The Detroit Tigers may not be the super-human juggernaut that many analysts believe they are … but they’re pretty damn close.
I came to this conclusion the other day when, in a particularly strong bout of optimism, I thought maybe the Royals can find a way to do it this year. If they keep it close into September, maybe they can take this division with 90 wins after a late season run. *eye twinkle*
This led to an unfounded belief that maybe the Tigers aren’t as good as people think. So, I dug into the numbers, and was crushed by the reality that the Tigers are freaking incredible on paper. It’s kind of hard to look at.
Start with their pitching staff, third in the AL in ERA (3.75) last year, and that was with a suspect bullpen. They were second in starters’ ERA at 3.76, which is fantastic. Their top four starters had ERAs under 3.74; Justin Verlander led the group with a 2.64. The only starter in their top six in starts with an ERA over four was Rick Porcello, and I could see him losing his spot in the rotation to Drew Smyly. Every one of these pitchers other than Porcello had a K/9 rate of at least 7.64, and each of them had a BB/9 rate under three.
On the offensive side, the picture doesn’t get much prettier (that is if you’re hoping for the Royals to compete; if you’re hoping for the Tigers to win 95 games, things are looking great). The Tigers’ team slash line was .268/.335/.422. They were fourth in the AL in OPS at .757 behind New York, Texas, and Los Angeles. Of course, that was without their starting DH, Victor Martinez, who was out the whole year with a torn ACL. He’ll be back this year because clearly they need more help hitting bombs off Luke Hochevar.
The most terrifying aspects of this lineup are not Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. They’re incredible; they’re going to hit. Everyone knows it. It’s guys like Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks who really stand out. Jackson hit .300/.377/.479 last season. He was worth 5.5 WAR (according to fangraphs), which was more than Prince Fielder. Dirks, in only 344 PA, hit .322/.370/.487 and was worth 1.6 WAR, a number dragged down by his poor fielding.
To help with all this, noted Royal killer and ageless wonder Torii Hunter has joined the Tigers. YAY!
That’s not to say that the Tigers are without flaws. Jackson and Dirks’ numbers were inflated by very high BABIPs—but so are Alex Gordon’s. There’s no telling where Martinez will be after ACL surgery, a year away from baseball, and being another year older. He’s 34 years old. In fact, this team, while not old, has plenty of miles on it and plenty of padding around the waistline. I wonder sometimes how Cabrera and Fielder hold up as well as they do with all the weight they carry, and essentially, this is the Royals’ only hope: that the Tigers get hit by the injury bug.
Of course, there are other deficiencies in their game that might make an AL Central race more interesting. The Tigers’ added bulk makes them pretty useless running the bases. They’re a one-base-at-a-time kind of team. It also makes them a below-average fielding team. Jackson is good in center field, Jhonny Peralta is decent at shortstop, and Omar Infante is pretty good at second base, but that’s about it. Everyone else actively hurts them on defense, especially Cabrera and Fielder, with the possible exception of Hunter in right field, though most of his value last year came from his arm, and we’ll see if that holds up.
The great question is if the Tigers are so great, how come they only won 88 games last year? Well, the defense and base running are a part of it. But the real answer? The bullpen. It was 10th in the AL in ERA and blew 16 saves last season, which doesn’t include games it blew before a save opportunity was in place. The Tigers lost 23 games via a relief pitcher, which means 23 times last year, the rotation handed a game over to the bullpen either tied or in the lead and lost that game. The Royals only lost 21 games in relief, and their bullpen pitched over 100 innings more than the Tigers’. To put it in greater perspective, the Texas Rangers bullpen pitched roughly the same number of innings as the Tigers’ and lost only 14 games.
And really, there isn’t much to indicate that the bullpen will be a lot better, but bullpens are finicky. Meaning it’s tough to count on their bullpen being bad again. More likely, their bullpen will be average, and won’t lose them so many games next season.
In a way, though, I’m glad the Tigers are as good as they are on paper. It makes the notion of the Royals chasing them a little more exciting. James Shields in interviews compares the 2013 Royals to the 2008 Tampa Bay Devil Rays. I’m not sure it’s a fitting comparison, but the Devil Rays had two mammoth teams in their division to compete against and were better for it. Yes, the Tigers are great on paper. They are most certainly the favorites in the division, but sometimes something special happens.
And I’m back to unfounded optimism.