Detroit Tigers Hit Bottom


As grim and negative as that title sounds – this isn’t going to be a negative piece. What I’m going to argue is that the Detroit Tigers hit bottom back on May 9 in Seattle and since then have been more or less the Tigers we expected to see. We haven’t noticed yet, but looking back from August it might be obvious.

So why did I pick May 9? On May 9 Miguel Cabrera put up his third consecutive O-fer (he was actually O-for-the-Mariners-series) to drop his OPS down to .798. Do you ever remember a sub-.800 OPS for Miggy more than a month into the season? The lowest his OPS ever sank last year (after May 1) was .965. In 2010 it was literally never below 1.000 – ever – at any point during the season. That lack of production from the beating heart of the Tigers lineup symbolized the plight of the lineup as a whole – a lineup we all expected to be so good as to drag a team with a bad defense, old bullpen and inconsistent rotation to the playoffs.

As of May 9, Cabrera’s weak bat wasn’t the only thing that just didn’t seem right – or at least not as we all figured it would be. The team’s best starter had been Drew Smyly, for one thing. Their most reliable reliever? Duane Below. But starting May 10 pigs stopped flying, dogs stopped fraternizing with cats, etc… and the Detroit Tigers started to go back to the way the Detroit Tigers were supposed to be. Tigers coaches noticed a problem with the way Miguel Cabrera was holding his hands at the plate, and with a grin he stung the A’s for 4 hits en route to a 10-6 win. For a guy who had, for all intents and purposes, never struggled at this game it had to have been eating Cabrera alive.

It hasn’t all been gravy for Detroit since they bottomed out on May 9, but the team has put up 56 runs in 11 games. That obviously isn’t spectacular (at least by the standards the juiced era left us with) but it’s as good or a hair better than what we expected from Tiger bats when the season opened. If we haven’t noticed the turnaround, it’s probably because the Tigers have allowed 58 runs over the same span and gone 5-6 (despite facing some pretty soft offenses in the A’s, White Sox, Twins and Pirates).

It isn’t all Cabrera, of course. I don’t want to give anybody the impression that I’m counting a Tigers turning point solely on the basis of Miguel Cabrera’s personal production at the plate – but Cabrera does count. Here are before-and-after numbers for some of our Tigers:

I won’t put their contradictory numbers up there, but I will mention that Prince Fielder and Andy Dirks have been roughly equivalent before and after, and Don Kelly and Alex Avila haven’t hit at all over the past 11 games. Still, overall the offense has been vastly improved. Even Raburn has begun to hit like a AAAA player instead of a little leaguer. As a team, the Tigers OPS dropped to .702 on May 9, since then it has been a more robust .779.

It isn’t exactly a shock that the Tigers have struggled to separate themselves from the pack, even in the weak AL Central. We knew they had flaws – we just didn’t think that the ability to score runs would be a problem. The reasons that the Tigers have not gone on a winning streak since that watershed game on May 10 in Oakland are very much in keeping with what we worried about all along. Prior to the season, the 5th starter spot was a source of concern – and in his last 2 starts Smyly has a 7.45 ERA (due to 4 HR allowed, not anything else). The pitching staff as a whole has a 4.88 ERA – despite two complete game wins from Justin Verlander (in which he allowed a combined total of 3 hits and one run) – and that isn’t counting the 6 unearned runs over those 11 games. Scherzer and Porcello oozed talent, but didn’t really seem to be able to put things together. Scherzer has an ERA of 4.67 since May 9, Porcello 6.00.

Some bullpen ERAs tell the rest of the story of why the Tigers have hit but not won – and this is another area we didn’t really expect to be a relative strength… Phil Coke – 8.44. Jose Valverde – 6.75. Luke Putkonen – 12.00. Collin Balester – 16.20. Duane Below – 10.13. Dotel, Villarreal and Benoit have been good over that span, but it hasn’t been enough to compensate.

In short – we expected a team with questions marks in the rotation and bullpen that would both excite and frustrate us at times all season long. The past two weeks we have seen that. I’m still optimistic about the rotation (though the bullpen has me in a cold sweat when I’m watching a game). I don’t think that going 5-6 since – what I consider to be – the Tigers began their rebound is a mark of doom. But at least when the Tigers are struggling they are struggling in the way that we expected them to struggle. It isn’t so much that the time for the Tigers to shine has already come, it’s that the Tigers season stopped looking strange on May 9. Maybe soon they will start to look normal and good.