Tigers’ Negative Run Differential Means Very Little


A lot has been made of the fact that every team in the American league Central has been outscored by their opponent this year. At the conclusion of yesterday’s 5-2 loss to the Texas Rangers, the Detroit Tigers stood at 497 runs scored and 504 runs allowed. The three-run defeat means that even coming into that game, the Tigers had been outscored by four runs on the season.

They currently stand at 59-52, seven games over .500, despite the Pythagorean formula saying they should be a 55-56 club. What we need to remember is something that has been true for as long as they have played competitive games; the score doesn’t ultimately matter, only the winner and loser of each game.

The Tigers have shown thus far into the season that they have the formula to win their first division title since 1987. They have performed well in one-run games, winning 14 of 25, they have played well within the division, posting a 23-13 record so far, and they have also played well enough on the road, currently sitting at 26-27 away from Comerica Park.

The main culprit in the Tigers being outscored this year has no-doubt been their bullpen. The relievers’ ERA of 4.72 ranks dead last in the AL. But if we look just a bit deeper, we see that it isn’t that Detroit’s bullpen has been ineffective at all, only that their long and middle relievers, the soft underbelly of the group, has been especially terrible. The guys that are charged with putting away a lead have been great, in all actuality. Detroit leads the league in saves with 32 and as a unit have blown the fewest save opportunities in the league as well.

The Tigers have had occasion to lay an egg this year and it seems like when there is a game where the starting pitcher is particularly ineffective, the first call to the bullpen provides nothing in the way of relief. 11 times this year the Tigers have allowed 10 or more runs. In those games they have been outscored by a combined 140-46 (or a -96 run differential). Not surprisingly, the Tigers have lost each of those games.

On the flip side, the Tigers have scored at least 10 runs only five times all year, winning each game. In those five contests the Tigers have outscored their opponent 55-21 (+34 run diff). If we want to make the numbers balance a bit better, the Tigers have scored at least nine runs at total of 11 times, or the same number of times they have allowed at least 10 runs in a game. The Tigers are 10-1 in those games and have outscored their opposition by a total of 109-48 (+61 run diff).

Even only looking at those 21 games (there was one game where the Tigers lost 16-9 to the Mets and therefore was factored into to both groups), the Tigers record was 10-11, but their run differential was at minus 33. That means the Tigers were outscored by an average of over 1.5 runs per game over those 21 contests, yet they still lost only one more game than they won.

Does Detroit’s propensity to suffer a blowout loss indicate that they aren’t a good club? I don’t think it does. You have to look not only at the hard numbers, but also at how those numbers came about.

Apart from a rough patch in early May, when Joaquin Benoit was hit hard, the back-end of the Detroit bullpen has been excellent this year, lead by Jose Valverde and Al Alburquerque. No question, those two along with Benoit have been the three best relievers the Tigers have offered this year. Those three are almost never used if the Tigers are trailing in the game. On the other hand, there has been a parade of rookies and unsteady hurlers that have occupied the front-end of the Tigers’ ‘pen. Guys like Brad Thomas, Enrique Gonzalez, and youngsters like Brayan Villarreal, Ryan Perry, and Adam Wilk that have been used in long relief roles or have been asked to keep a game close where the Tigers are trailing. Collectively, this unit has been pretty bad at their job this year.

The late-inning guys for Detroit (and we’ll throw Phil Coke in there with the above three) have posted a collective ERA of 3.52 over 135.1 innings this year. The rest of the Tigers relief options (limiting to a minimum of two appearances) have posted an ERA of 5.92 covering 156.2 innings of work. Seeing these drastic splits and knowing that Leyland is reluctant to use his best relievers when trailing in the game, it’s no wonder the Tigers have had the tendency to get blown out as often as they have.

It’s not simply a case where a starter gives up five runs and is pulled in the fourth and the Tigers go on to lose 7-1, but it’s also a problem that shows up in games where Detroit trails 3-1 in the seventh and Leyland opts to use a David Purcey or Ryan Perry to work the inning. More often than not, it seems, a two-run deficit become four or five in a hurry.

The Tigers have taken steps to solve these problems with the addition of David Pauley via trade and the move of Coke back to the bullpen. This should work to lengthen the relief corps and limit the times that their opponent will widen their leads on an unproven reliever.

If these moves pan out as intended, the Tigers will see fewer and fewer games where the opposition adds on runs at the end of games, which should result in one or two games that the Tigers can come back and win late. That’s something that hasn’t happened often this year. The bullpen has done a great job of keeping the club in the lead when given one in the late innings, but rarely do they hold the opponent from growing their lead when the Tigers are trailing.

Sure, you can look at the run differential and say the Tigers should be a .500 club or even a game below that. If you want to, I suppose you can dismiss them, and the division as a whole, for that reason. But the Tigers have won 17 of 32 games against the top five American League teams this year, including winning the season series against both Texas and New York.

It doesn’t matter if you win a game by one run or 15; it still counts for only one win. Bill Parcells says you are what your record says you are, and I believe he’s right. The Tigers are seven games over .500 and their record says they are a pretty good team.

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