With three double plays against the Orioles last night the Tigers hit 115 and pushed into a tie for the MLB lead with the Minnesota Twins. Of course, late action between Minnesota and Seattle could very well keep the Twins in the top spot. The fact remains: the Tigers offense is hitting, they are fourth in the AL in OPS, but they just aren’t scoring quite as many runs as that kind of talent (and production) should. One big reason is those double plays.
The Tigers are not, of course, the only team to hit into double plays. But the chief competition, the Chicago White Sox had hit into only 83 going into Saturdays games – 29 fewer than the Tigers at that point. Though situation matters enormously, on average each GIDP costs the team something like three quarters of a run relative to just making an out. The reason is that double plays are – by definition – only hit into in higher leverage situations (when somebody is on base with fewer than two outs). That differential between Detroit and Chicago has probably cost the Tigers around 21 runs scored and hence a couple of wins. In other words, ground into double plays no more regularly than the likes of AJ Pierzynski and Gordon Beckham and you’ll have a half game lead instead of one and a half back.
It’s no mystery why the Tigers hit into so many of the damned things. Slower guys hit into more of them, and we have plenty of those. Guys who put the ball in play hit into more of them, and we have plenty of those. Guys who hit the ball on the ground hit into more of them, and we have plenty of those. And what’s more, the Tigers are full of players who hit the ball hard on the ground. Often that is a good thing – a hard-hit grounder is more likely to find a hole – but not when it comes to GIDP. The leading culprit? Miguel Cabrera who leads the majors with 21 and is and does all of those things listed above.
The Tigers also have a heck of a lot of raw talent on the pitching staff – coming second in the AL in xFIP and second in WAR. BUT… the team has allowed only the 7th fewest runs. The culprits? Luck and defense. Assign relative blame however you like. I won’t go into the Tigers well-known and often crippling lack of defensive range that has led to a highest-in-baseball BABIP of .312. It’s hard to say how much of that is whose fault – though the end result is clearly a problem.
Along with that range, the Tigers other Achilles heel is Unearned Runs. After all, the Tigers defense is built – in theory – as a bunch of guys with theoretically good hands and fundamentals that partially offset their lack of range. That should mean less sloppy play, not more sloppy play, and therefore fewer unearned runs than the average bear (or Tiger). If we go by “earned runs” alone the Tigers pitching staff has allowed only 5 more than the White Sox (another good staff) despite the lack of range. But… the Tigers have allowed a whopping 33 more unearned runs than have the White Sox – equivalent to roughly 3.3 extra wins. So if the Tigers were only as cool, calm, collected and careful as the White Sox (on top of hitting into the same number of double plays as the White Sox) they would be 4 games up in the division. That’s despite Ryan Raburn’s ice-cold bat,Alex Avila’s disappointing regression to the mean, the Big Potato’s sudden humanity, Max Scherzer’s mystifying .355 BABIP allowed and all those other things we groan and grumble about. It’s really just the sloppy play on D and the hard grounders at just the wrong times – that’s it.