Just two years ago, the Tigers had one of the most dominant pitching staffs in recent history. They racked up an astonishing 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) resulting in a major league record 1,428 strikeouts. After finishing with a league average 7.7 strikeout rate last year, they have dropped to 6.5 K/9 this year which ranks 14th in the American League ahead of only the Twins.
In 2013, the Tigers had three starters - Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander - with over 200 strikeouts and at least 8.9 per nine innings. It didn't stop there as they had five relievers with at least 9 K/9 including the amazing Al Alburquerque (12.9), Joaquin Benoit (9.8) and Drew Smyly (9.6).
The only healthy holdovers from that record breaking staff are Sanchez and Alburquerque. Despite some rocky early-season outings, Sanchez is still getting his strikeouts (9.9 K/9). Alburquerque, on the other hand, has lost between three and four MPH on his fastball compared to last April and has only 7.1 K/9. Verlander is still with the team but is currently on the disabled list with a strained triceps muscle.
The new pitchers are not getting batters to swing and miss very often. Right hander David Price has a respectable 8.0 K/9, but that is down from 9.5 last year. The other starters are all near the bottom of the league - Shane Greene (4.0), Kyle Lobstein (4.9) and Alfredo Simon (5.2). Moreover, the only reliever as high as 7.0 is Alburquerque. Greene's low strikeout rate is particularly surprising as he was up to 9.1 in 2014.
Can they win without strikeouts? In the 70s and 80s, staff aces often excelled with 6 K/9 as long as they had good control and kept the ball in the park. In the current environment with depressed offenses and a stronger emphasis on defense more similar to the 80s than the so called steroid era., you would think that punch outs would become less important again. So far, it hasn't happened as K's are still at an all-time high around baseball and most of baseball's top pitchers have rates north of 7.
There is some hope though. The Orioles and Royals both finished in the bottom half of the league in strikeouts in 2014, yet finished third and fourth respectively in runs allowed. One of the keys to those teams was strong defense. The Orioles led the AL with +49 Defensive Runs Saved and the Royals were second with +40.
The Tigers defense might not be quite that good, but it has improved over in leaps and bounds over last year when they cost themselves 65 runs defensively. With upgrades at shortstop, center field and left field and some improvement from Nick Castellanos at third, the Tigers may not be the best in the league, but the should be at least average (currently +4). Thus, they are better equipped to survive without strikeouts than they were last year.
Data for this post were abstracted from Baseball-Reference.com, BrooksBaseball.net and FanGraphs.com.