I’ve gone from highlighting the good to trying to pinpoint the bad in this space for the Detroit Tigers’ promising season that, so far, has not gone according to plan. I’ve tried to get answers from the experts, particularly ESPN/Grantland’s kindly baseball insiders Buster Olney and the more interactive (with me) Jonah Keri. Both Olney and Keri were high on the Tigers before the season started, and the latter finally took to the task of assessing the current state of Motor City’s baseball team. His evaluation, excerpted:
What’s going wrong with the Tigers?
One of the biggest culprits for Detroit’s struggles has been the most predictable one: lousy team defense. Only the Mets have been worse defensively this season. . . . [A] roster full of no-glove options was rendered worse defensively when Jim Leyland curiously decided to play noted butchers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder every day as corner infielders. Cabrera hasn’t been quite as atrocious as you might have expected after converting back to third base following years away from the position, then taking a ground ball to the face early on (on a very sharply-hit ball, it should be noted). But both no-glove sluggers have still been bad enough, with the Tigers getting a collective sub-.600 OPS from its designated hitters thanks to Delmon Young’s lousy year and some curious choices to start at DH the rest of the time.
Oh, just that, huh?
[T]here were plenty more reasons to fear regression for the Tigers, despite the 95 wins+Fielder=Profit(?) formula. Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta hit out of their minds last year, and were prime bets to pull back in 2012. Valverde going unblemished all year long in save opportunities wasn’t going to happen again even if the Tigers moved to the Sally League. Even the seemingly loaded 2011 Tigers weren’t necessarily 95-win quality by at least one metric: Their runs scored and runs allowed totals suggested an 89-win club.
I see. I suppose that about covers it though, right?
The biggest surprise, though, has been Detroit’s shaky offense. The Tigers rank just ninth in the American League in runs scored, trailing Texas, every AL East team, and two clubs in their own division. There’s been plenty of suck to go around. Fielder’s hitting a very pedestrian (for him) .286/.349/.458. After an impressive outburst last postseason that suggested he might finally turn the corner, Delmon Young’s been a replacement-level player, hitting just .248/.302/.358. Peralta’s also slugging a Rey Sanchez-esque .358. Brennan Boesch has a .287 OBP. Avila’s hitting .225 with a .309 OBP. Tigers second basemen are collectively hitting about as well as a Deadball Era pitcher with gout, one good eye, and a candy cane for a bat.
Oof. Build me back up, Jonah. Any light at the end of the tunnel?
Some of this can’t help but turn in the Tigers’ favor. There’s a good chance they don’t have another series all year with as many squandered opportunities as they had against the Indians (3-for-29 with runners in scoring position). They’ll face very few other pitchers as dominant against right-handed hitters as Masterson is and was Thursday; righties went just 1-for-12 against Masterson for the day. And they likely won’t lose many more games in which Verlander goes eight innings, allows just seven baserunners, and ends his day by striking out the side with a 98-mph fastball, a 101-mph fastball, and a preposterous 83-mph looping curve.
Okay, so maybe things aren’t so bad after all. I’m feeling better already.
But there are still reasons to worry. The Tigers’ best hitter this year, Austin Jackson, just hit the disabled list. They lack major league-ready impact prospects at their weakest positions. And perhaps most of all, they’re chasing a pretty good team [in the Indians].
Alright. I didn’t need that. Thought we were in the clear there. Leave me with some perspective. This is a great team, right? They’ve had strong halves of seasons before. Everything’s going to be fine?
Detroit stood six games back of Cleveland through 44 games last season too, before demolishing the league in the second half and cruising to the division title. The question is, does this year’s Tigers team match up with last year’s squad? And, will the Indians fall apart for the second year in a row? A quick and healthy return for Jackson and returns to normal levels for Cabrera and Fielder could lead a Tigers resurgence, and the Indians’ iffy starting rotation could pull Cleveland back toward the pack. Another 95-win season and a runaway AL Central title, though? That bet’s all but off the board.