The Detroit Tigers have fallen to .500 at 10-10 and have lost seven of their last eight baseball games, but it’s not near time to jump ship nor to call for the manager’s head. It’s only April and a lot can happen in the next 142 games. Last year through 20, the eventual American League Central Division champions were also sitting at 10-10—and that version of the Detroit team would face a sweep at home to the Seattle Mariners and a seven-game losing skid in the coming days. I’m no psychiatrist, but let me continue to try and talk you down from the ledge:
The Tigers planned from the beginning of the year to utilize one rookie starter. Their ideal candidate to do so, Jacob Turner, was shut down partway through spring training due to shoulder tendinitis. Turner’s absence would have been a non-issue with Drew Smyly’s performance, but Doug Fister suffered a costochondral strain 3.2 innings into his season and caused the Tigers to dip even deeper into their well of young pitching. They called on Adam Wilk, a delicate finesse pitcher who has since been demoted, to make three starts. He pitched acceptably in the first but was totally outmatched in games against Yu Darvish’s Texas Rangers and Felix Hernandez’s Seattle Mariners—that already accounts for two of the Tigers’ losses in their recent 1-7 stretch.
Wilk has a near-zero chance of making a potential playoff roster. Fister will return—sooner than later, it seems—and one of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello will likely figure things out. Smyly will continue to pitch passably if not exceptionally, and if you recall, Detroit happens to have the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, Justin Verlander, in their rotation. Turner could join the staff in the second half and become this year’s Matt Moore. Duane Below, the latest band-aid on the rotation, will eventually return to the bullpen and settle in as a consistently effective long reliever.
Bullpens are notoriously volatile and that of the 2012 Tigers, while probably better than most, is and will be no exception. Collin Balester hasn’t been good, but I wouldn’t bet he’s making anyone miss Ryan Perry yet and he has enough potential that he should be given more than 13 innings to make an impression. The same can be said for Brayan Villarreal, who is a Luis Marte or Al Alburquerque recovery from Triple-A Toledo anyway. The late-inning corp—Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, and Phil Coke—are a talented an experienced group and will shut down a lot of games this year; even after Benoit’s poor showing Friday night, they have a combined 2.41 ERA.
One of the more notable circumstances hindering the Detroit offense—which has been sub-par even with the excuses I’m about to give for them—is that it has simply been faced with fantastic pitching. The Tigers scored 53 earned runs in 116.1 innings against the first 19 starters they faced, which left those starters with a combined 4.10 ERA in those games (the ERA for the American League—without Friday’s games—is 4.07). If you take out their games against Detroit, those starters have combined for a 3.70 ERA.
Further, the Tigers have been unfortunate on balls in play. Going into Friday night’s game at Yankee Stadium, only three Detroit players—Prince Fielder, Gerald Laird, and Don Kelly—had a BABIP that exceeded their expected BABIP (or xBABIP, the formula for which, based on batted ball data, is available here). Their team BABIP at the plate is just .275, fourth-lowest in the American League.
The team is in a state of transition—Brandon Inge is gone and no one has a clue as to what’s going to happen in the aftermath of Delmon Young’s inebriated New York night. This uncertainty is certainly not a good thing, but it will go away.
Dave Dombrowski has 94 days from today—Saturday, April 28th—to make trades. Mike Ilitch knows the window for his club to win is wide open and as such, his substantial pocketbook will be at the ready. If they really do need another proven starter, or a middle relief guy, or a legitimate second baseman, or someone to bat in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, they will get it. But in the AL Central, whose leader is currently the 10-8 Cleveland Indians, Detroit can afford to take their time in assessing their needs.
Yes, the Texas Rangers are the better team today. The New York Yankees may be as well. But as sure as my contentions that the Los Angeles Angels won’t finish last in the American League West—where they currently sit—and Albert Pujols won’t go homerless all year, the Tigers will play better baseball. And they’re still going to win their division.