Aug 9, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joe Nathan (36) is relieved in the ninth inning by Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus (7) in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. The Toronto Blue Jays won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Chilly Waters--Detroit Tigers Take Mid-Summer Dive

Like the unsuspecting swimmer who leaps headlong into the icy waters of Lake Superior, the Detroit Tigers have taken a regrettable mid-summer dive.

Will they shake off the numbness induced by their second-half plunge and reclaim their perch atop the AL Central division?

Or will they drown amidst a wave of injuries and suffocating expectations?

We’ll know the answer within six short weeks.

As even the most casual Tiger fan knows, they have been scuffling since the All-Star break, winning only 12 of 28 games. They led the AL Central by 6 and a half games at the break, but now find themselves looking up at the scalding Kansas City Royals.

With the exception of the starting pitching, their nosedive has been a team effort.

Let’s break it down from a “pre” and “post” All-Star break perspective.

Starting Pitching

Pre-All-Star Break

Anibal Sanchez (3.04 ERA), Max Scherzer (3.35), and Rick Porcello (3.39) each had a strong first half.

The now departed Drew Smyly (4.00) threw decently, while former ace Justin Verlander (4.88) brought up the rear.

Post-All-Star Break

Porcello (2.03) and Scherzer (1.90) have come out of the break stronger than ever, while Sanchez (5.04) struggled prior to being placed on the disabled list.

Verlander (4.25) pitched well in four starts before his disaster against Pittsburgh on Monday night, when he was pulled in the first inning. It appears he’ll miss at least one start after x-rays revealed no structural damage to his precious right arm.

Newly acquired David Price has pitched to an impressive WHIP (1.09) in two starts, though his ERA as a Tiger stands at 4.30.

Summary

Overall the Tiger rotation has pitched well in the second half and has placed the team in position to win games.

Whether that continues to be the case with the (hopefully) temporary absences of Sanchez and Verlander is an open question, as the team has had to reach deeper into its store of minor leaguers than it would like.

Robbie Ray, Drew Verhagen, and Buck Farmer all have promise, but teams do not normally win divisional crowns by writing the names of rookie pitchers on the line-up card.

Let’s hope the “Fab Five” starting rotation returns intact soon, ready to roar down the stretch in September.

Relief Pitching

Pre-All-Star Break

Right hand set-up men Joba Chamberlain (2.61) and Al Alburquerque (2.91) led the bullpen in the first half.

Other regulars fared less well, though, including closer Joe Nathan (5.61), and lefties Phil Coke (4.59) and Ian Krol (4.44).

A litany of other relievers was trotted out in the first half, most of whom were mediocre and contributed to the Tigers’ well below league average bullpen. Lefty Blaine Hardy (2.13) was the exception.

Post-All-Star Break

The problems persist, though Alburquerque (2.70)  and Hardy (1.98) have pitched decently.

Krol continues to struggle (5.79) in the second half, and has been joined by the mostly ineffective Chamberlain (4.91) and streaky Coke (4.22).

Most troubling is Nathan, who continues to labor. Though his ERA (3.48) is lower in the second half, his WHIP is a whopping 1.74, as he continues to court both on-field disaster and the wrath of some Tiger fans with his unprofessional antics.

Joakim Soria, picked up in late July from Texas, had a rocky debut (10.38) before landing on the disabled list. Much will be expected of him when he returns, and he may yet end up as the team’s closer if Nathan continues to wobble.

Summary

The bullpen continues to be the team’s Achilles’ heel.

In a word, it’s hard to imagine the Tigers enjoying any degree of postseason success with the bullpen as currently constructed.

Offense

Pre-All-Star Break

Prior to the break, the Tiger offense was among the the AL’s best, with a team batting average of .280 (1st), 437 runs scored (3rd), and a slugging percentage of .445 (1st).

Post-All-Star Break

Since play resumed on July 18th, however, the offensive thunder has mostly dissipated.

In the last month, a period which is traditionally “hitter’s weather”, the team batting average has dropped 24 points (.257.) They’ve also dropped to sixth position in runs scored (107).

Most telling, though, is the steep drop off in slugging percentage to .379 (9th).

The second half offensive somnolence has largely been an equal opportunity affair.

At the catching position, both Alex Avila (pre-.230/post-.200) and Bryan Holaday (.278/.154) have struggled.

At first base, Miguel Cabrera has hit slightly higher for average in the second half (.306/.308), but his slugging percentage has flagged (.534/.421).

Second baseman Ian Kinsler (.303/.235) has tailed off in both batting average and power, with a precipitous drop in slugging percentage (.470/.286).

Young shortstop Eugenio Suarez (.265/.188) has joined the second half non-hit parade, while slick -fielding back-up Andrew Romine  (.217/.205) has also been on sabbatical, further examining the intricacies of the Mendoza line.

Bucking the trend, rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos (.262/.278) continues to hold his own, and has shown a welcome uptick in the slugging department (.394/.453) since the All Star break.

Moving to the outfield, first half phenom J.D. Martinez has re-entered earth’s atmosphere by cutting his slash line nearly in half (.346/.380/.654 versus .209/.277/.372).

Current center fielder Rajai Davis (.296/.274) has also slowed down somewhat with the bat, while second half addition Ezequiel Carrera (.308) has given the team a boost in the wake of the Austin Jackson trade.

Right fielder Torii Hunter (.272/.279) is among the few Tigers who have upgraded their offensive numbers since the break. Notably, Hunter has dramatically improved his OBP (.293/.361).

Finally, Designated Hitter Victor Martinez has also stepped down from a spectacular first half, both in batting average (.328/.308) and slugging percentage (.599/.404).

Summary

The strength of the offense helped obscure weak relief pitching in the first half.

Once the hitters collectively swooned in the second half, the team has not been able to overcome the occasional rocky outings by the starters or the pedestrian nature of its bullpen.

The Bottom Line

So where is this paradoxical team headed?

Will they continue to thrash in the water and yield the Central Division to the championship-starved Kansas City Royals, or perhaps even the Cleveland Indians?

Or is this team about to re-assert itself by virtue of its sterling starting pitching and re-awakened offense?

Truth be told, no one quite knows– this team is hard to fathom.

But the smart money in baseball generally bets on starting pitching.

And if the Tigers’ starting rotation gets healthy soon, they just might be the lifesaver this team needs.

 

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