By dumping Prince Fielder the Tigers have removed their most consistent source of left-handed power, leaving them with only three semi regular left-handed hitters: Alex Avila, Victor Martinez, and Andy Dirks. None of these three are day-in-and-day-out threats to leave the ballpark. That begs the question: can you win big in major league baseball without a left-handed power hitter? Well, it’s been done (particularly by National League clubs). But it’s certainly the road less traveled, especially if you’re hoping to win the American League pennant, a requisite step for all AL teams on their way to a World Series title.
In 2014, the Tigers are projected to hit around 40 home runs from the left side of the plate. How does that compare to recent AL pennant winners? The run environment has changed since the steroid era, with runs and slugging percentages declining by 5-10% since 2003, but home runs have held pretty steady, dipping some a few years ago but returning to 2003-2006 levels the last couple of years. So we can make a pretty good apples-to-apples comparison when examining home runs over the last decade. If anything, the decline in runs makes each home run even more valuable in today’s game.
Of the last 11 AL pennant winners only the White Sox (with 37) had fewer HRs from left-handed hitters than the Tigers’ 2014 projection. Eight of the other nine clubs hit at least 58 home runs from the left side. The 2006 Tigers were that ninth team, hitting only 45 home runs batting left-handed. Thus, both the ’05 Pale Sox and Jim Leyland‘s first Tigers club demonstrate that, although unusual, reaching the World Series with limited power from the left side is possible. But let’s shift the analysis in another direction to something probably more consequential, that is home runs by all hitters off of right-handed pitchers (who account for almost 70% of innings pitched in MLB). And it’s here where things turn darker. No AL club in the last 11 years has won the pennant without hitting at least 122 HRs against right-handed pitching (the 2012 Tigers set the threshold; the 2009 Yankees top the list with 168). Where does that leave the 2014 Tigers? Using one of the most reliable projection systems (ZIPS) the Tigers are expected to hit around 105 home runs off of right-handed pitching. (These numbers are a bit of a guess, based on each player’s career homer splits against righties and lefties.) That’s 36 fewer home runs than what the previous 11 AL pennant winners averaged against righties (141).
So, is any of the above strongly predictive or even relevant? Perhaps not. Hitting home runs is just one of many factors that determine winning and in terms of its importance to scoring runs likely ranks below OBP. What can be said is that if the Tigers preseason home run projections hold true and Detroit wins the pennant they will prove to be an outlier. And lest you think the Tigers can make up for their lack of power against righties by destroying lefties, Detroit projects to hit around 45 homers against portsiders, 8 below the average that AL pennants winners have hit (53) over the last 11 years. There is just no dancing around it: the last 11 American League champions have hit considerably more home runs than the Tigers are projected to hit in 2014.
The Tigers could certainly exceed their projections, although ZIPS seems, in my estimation, overly bullish on the power of a few Tigers, most notably Nick Castellanos, who checks in with a projection of 18 dingers. That’s only seven fewer than Fielder hit in 2013, and the same number the rookie hit at Triple A last year. Other reputable systems, such as Steamer and Oliver, are less keen on Castellanos but offer rosier projections for others, such as Torii Hunter and Ian Kinsler. In any event, the Tigers are hoping to compensate for the loss of runs scored via the long ball (Detroit hit 176 homers last year; 61 from the left side) with improved base running and even stingier run prevention. But let’s be frank. Yes, the Tigers have more team speed, cannier base runners, and better defense, but Detroit fans will not be watching the reimagined 1985 Cardinals here. Or even the 2002 Anaheim Angels, who won the AL pennant by hitting just 152 home runs (and only 99 against righties) but also lead the league in defensive efficiency and were third in stolen bases. No, the 2014 Bengals are just hoping to move to the middle of the pack in both. And something else to chew on: a good part of that run prevention is dependent on the starting rotation doing an encore from the year before, when, as I wrote last week, it was both highly effective and remarkably healthy. Such a repeat would represent another outlier.
Indeed, the deeper you analyze the 2014 Tigers the clearer something becomes. Detroit is relying on its share of historical anomalies to reach the promise land. That in and of itself is not uncommon. Most clubs enter the season hoping to defeat history in some way. For the last couple of seasons, at least, the Tigers were not one of them. But those days are gone, stamped out by the realities of budget management and curious roster moves. This season, the Tigers will be hoping for some of that outlier magic. Winning a pennant in the DH league with a lineup challenged to hit for power, especially against righties, is one such example. Perhaps that’s why rumors of a Detroit-Nelson Cruz romance won’t die. His 25-30 home run potential would certainly ease many of the club’s power concerns.