Bob Wojnowski made an interesting observation in his column for the Detroit News today: the Tigers had exactly the same record (38-31) after 69 games in 2010. In his opinion, the existence of Victor Martinez will be enough to allow the Tigers to maintain this pace in spite of whatever may have befallen them in 2010.
Now I don’t see that as being exactly a trump in a divisional race – you win divisions by winning more games than the competition, not by having recognizable veterans. You could just as easily have said that Johnny Damon, a winner if ever there was one, would give the Tigers the edge they needed to vanquish the Twinks. But he does make an interesting point: are our Tigers really any different from the team that couldn’t win last year’s Central? Why exactly did the team crumble like it did before? Could it happen again?
The high water mark for the Tigers last year wasn’t 69 games, it was a day before the all-star break when they peaked at 11 games over .500 and took an ephemeral 1/2 game lead over the Twins. After the break… The Tigers were 10 games under .500 to finish with exactly 81 wins, far removed from any pennant dreams. We all know the stylized facts: a small number of key Tigers made big contributions in the first half of the season who were either injured (Ordonez, Guillen, Zumaya) or horribly ineffective (Boesch, Valverde). Those stylized facts are, of course, true. But they don’t tell the whole story. While Ordonez and Guillen were key offensive producers in the first half, and nonexistent in the second, Ryan Raburn started clobbering the ball and more than replaced what the team had lost in Ordonez. Rhymes, Worth and Sizemore all hit well at second after the loss of Guillen left the team scrambling for a second baseman in the second half. There were little gains and little losses as well: Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello were significantly better in the second half – helping to balance out some ineffectiveness from Bonderman and the bullpen. The Tigers pitching staff was mostly unchanged after the break: a 4.29 ERA before and a 4.31 ERA after.
The offense lost a critical 37 points of OPS – more than all of which can be accounted for by Brennan Boesch himself. Since he received close to 8% of the team’s plate appearances, his 541 point decline in OPS allowed him to single-handedly drive down the team OPS be more than 40 points. Again, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Tigers offense only dropped from 4.66 to 4.61 runs per game after the break – which isn’t a whole heck of a lot. They weren’t hitting as well, but they were getting a little luckier as far as timing those hits. Runs allowed rose from 4.53 to 4.64 despite the trivial increase in ERA – most of that change came in unearned runs. Still that’s not a huge drop or a huge gap. The Tigers only allowed 3 more runs than they scored after the break, you would have expected them to go 38-38 or maybe 37-39 but not 33-43. That, of course, breaks both ways – the Tigers were only 11 runs over in the first half so they had to be awfully lucky to be 10 games above .500.
Luck, in a nutshell, is what changed for the Tigers in the second half of 2010. Luck a lack of Zoom and a Big Potato. You’ll usually find that when a team seems to be overachieving, they are getting great pitching out of the ‘pen and winning a lot of close games. When they are underachieving… to illustrate, the Tigers’ bullpen was 18-7 with 22 saves before the break and 10-13 with a mere 10 saves afterwards. Valverde was nigh-unhittable before the break last year, but afterwards he started giving up walks and homers for an ERA of 6.38. Ryan Perry kicked it up a notch and did an admirable job of filling in for the injured Zumaya, but that left a real void in middle relief – particularly in the 7th inning of close games. Phil Coke was much less effective in the higher pressure situations than he had been early in the year, and call-ups Weinhardt, Gonzalez & Figaro fanned flames. Eddie Bonine pitched to true form, with a 7.52 ERA in a lot of uncomfortably high-leverage innings. As a group, Tigers relievers were 10-13 with a mere 10 saves.
Could it happen again? Of course. Luck can always turn. Injuries can always happen. Hot hitters can always go cold. You don’t necessarily expect that things like that will happen unless far more has gone inexplicably right so far than has gone inexplicably wrong. Sure, Peralta and Avila are hitting way better than anyone expected – but Raburn, Ordonez and Inge are hitting a lot worse. We’ve had the injuries already and can expect to get players back before the second half of the season. The bullpen hasn’t been carrying the team thus far, though Valverde hasn’t been anything like his 2010 second-half self, it has been a drag. The Tigers’ bullpen is only 9-11 with a 4.61 ERA overall while starters are 29-20 with a 3.82 ERA. The acquisition of David Purcey and the return of the old Ryan Perry would lead us to expect a better bullpen going forward than we’ve seen over the first 69 games and with it a bit of an improvement in ‘luck’.
If you see a fundamentally .500 team lucky enough to sit at 10 games over, you wouldn’t expect that luck to go into reverse, you would expect that luck to simply go away. By that logic we would have expected the lucky Tigers as of July 11, 2010 to finish at 86-76. The Tigers have been a little lucky this year (at least as concerns the translation of runs scored and allowed into wins and losses) but not as lucky as last year. After 69 games last year the Tigers had scored only 6 runs more than they had allowed, they would finish 8 over. This year the Tigers have scored 18 runs more than they have allowed, who knows where they will finish. That may really be what Wojnowski was getting at by plumping Martinez: Maybe the Tigers aren’t quite as good as their record, but they are better than a .500 team. At this rate, the Tigers would finish about 40 runs over which would suggest a probable 85 wins, and given their good fortune thus far more likely 87 – assuming they keep hitting and pitching as they have. And now for the big difference: Last year the Tigers were trailing the Twins when they were 38-31, and a mere 85-87 wins would have left them in the Twins’ dust come October. This year 38-31 gives the Tigers a 1 game lead over the Indians, another team no-one expects to maintain pace.