Detroit Tigers: Signals from the Hot Start


Apr 11, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Detroit Tigers center fielder Gose (12) makes a diving catch on a fly ball hit by Cleveland Indians second baseman

Jason Kipnis

(not pictured) in the first inning at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It is clearly far better to start a season 10-2 than 6-6 or 0-12. That’s probably especially true when many of us Detroit Tigers fans had doubts about the team’s chances going in. You probably won’t hear much doom and gloom in Detroit at the moment.

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Instead of wondering if they can compete, now we’re wondering if they are “the real deal” – an immeasurably better question to think on. Instead of withering criticism of Dave Dombrowski Tigers fans might now be asking whether this past offseason was… masterful?

Those two questions are very closely tied together, of course. Dombrowski had a tough task in the 2014-2015 offseason, constrained by budget among other things. If his offseason was masterful, this team should be the real deal and vice versa.

What was asked of him – with a hard payroll constraint – was to make 3 improvements (better legs, better gloves, better ‘pen) without sacrificing too much of the rotation depth and OPS that made the team strong over the past few years. So far the Tigers lead the AL in OPS and in rotation ERA – so there isn’t any reason for concern as of yet that he sacrificed too much. But… does it look like those goals were accomplished?

As measured by Defensive Runs Saved, the 2015 Tigers are second in the AL at the moment in aggregate defense – a full 12 runs better than average. They are getting to balls this year. Recall that for years the Tigers had been at or near the bottom of the league in defense, costing the team at least 30 runs over the course of a season relative to average. Even if the team regresses back down to average that still represents a huge improvement over not only last year but also most of the past decade.

As far as legs are concerned, the Tigers share the lead in steals (13) with the Rays and Astros. Finally the baserunning category (BsR), which incorporates a lot more than just steals, is adding to WAR totals for Tigers position players instead of subtracting. The Tigers are on pace for 175 steals, which would be their best mark since 1979 when Ron LeFlore was running wild and Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell were youngsters. Now, to keep that up guys like Jose Iglesias would have to keep getting on base, so…

Of course it’s too early to say that the bullpen is a plus or a minus, particularly given how little use it has seen in the first 12 games. Tigers relievers overall have an ERA of 3.00, good for 6th in the AL but a strikeout rate of only 7.00 (13th in the AL). They have been fortunate so far regarding the long ball and also BABIP.

That doesn’t sound too impressive – but I think to judge them fairly thus far you need to consider that averages can conceal a lot of Blaine Hardy. Hardy has thrown only 4 1/3 of the Tigers 27 bullpen innings, but has allowed 6 of their 9 bullpen runs and has only one measly K to his name. Without Hardy, the Tigers have a bullpen ERA of 1.19 (which would trail only the mighty Kansas City Royals) and a respectable strikeout rate of 7.94. It is usually not fair to say that a team would have such-and-such numbers if only it weren’t for such-and-such a guy.

One guy can do a lot of damage in a bullpen, rotation, etc… But… a garbageman like Hardy cannot possibly do the kind of damage that a combustible closer can, and his poor pitching thus far has had a negligible impact on the team’s success. Chances are, he could pitch this badly and this frequently (for about 60 IP) for the rest of the season and not cost the team more than half a win in terms of win probability. We can also assume that he can (and may soon) be replaced by any old warm body from Toledo who would hurt the team’s chances of pulling back into a 9-0 game a little less.

So far, the defense looks good. So far, the team is looking much more dynamic on the basepaths. So far, late additions Tom Gorzelanny and Joba Chamberlain and – shall we say – backup closer Joakim Soria have looked solid.

This probably won’t turn out to be another 35-5 start, but given the signals we are seeing so far it looks as though that DD may have succeeded in making those 3 changes needed for winning tight games.

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