Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What's Going On With: The Detroit Tigers

This is Part 5 of a six-part series looking at the three worst and three best teams in baseball to date, and figuring out why they've done what they've done and whether they'll keep on doing it. Having wrapped up the teams with the worst records (here are the links to the Chicago CubsHouston Astros, and Arizona Diamondbacks), and the third-best San Francisco Giants, it's on to the second-best team, the Detroit Tigers

How Good Have They Been? The Tigers are 18-9, a .677 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 108-54. After starting the year 7-6, they've hit their stride, going 11-3 since April 18, including six in a row going into tonight's game.

How Much of a Surprise is This? The Tigers are always perennial candidates for a top record. They're a good ballclub playing in a weak division. As of today, they're the only AL Central team with a winning record. Playing 76 games a year against sub-.500 teams helps your record. Finding the Tigers among the top three isn't a surprise.

What's Been Right? The pitchers have allowed the second-fewest runs in the league, 3.81 per game, and their starters have the best ERA, 2.73, by far. That's not a surprise. Nor, really, has been the bullpen's second-worst 5.24 ERA; the Tigers never seem to have good relievers. But when your starting five is Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello, and Drew Smyly, you need don't a great bullpen. Porcello's 3.66 ERA is the worst of that bunch, and Verlander's 2.68 is only third-best.

The offense has been good enough, scoring 4.84 runs per game, fifth in the league. You figure that will improve once Miguel Cabrera (.270/.319/.414, two home runs so far) gets hot, as he inevitably will.

A lot was made of Detroit's defensive upgrade this year, moving Cabrera from third to first and getting a full year from slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias. Iglesias is out with stress fractures in both legs, but the Tigers have turned 69.5% of balls in play into outs this year, fourth in the league, a big improvement over last year's third-worst 68.2%. That's helped the pitching staff, already a strength.

Has Luck Been Involved? Please refer here for a discussion of the terms used below, and why I chose them.

There are some causes for concern here. The Tigers are 6-2 in one-run games, a pace that they're unlikely to continue. They're hitting .318 on balls in play, best in the league, while the pitchers are allowing .289, the fourth lowest. One or the other's likely to move toward the league average of .297. More notably, the hitters are batting .285 with runners in scoring position, while the pitchers have allowed just .211. The league average is .247. It's pretty likely that the batters or pitchers, or both, will do worse as the year progresses. 

What's The Outlook? The Tigers seem to have been somewhat lucky to be where they are. But this is a team that could be playing .500 ball and still lead its division. The Tigers may not play win at a .667 clip the rest of the way, but Baseball Prospectus rates them as the most likely team in the AL to make the postseason and win the Series, and it seems about right.

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