Flying Tigers: The State of Baseball in Detroit

The Detroit Tigers, once unequivocal favorites to run away with the AL Central, today find themselves clinging to a wild-card spot. And today is a good day. A if-the-season-ended-today-the-Tigers-would-make-the-playoffsish day. Not all days are those days these days.

Even with a 7-3 record over the last ten games (you’re glad I didn’t write this post ten games ago), Detroit has a losing record so far in the second half of the season (23-24, -4 run differential). While the offense, unaddressed before the trade deadlines, continues to be a problem, injuries to Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, and Joakim Soria effectively negated any defensive gains resulting from the team’s only two late-season trades.

The group of “rational Tigers fans” beat back even the slightest hint of worry with blanket appeals to the greatness of the historically great members of this Tigers team. “Don’t read too deeply into the struggles you’re seeing because this team has MIGUEL CABRERA, who can’t possibly lose” or whatever. It’s important to vent, though. And to be honest (and, you know, rational). Cabrera can barely walk right now. Yes, he’s leading the sport in doubles this season, but that’s because his power has evaporated (i.e., he’ll probably finish the year with half as many homers as he hit last year and, at very best, the third-worst HR season of his career). His injuries mean that Victor Martinez has to spend more time playing first base. At age thirty five, Victor’s having a breakout power year, but he has no knees, which makes it tough for him to defend first. J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler’s bats have cooled off after hot starts. None of the various replacement-level players filling time at short can hit, and there’s a noticeable problem with catching the ball to tag out base stealers.

How do things look with a month, twenty-four games, to go? Detroit trails still-surging Kansas City by a half a game in the Central, and they have a 1.5-game lead over Seattle for the second wild card slot. Having finally made up their games-played deficiency incurred in early season Midwestern weather, the Tigers essentially find themselves in a dead sprint to the finish against the Royals. Yes, fans should keep a side mirror tilted towards Seattle and Cleveland, but the Tigers’ best path to the postseason still is to beat the Royals and claim the Central division title.

Will Detroit win the division? Winning is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition. They also need Kansas City to lose. (Cleveland should feel free to lose too, because no one likes them.) One optimistically would like to assume that the Tigers aren’t as bad as their recent record indicates, and that the Royals aren’t as good as theirs would suggest. The Tigers have had a rougher schedule over that stretch, but twenty-four games isn’t a lot of time for a trend reversal. Let’s see what the experts say.

FanGraphs predicts that Detroit will win thirteen of its twenty-four games remaining and win the division one game ahead of KC, which they project to finish with a 12-12 record:fgpredictBaseball Prospectus concurs in part and concurs in the judgment, offering an even rosier 14-10 projection, while also pegging the Royals for a .500 finish:

bpprojalcIf you follow us on twitter, you may recall that these sites have been very high on Detroit all season, and the team obviously has failed to live up to those lofty expectations. Does that affect how much weight I accord these predictions? Sure. Did some of us see the writing on the wall from day one? Yep. Does that mean I think the Tigers will miss the playoffs (or somehow want them to)? Heck no! It means that, sometimes, humans who keep a reasonably close and fairly honest eye on their favorite teams can better anticipate future performance, at least in general terms, than predictive modeling driven by historical performance data.

Detroit and Kansas City have September schedules that are about as easy as one could want, and they include six head-to-head meetings (three at home, three on the road). This is about as pure a playoff race as baseball can offer, and whether you’re being honest, rational, “rational,” or just plain hopeful, you have to like the Tigers’ chances.

_____________________________________________________

Previously
How the David Price trade could help the bullpen – 8/3
Trade Deadline Explosion – 7/31
Where are the Bats?
– 7/31
Detroit finds relief, but at what price? – 7/24
Closing Time? – 6/4
Closing the Book on 2013
– 6/2
Victor Martinez, Professional Hitter
 – 5/7
Actually Mad Max
 – 4/29
Waiting for Takeoff – 4/28

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