We didn’t make the playoffs this year… and we didn’t exactly contend in September… so the season didn’t exactly go as we’d hoped. Still, .500 baseball is what we expected, more or less, and we all at least can be thankful that we aren’t Kansas City, and we aren’t Cleveland… right??? Those unfortunate franchises weren’t expected to contend, and didn’t contend, and don’t seem likely to contend next year – for third place, much less the Central crown.
Since we are at this lull between the end of the season (for us, at least) and the real beginning of the Hot Stove season, we have an opportunity to reflect on where we stand and what separates us from the pack – both the dregs at the bottom of the Central and the cream at the top. What do we have that’s keeping us from the bottom, and what do we lack that’s keeping us from the top?
If we use Wins Above Replacement as our benchmark stat, the picture is fairly clear. For starters, the 2003 Tigers won 43 games with a -5.4 team WAR, and the 2010 Tigers won 81 games with a 32.7 team WAR… so you can pretty safely assume a zero WAR team wins about 48 games, and 1 more WAR should mean 1 more win. The Kansas City Royals were good for 23 WAR this year, the Indians 24.2 – which would theoretically be good for about 71 and 72 wins respectively. If you’re feeling charitable, you could say that both these teams seem to have been a bit unlucky this year – particularly on the offensive side – not converting hits to runs and wins. Nonetheless, the gap in talent and production between Detroit and these guys is real.
First, team defense. The Indians defensive numbers are solid, as are the Tigers, the Royals are not. The Indians added 2.3 WAR with their gloves, the Tigers 1.9 and the Royals a miserable – 2.5. Defense isn’t what separates us from Cleveland, but it’s a big part of what keeps KC at the bottom – accounting for almost half of our 9.7 WAR lead.
Second, team offense. Crudely speaking, an extra ten runs scored should mean about one more win over the course of a season. The Tigers scored 75 more runs than KC and 105 more runs than Cleveland, so you might figure that a large piece of our advantage is offensive. Well, we do (or at least did in 2010) have an advantage over them in that department, but it isn’t nearly as large as the final tallies suggest. KC batters added 19.7 WAR, Indians’ 19.6 – to the Tigers’ 22.4. So, the gap is real but it doesn’t seem to be giving us even a 3-win advantage. The dregs just aren’t all that awful at the plate, looking at WAR they were both actually better than the 2nd place White Sox. But what gives us that 3 game advantage? In the Royals case, it can be bluntly put as ‘our star is better than your star’. Miguel Cabrera’s 7.4 offensive WAR was (of course) the best on the Tigers, Billy Butler’s 4.4 offensive WAR was the best on the Royals. If the two teams switched first basemen, they would switch offenses. The same is true, in part, for the Indians. Though Shin-Soo Choo had a higher total WAR than Cabrera this year, he was 1.6 WAR below him offensively (and 2.0 WAR better defensively).
So where does the rest of it come from? You wouldn’t say that the Indians have deeper holes to fill than the Tigers do. Both the Indians and Tigers gave about the same amount of playing time to ‘sub-replacement-level’ talent (think Adam Everett) which cost the Tigers 1.3 wins and the Indians 1.2. What cost the Indians a lot of runs, relative to our Tigers, is all the playing time they gave to guys just barely above replacement level. If acceptable, average, performance at the plate is good for about 2 WAR in 600 plate appearances, that should be about 0.0033 WAR/PA. The Tigers had a lot of guys in between 0.002 and 0.004 – as did Cleveland – but the Tigers didn’t have many guys between 0 and 0.002 (just Sizemore at a literal 0, Danny Worth at 0.00087 and Brennan Boesch at 0.00195). The Indians, on the other hand, gave over 1800 plate appearances to guys between 0.0004 and 0.0011, which is really awfully close to replacement level production.
On the third count, pitching, all three of these teams were weak this year. Twins’ position players added 22 WAR, Twins’ pitchers 22.7. Tigers pitchers added a meager 8.4, Royals 5.8 and Indians 2.3. So… our pitching is not a strong suit, but our mediocre staff is still a part of what is keeping us out of the cellar.
One thing that we don’t have over these guys is a better closer. Joakim Soria was 2.6 wins better than Valverde last year, Chris Perez was 1.5 wins better than him as well. Our advantages elsewhere in the staff must be even greater. The rest of the bullpen is a piece of the answer. The Tigers bullpen was stressful to watch at times this year, but middle relief in KC and Cleveland was below replacement level. Non-closer relievers in Detroit added 0.9 WAR, in KC they subtracted 0.4 WAR and in Cleveland they subtracted 0.2.
Starters 3-10 for all three teams were ‘disappointing’, and contributed little if anything to the teams’ chances. We had our Bondo, they have Bannisters and Mastersons. The White Sox? They don’t have a Bondo, a Bannister or a Masterson. Where we had an advantage over the dregs this year was at the top of the rotation. In the number 1 slot, Verlander was good for 4.1 WAR – compared to Greinke’s 2.4 and Carmona’s 1.9. That’s big by itself. What’s more, our #2 guy Scherzer added 3.3 WAR. It’s a stretch to call anyone on KC or Cleveland a ‘number 2 starter’, but their second best starters by WAR were Bruce Chen (in KC) with 2.1 and Jake Westbrook (in Cleveland) with 0.3. Those two slots account for almost the whole difference between the 3 pitching staffs.
Looking towards next season, this makes me a little uneasy. The big difference between us and them offensively was a monster year from Cabrera. He is a great player, but he is unlikely to repeat this performance every year. A dropoff to 5 WAR from Cabrera would leave us approximately level with the worst offenses in the division. The resigning of Inge, taken as a signal, suggests that Tigers’ brass understands the role team defense has played in keeping us out of the cellar and that they intend to keep that a strength. But, defensive production is erratic and even great players decline rapidly with age. Inge and Santiago are over 30 and Laird won’t be returning. Our last major advantage is Scherzer, and that gives more reason for comfort and optimism. The Indians and Royals are still searching for starter number 2, we have the ‘luxury’ of searching for starter number 3.