Detroit Tigers and Close Games


Mar 31, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers short stop Alex Gonzalez (second from right) is swarmed by teammates after hitting a walk off RBI single against the Kansas City Royals in the ninth inning of an opening day baseball game at Comerica Park. Detroit won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

A few trees were sacrificed and a heck of lot more gigabytes consumed last year on behalf of analyzing the Tigers’ problems with winning close games, particularly low scoring ones.

Blame rested primarily on Detroit’s long ball approach at the plate, suspect defense and base-running, and stubborn problems in the bullpen.  And then when the Tigers lost four one-run games in the playoffs the howling became even louder. A couple weeks after the end of the World Series, of course, Prince Fielder was dealt and the reshaping of the Tigers roster began. Lose a little power here, add a little speed there. Then wash, rinse and repeat. When the cycle made its final rotation, the roster that emerged seemed, on the surface, more capable of winning those close, low-scoring games. Added were a veteran closer, more speed and base running acumen, and a defense that could make a difference in tight games.

Fast forward a few months to the first two games of 2014 and it appears the plan is working masterfully. Two one-run, low scoring triumphs against an opponent who the year before seemed to beat the Tigers by deploying all of the attributes Detroit lacked. It is enough to make one wonder if the Tigers have finally found the final piece to the World Championship puzzle.

Or have they? The meme in 2013 that the Tigers couldn’t win close games was, upon further review, overblown. The Tigers were 20-26 in one-run games last year. That certainly leaves room for improvement. As it turns out, over the course of last season the Tigers did improve in close games. The back end of the bullpen settled in nicely after Benoit became the closer, and the Tigers mitigated their curious futility at the plate late in games. From July 1 until the last series of the season, a meaningless one against Miami after the division title had been clinched, the Tigers were 10-10 in one-run games. Also, before the final series of the season they were 9-11 in low scoring games (four or fewer runs scored). None of the above really signals a problem. Playing around .500 in close, tight games is what the  laws of statistical probability, as they apply in baseball, would expect.

What if we extend the analysis to two-run games. Here the narrative takes another hit. The Tigers were 7-7 in two-run games. A .500 record in two-run games, well, once again, that’s within the realm of the totally expected. Nothing weird or anomalous here. The same couldn’t be said for one of the real culprits in Detroit’s squishy record in close games: the Tigers’ general failure to hit well in clutch situations. Using formula for clutch performance the Tigers finished 26th in major league baseball in hitting in the clutch. What’s instructive about this data is that hitting in the clutch, or failing to, is not a skill. In other words, it’s not something that tends to repeat itself over and over. The Tigers just had one of those years in which too many line drives in key spots ended up right at the fielder or not enough duck snorts found life.  And before you start screaming about strikeouts know that the Tigers led major league baseball in fewest strikeouts per at bat, slamming shut the retort that the Tigers whiffed too often to take advantage of clutch situations. No, Detroit was really just unlucky.

The Tigers’ voodoo struggles in the clutch notwithstanding, the data fails to support the argument that Detroit was exceptionally bad in close and low-scoring games last year.  Even in the playoffs, the Tigers managed to win three one-run games. The notion that the Bengals needed to address this problem appears to fall into the  “solution in need of a problem “ phenomenon.

So, you’re asking yourself, what’s the point of revisiting all of this now. Because the FSD guys brought it up yesterday, and I just can’t shake the belief that the “team built to win close games” will do what most major league teams do, play around .500 in games decided by two-runs or fewer but win considerably fewer of those other kinds of games. You know, the ones where you blow out the opposition by five runs or more. The Tigers went 33-15 in those kinds of games last year, tying them with the Boston for the most in the American League. Nothing adds to the win column like the ability to stomp on the opposition regularly.  This brings me back to concerns about the Tigers lack of power and wondering if Detroit’s offseason moves didn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Look, the power game worked for the Tigers, and I think, after trading Fielder, wisely in my opinion, and losing Jhonny Peralta, Detroit should have moved more aggressively to fill some of their lost power. Instead, the Tigers never really refilled the air that escaped, choosing to move a valuable asset (Fister) for pitching depth. Friday’s game, and the five home runs in the first three games, suggest perhaps there’s nothing to worry about. Time will tell.