October 4, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila (13, left) bats in front of Oakland Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt (21, right) during the ninth inning in game one of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game at O.co Coliseum. The Tigers defeated Athletics 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Do the Detroit Tigers Have Enough Power, Especially Left-handed Power, to Win It All?


 

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.

Sep 22, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers left fielder Nick Castellanos (30) hits a single in the fifth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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.

 

 

 

 

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  • Tim OConnor

    Boy, I don’t know. I’d be way more inclined to sit tight to start the season, and see how things play out. Determine the greatest need at the trade deadline (left-handed power vs. a solid bullpen pitcher (or two!)). As opposed to jumping the gun, on an older, slower, in-decline player with no defensive skills to speak of. And you’re going to play him in LF? Replacing Dirks’ glove (didn’t he just win a Gold Glove?) with Cruz’s glove in LF at Comerica is not the direction I would go, especially after picking up Rajai to platoon with Dirks in left. If he we need a LH stick at the trade deadline, I’d like to think we could get one that wasn’t a butcher in the field. As always, just my $0.02 (and worth probably almost half that) …

    • Lee Panas

      I agree with Tim. They have made moves to improve speed and defense and I’d like to let that play out. Overall, I don’t think Cruz is an improvement over a Dirks/ Davis platoon. Looking at the line-ups across the AL, I think the Tigers will still be one of the better run-scoring teams.

    • Yuma 3:10

      Does anyone honestly want Nelson Cruz playing LF in comerica Park? And if he has averaged 27 HRs for the Rangers, hitting in that park, you can decrease that number by about 33% coming into Comerica ( See Prince Fielder ). So say he hits 20 HR. Id bet the combination of Dirks / Davis hits 12-15. So is an extra 5-8 home runs worth all the strikeouts, terrible defense, and again clogging up the base paths? Not in the mans opinion.

      • chrisHannum

        Good Lord, no. Based on road numbers alone, the man is Delmon Young.

  • http://tomaroonandgold.blogspot.com Matt Snyder

    I’m just not a fan of thinking that a team needs to have x-component (speed, defense, power) in order to be a great team. However you score runs, and however you prevent runs, they all can work. Runs are runs are runs are wins.

    • http://tomaroonandgold.blogspot.com Matt Snyder

      I’d also be interested to see how many HR the last several pennant winners were projected to hit before the season. Usually the teams at the top were both (1) pretty good and (2) somewhat lucky.

    • Michael Emmerich

      I guess that’s my concern. I just don’t think the Tigers have done enough to overcome the loss of around 20-25 home runs and the what, 35-40 easy runs they produce. I don’t like Cruz by any means, but perhaps if he could be signed for one year and then rotated with the 4 OFs and with Martinez at DH he could give us some value.

  • chrisHannum

    Amen, Michael. Amen. Home run numbers overall are definitely down, but not really far enough down to make the lineup that the Tigers will be fielding look high-powered. I was of the opinion that last year the Tigers simply didn’t hit enough home runs (for which we can blame Prince’s off year and Peralta’s PED bust) to have the offense we expected of them. A team is only “too dependent on the home run” when they aren’t hitting home runs. Boston, lest we all forget, beat the Tigers with power not speed.

  • John Watson

    While I agree that a dip in power is a concern – if you’re going to field a doubles and triples lineup, Comerica isn’t a terrible place to try it. Especially in the cold and windy months early and late in the season, hitting for power always seems to be a dicey prospect for everyone but Miggy. Chicks may dig the long ball, but watching V-mart drop double after double into the gaps with a few speedy runners on will be beautiful in its own way.

    p.s. that’s not what it means to “beg the question.”