Of all the problems that have beset the Detroit Tigers the last three weeks none have been more vexing than the issues in the outfield.
Everyone expected trouble in the bullpen. Everyone expected trouble at shortstop. And trouble is what the Tigers have. Dombrowski will fiddle and tinker all year to smooth out some of the rough edges at these two spots. The Toledo Express should be on high alert most of the season, as this arm and that bat will likely shuttle back and forth until the Tigers find something that works—if only a hair a better. And certainly don’t rule out options from outside of the organization.
No one expected the starting pitching to cause heartburn, as it has during this ugly stretch. And frankly if it continues to upset stomachs, the season is likely beyond repair. There are no saviors in the farm system and help outside the organization will be either too expensive or only negligibly better. The Tigers will ride it out with what they have—as they should. Track records, age, and health status all suggest the recent malignant turn is merely an aberration.
The problem at third base is more stubborn yet not unexpected. The Tigers probably baked into the equation Nick Castellanos’s struggles. Detroit is 12th in the AL in third base offensive production (using the all-encompassing offensive statistic wOBA) and 13th when defense is factored in (WAR). But the season was not supposed to hinge on how quickly Castellanos adjusted to his promotion. He’s suffering through some growing pains while by no means embarrassing himself. The Tigers will likely wait it out, unless Castellanos takes a complete nosedive.
Moving on, I don’t consider Avila a problem. His offensive production is middle of the pack for catchers, and that’s after a tough two-week period. He is not an issue—and can still be a key figure in the solution.
That brings us to the outfield. The Tigers did not expect trouble here. But the lack of production on almost every front has been disconcerting. The Tigers outfielders as a group rank (AL only) 11th in wOBA . That includes the hot first months of Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter. Over the last 5 weeks that production has fallen to 13th in the league. Add in defense, and the outfielders’ work looks even worse, especially since May 1. Most of the blame for the Tigers woes in the outfield rest at the feet of Jackson and Hunter, two players the Tigers desperately needed to carry a heavy load of the offense. Jackson’s wOBA ranks 12th among center fielders. Add in defense (by using WAR) and he falls a notch to 13th. Hunter is actually 9th in wOBA (11th over the last month) but 14th if you factor in defense (and last among all rightfielders over the last month in WAR). This is not what the Tigers had envisioned.
So, what is going on here? Let’s look at each one separately.
Has Hunter finally lost his race with age? Looking at just his offensive numbers suggests, no, not really. His contact rate (K%, swing percentages), his type of contact (LD%), and his power numbers are all well within career norms. Despite this, Hunter’s BABIP, which last year was an abnormally high .344, is down to .276, which is almost 30 point below his career norm. Assuming his contact numbers hold steady, the BABIP should climb and help restore a margin of his offensive value. For him to restore his offensive value fully, however, Hunter must reverse a worrisome trend: his plummeting BB%. Hunter is walking in only 2.9% of his plate appearances, which puts him 127 of 129 AL players with at least 130 plate appearances. Hunter’s career BB% is 7.0%, although it’s been trending down for a few years. Still, in 2013 he had a BB% of 4.0%, so he’s down more than a full percent this year. For a guy who often hits in front of two of the best hitters in baseball that’s a problem. Another problem is Hunter’s defense, which by the eyeball test and advanced metrics keeps getting worse.
As for Jackson, whose K% is currently the lowest of his career, the problem may be even more fundamental. He’s making more contact but with less authority. His line drive percentage is down 7% percent from last year, which explains some of his abnormally low .277 BABIP. But if he can hold his K% at current levels his BABIP should cycle back up to close to his career norm, which .344. The other factor, related to the LD%, is that Jackson is hitting substantially more balls in the air than ever before, but his HR to flyball ratio is the worst of his career. Sum it all up and Jackson is hitting a lot of lazy fly balls. That needs to get straightened out. And so does his defense, which continues to deteriorate.
Given the state of the rest of the roster, Hunter’s and Jackson’s struggles are not just a problem. They are a crisis. Plain and simple the Tigers need more production from these two positions. Better offense, better defense. If it doesn’t come, and there are signs that the offensive issues could resolve themselves, Dombrowski will have to do something bold—or the Tigers will fall short of their goals.