 17 percent MLB average -- 11 percent
The Tigers have induced 95 swinging strikes on such pitches, by far the most ahead of second-place Oakland and Pittsburgh, tied at 68, and they're just outside the top 10 on a percentage basis. Hitters have made contact on these pitches 161 times against Detroit and have hit .224, which is league-average for these pitches, but again below the average (.252) on all pitches, which is to say, it's good to get hitters to make contact here. (Though poorly-placed high fastballs can often turn into homers, the Major League slugging percentage up here is .406, no different than the overall average of .408 on all pitches.)
Again, that's without Scherzer or Porcello. Verlander stands out, of course, as we highlighted in January as being part of the reason for his second-half rebound last year. But he's not the only Tigers pitcher who's throwing more fastballs high, at high spin, than the 11-percent Major League average:
Tigers with above-average rate of "high-spin, high-height" four-seam fastballs 2016
That's a big part of the Tigers' staff, right there, and other than Verlander, who ranks second behind the surprisingly effectiveDrew Pomeranz (68 percent) and Sanchez, most of these pitchers have been acquired relatively recently.
Let's define "high fastball" as "any hard pitch that's at least three feet off the ground," regardless of whether it's called a ball or strike, and look at which pitchers have been doing it the most over the past two years.
That's a slightly different definition than we've been using here -- it didn't factor in spin at all -- but it's not coincidental to Zimmermann's success. If, as it seems, the Tigers have been trying to collect (or mold) pitchers who use fastballs in that way, then general manager Al Avila saying that Zimmermann "was our top target" certainly holds up.
This by itself doesn't make Detroit's pitching great, or even good. As a unit, the Tigers have been somewhere south of average, although a large part of that has come from the underwhelming duo of Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, who have started 20 of the team's 50 games.
It doesn't look like an accident, though. Before we could measure fastball spin, the Tigers had three of the top guys in their rotation. Now that we can, and now that two of them have moved on, they still get a ton of fastball spin, and seem especially focused on using it efficiently, up high. It's a great strategy, even if it hasn't quite worked out yet. We're still learning the best way to use spin. So are teams. Whether it works out in the end or not, Detroit has a type.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.