Sunday, September 7, 2014

Flyover: Detroit Tigers

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month.

Just before the July 31 trade deadline, the first-place Detroit Tigers completed a three-way trade in which they gave up center fielder Austin Jackson, starting pitcher Drew Smyly, and a minor leaguer for starting pitcher David Price. After the trade, the Tigers had the Cy Young award winners in 2013 (Max Scherzer), 2012 (Price), and 2011 (Justin Verlander) in their rotation, along with Rick Porcello and Anibal Sanchez, who might be No. 1 starters on other teams. The question was which of those five would go the bullpen when the Tigers waltzed to the postseason.

Since the trade, the Tigers are 19-19, have fallen out of first, two games behind the Royals, and entered today's games trailing the second wild card team, Seattle, by a game and a half. The question isn't their postseason rotation, it's whether they'll make the postseason at all.

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the past 30 days, they're 15-15. That's not bad, but the Royals are 18-9. The offense has been pretty good: 5.00 runs per game, third most in the league. But they've given up 5.20 per game, second most. 

What's Going Right? The Tigers are batting .280 (first in the league), with a .338 on base percentage (also first), and a .415 slugging percentage (third) over the past 30 days. They're fourth in home runs with 25, and they've even stolen 21 bases, getting caught just five times. In 2013, the Tigers stole 35 bases all year.

As for the pitchers, as I'll argue in the next section, they've been better than the numbers would indicate. 

What's Going Wrong? Going into the season, the Tigers were viewed as having a good rotation, shaky bullpen. Over the past 30 days, the starters have been shelled, with a 4.89 ERA, worse than every team but the cover-your-eyes-bad Rangers and Twins. The relievers have been average, with a 3.53 ERA compared to a league average of 3.47. So what's been wrong with the starters? Well, it's probably partly bad luck. They've allowed a .345 batting average on balls in play, the highest in the league, and that's usually more indicative of bad luck than bad pitching. They've struck out the third most batters and allowed the third fewest walks, so that's not the problem. In fact, by the measure Fielding-Independent Pitching, or FIP, which calculates ERA based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed, the Tigers starters have been second best in the league, not third worst. So what, you ask--well, FIP is a better predictor of future ERA than ERA is. Painful as this stretch has been, the Tigers starters have really been better than they've seemed. 

Who's Hot? DH Victor Martinez has been scorching over the past 30 days. He's batting .375 (second in the league) with a .481 on base percentage (first) and a .616 slugging percentage (second). He's tied for first in RBI, second in runs, and tied for fifth in homers. In 135 plate appearances, he's walked 22 times and struck out only five times. Equally importantly, defending two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera, who batted just .252 with a single home run in August, is heating up, with four homers so far in September. Left fielder and Comeback of the Year candidate JD Martinez continues his career year, with a .302/.344/.483 slash line over the past 30 days.

Scherzer's the only starter with over 15 innings pitched with an ERA below 4.00 (3.32). Primary middle relievers Blaine Hardy, Phil Coke, and Al Albuquerque have pitched 40.1 innings over 37 games, with a 1.56 ERA.

Who's Not? Sanchez is hurt, and the ERAs for Porcello (4.13), Price (4.31), and Verlander (6.64) are all bad, though again, their component stats suggest they've been better than that. Rookie starter Robbie Ray as lasted only 11.1 inning in three starts and his ERA is legitimately bad, 10.32. Middle reliever Joba Chamberlain's compiled a 5.79 ERA over the past 30 days and closer Joe Nathan continues to make things way too exciting, allowing over two baserunners per inning pitched, including eight walks in 9.1 innings. Center fielder Ezequiel Carrera has been punchless over the last 30 days, with a .239/.271/.326 slash line, as has been shortstop Eugenio Suarez (.238/.297/.298).  

What's the Outlook? It seems to me that the pitchers are going to improve over the remaining games this year. Is it too late? The Tigers have 13 home games and six on the road remaining. The Royals have ten at home and ten on the road. So that's an advantage for Detroit. The Tigers have ten games against weak clubs (seven against Minnesota, three against the White Sox) and the Royals have eleven (four with Boston, seven with Chicago). And the two teams have three games against each other in each team's ballpark. It could come down to that. It's really hard to imagine the Tigers missing the postseason, but it seems that the key may be more catching the Mariners for the second wild card than passing Kansas City. 

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