July 14, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera (24), starting pitcher Max Scherzer (37), shortstop Jhonny Peralta (27), right fielder Torii Hunter (48) and first baseman Prince Fielder (28) with their All Star jerseys before the game against the Texas Rangers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
The Detroit Tigers used a series victory over the Texas Rangers to pull into the All-Star break with an AL Central leading record of 52-42. The fact that the Tigers are in first place isn’t a surprise – many picked them to with the division by a double-digit (or near enough) margin before the series began – but, to some, it is surprising that they find themselves on top of the Cleveland Indians by only a game and a half.
Detroit’s current .553 winning percentage – fifth best in the American League – isn’t overly impressive considering their payroll* but the accompanying 90-win pace should be enough to ultimately win the division. And if we also consider that the Tigers’ pythagorean record pace – using run differential instead of actual wins and losses to estimate “true talent” record – puts the team up at 96 wins, we really should have no reason to complain about the play on the field.
*People that make the payroll argument against the Tigers – and I’m mostly talking about Huge here – never seem to mention the Dodgers, Angels, Phillies, and Giants who are in similar payrol situations with much worse records – none finished the first half above .500.
The Tigers’ divergence from pythagorean record to actual record, currently about four wins, isn’t simply bad luck – I’m sure a less-than-reliable bullpen has something to do with it – but it does likely contain a good amount of luck. Tigers fans can reasonable expect the team to perform better in the second half than they did in the first half, especially now that many of the late-inning bullpen problems have been solved by settling on Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit as the eighth and ninth inning guys. If Detroit can maintain their current Pythag pace (and play up to it), they’d finish with 92 or 93 wins, which pretty much no one would consider a disappointing season.
What Could Go Wrong
Doom and gloom scenarios for the Tigers in the second half pretty much all involve the pitching staff. Justin Verlander had done well enough this year (3.50 ERA, 3.23 FIP), but he hasn’t been the same dominating guy that the team relied on so heavily the past two seasons. Anibal Sanchez has had shoulder issues this summer, and the jury is still out on how he’ll bounce back down the stretch. Rick Porcello has taken a big step forward with his peripheral stats – namely his strikeout rate – but his ERA hasn’t followed suit (unless you remove the Angels games), and he hasn’t convinced everyone yet that he’s truly a new player.
The Tigers aren’t necessarily counting on all three of these guys to be elite starting pitchers, but neither can they very well afford to have three of them regress unfavorably. They might still have enough pitching to get the job done, but it wouldn’t be a smooth coast to the finish line.
What Could Go Right
If the Tigers are to make a huge second-half surge, win 100 games, and have the division all wrapped up by early September, it’s going to be because the hitting got even better. Miguel Cabrera has been otherworldly – we can’t expect him to improve – but Victor Martinez was downright awful for two months, Alex Avila still hasn’t hit, and Prince Fielder has been rather pedestrian with the bat. It’s more than a little big unfair to ask the Tigers to “hit better” – they’re the #1 hitting team in baseball with a 114 wRC+ – but, at the same time, they have some bats that could turn around sharply without anyone batting an eylash.
Martinez has already shown signs of this. His OPS in only .693 on the year, but it’s been .838 in June and July (41 games). Fielder’s OPS is 100 points below his career average for no particular reason, and Avila, owner of a career 107 wRC+, has a seasonal wRC+ of just 59. This already really good offense could get even better. Of course, Miguel Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Tuiasosopo, and (to some degree) Torii Hunter could all come crashing down to earth as well (but let’s not talk about that).
Big Reason To Believe
The biggest reason to believe in the Tigers is that they are, quite simply, one of the best teams in baseball, but we can also point to their soft second-half schedule. Only 19 of the 68 second-half games will be played against teams who finished the first half with a record of .500 or better.
And the soft schedule gets even softer in the final month of the season. The best team they’ll play from September 6 through the end of the season is the Kansas City Royals, who currently own a .469 winning percentage. The Tigers will get plenty of chances to win games down the stretch.