The Tigers lost this afternoon to cough up the AL Central division lead for the first time in a good long while. Should Cleveland lose tomorrow, the Tigers could be back on top, nonetheless the fact is a little disappointing for a team that many or maybe most figured would run away with the division. It’s not about the game itself – an 8-3 loss to the Blue Jays – if I had told you on April 1 that on July 1 the Tigers would be starting Jose Alvarez against R.A. Dickey in Toronto you would have put their odds somewhere around a snowball’s chance in Death Valley. Nor is it about a team that has flopped, like the 2008 team or the Dodgers or the Angels (both of which were thought of as among the league’s elite entering the season). Just a club that doesn’t seem to be quite firing on all cylinders and not quite living up to it’s promise.
Remember that prior to the season the Tigers were projected as a 90 win team, but one with a nearest competitor projected to win only 80. That, more than the Tigers potency, was what gave the Tigers the largest projected margin of victory in any divisional race and the best playoff odds of any team in the majors. A 90 win team should only be 45-36 right now, so the Tigers’ 43-38 record puts them a mere 2 games behind pace. The Cleveland Indians, on the other hand, are winning more games than expected. By another measure – runs differential – the Tigers really are not underachieving at all. MLB.com’s X W-L (similar to a Pythagorean record based on runs) shows that the Tigers “should” be 47-34 (on pace to win 94) which would put them 3.5 games ahead of Cleveland. The Tigers are second in the AL in wOBA, behind only Boston and third in runs scored behind Boson and Baltimore. The Detroit pitching staff leads both leagues in FIP, xFIP and WAR. Combined WAR for both sides, at 30.7, is tops in the majors an on pace to beat any team’s 2012 total by a good 10 WAR.
Therein lies the rub: the Tigers seem like a pretty disappointing lot. A textbook case of unfulfilled potential. But it isn’t because they have lost so many more games than those prediction machines said they would. It’s because the team looks soooooo much better than the prediction machines though and yet it still isn’t winning games. Based on WAR alone, the Tigers should be one of the best teams of the decade – which is what most optimistic fans were looking to see in 2013. They should be battling to break 100 wins, and they should emphatically not be scuffling to keep ahead of the 44-38 Cleveland Indians. And so, at the halfway mark, we are left pondering “why exactly aren’t they?”.
The first thing I’d like to point out: it isn’t the offense. The offense has scored runs roughly commensurate with their aggregate output at the plate, this isn’t a team cursed by poor clutch hitting nor is it a team (like the 2011 White Sox) genuinely doomed by weak performances from some key contributors. Andy Dirks, Victor Martinez and Alex Avila have underperformed – but the slack has been picked up by some other players hitting better than expected. If there is a slight dip in output as far as “runs” are concerned from what their wOBA would predict, bear in mind that this team doesn’t run the bases well and can be prone to double plays.
What it comes down to is all pitching. First, as you all know well, the Tigers bullpen has not been particularly good at holding leads, stranding runners and especially keeping games tied in extra innings. The Tigers ‘pen has been pretty good when it comes to strikeouts and walks, which is why they are the best in the AL in FIP and third in the AL in xFIP. But when it comes to actual ERA? At 4.01 they’re 11th. Even that doesn’t tell the whole story… the Tigers bullpen is 12th in the AL in Win Probability Added with -0.62 (compared to a WPA/LI of 0.42). The Tigers ‘pen is allowing more hits and more home runs than they should, leading to them allowing more runs than they should and what is more they are allowing those runs at inopportune times.
It’s a similar story when it comes to the rotation. I doubt many would argue against the Tigers’ rotation being the best in the AL – and they do lead the league with a 3.66 ERA to go along with a 37-23 record. But… They aren’t nearly as far ahead of the rest of the league as they ought to be. The jury is out on whether FIP or xFIP is the best predictor of future ERA but it is generally agreed that both are much better gauges of a pitcher’s performance than ERA itself (with the largest difference between them being how they assign credit/blame for HR/FB rate). Both attempt to strip out those run-inducing factors with the most random variability or that the pitcher has the least control over. By FIP (which gives Tigers pitchers credit for their league-leading 9.7% HR/FB rate), the Tigers rotation should have a 2.95 ERA – far better than the Rangers 3.67 at #2. By xFIP, the Tigers rotation should have a 3.08 ERA – far better than the Rangers 3.64 at #2. Part of this is Detroit’s high BABIP allowed at .313 – which is at least partly attributable to poor defensive range. More is attributable to a strand rate of only 71.3%, higher than it ought to be for a rotation that allows so few balls in play. Much like the bullpen, Tigers starters have not done a great job of converting good peripherals into outs, runs prevented and wins. The Tigers rotation has far and away the best WPA/LI in the league (indicating that broadly speaking, they don’t allow opponents to do the kinds of things that lead to runs and wins) at +4.64 but come in a distant second to Boston in raw WPA at 1.79. What does that numbery mumbo-jumbo mean? Tigers starters have been very good in general, but much less good in clutch situations.
The last question to ask is “what should we expect from the season’s second half?”. Well… it doesn’t take a Nostradamus to predict a lot more in-division games and a tight race into September. Or to predict that we’ll be chattering about the chances that Tigers will win the Cy Young and/or MVP awards as the season draws to a close. We should expect improvement from the three hitters who have woefully underperformed, and a drop-off in production from those who have carried the team thus far like Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta and reserves Matt Tuiasosopo and Brayan Pena. On the run-prevention side we have a puzzle: we should expect that peripherals and wins/ERA will be a better match in the second half, but we should also expect some regression to the mean in terms of the peripherals themselves. In the aggregate, will the Tigers pitch better? Probably, but not necessarily. In the aggregate, will the Tigers win more? Probably, but not necessarily.