Tigers Offense: Are There Really Problems?

With so much discussion about the Tigers offense and its supposed issues, it's an ideal time to take a closer look at the team's production, and if the complaints about the team are valid. The answers to the most important questions may surprise some.

There have been three primary complaints thus far about the Tigers' offense this season, which are summarized as follows:

1) The Tigers offense is bad or underperforming

2) They are way too inconsistent

3) The offense is bad in the clutch and late inning situations

Let's tackle each topic one at a time.

1. The Tigers offense is bad or underperforming

This is quite frankly a very easy question to address, and in this case, refute. Through Thursday's games, the Tigers have scored 423 runs spanning 84 games. That's good for the second most runs in all of baseball, behind only the Boston Red Sox, and they are one of only two teams that are averaging more than five runs per game. They also sport the best average in baseball, hitting a combined .280.

Taking a look through the advanced prism, things are just as impressive. The team is second in wOBA and wRC+ at .339 and 113, respectively. So, no matter how you break it down, the Tigers offense is one of the top few in baseball.

It's also been consistently good, and actually improving compared to the rest of MLB. They were 5th in wOBA in April, 4th in May, and 2nd in June.

This doesn't mean the offense is perfect; Alex Avila's struggles have been well documented, and the Tigers are obviously hoping for more than a .635 OPS from an everyday designated hitter. But in a lineup with nine players, most teams are going to have a spot or two not living up to expectations.

So, if you want to complain that the Tigers offense is bad, or is underperforming, you either had completely unrealistic expectations of what they would do to begin with (i.e. you thought they were going to challenge the 1927 Yankees' firepower), or your opinion is not based in fact or reality. The offense is one of the best in baseball.

ANSWER: COMPLETELY FALSE, and if anyone tries to argue it with you, remember the old adage about arguing with idiots… (they'll take you down to their level, and beat you on experience)

2. The Tigers offense is too inconsistent

To level set around expected consistency, let's first take a look at the Tigers' offense over the course of a full season, in 2012 (that offense by the way was good for 11th in MLB, so above average, but not among the best).

As you can see, the run production over the course of the season forms a bell-like shape, with five runs being the runs the Tigers produced most frequently, scoring that many runs 24 times (as well as scoring two runs 21 times, three runs 22 times, and four runs 23 times). The trend then quickly descends after five runs, ending with the team scoring 10 or more runs just eight times.

To compare, we'll first look at the Tigers through 50 games. Interestingly enough, there, at least at the beginning of the season, was something to the claim that the Tigers were producing runs inconsistently from game to game.

The spike is at six runs, instead of five, which isn't that unusual given the Tigers increased productivity compared to the prior year. But the number of games at which they were scoring in the 3-5 run range was rather limited, just 11 games of the 50 were they in that range. That works out to just 22%, or about half the 43% of games that had between three and five runs scored in 2012.

But, 50 games is a relatively small sample of an entire 162 game season. In fact, If you take a snapshot of a team over a particular 50 game period, you can usually find more inconsistency, due to injuries, pitchers faced, game variance (weather, stadium), etc. However, over time, things should begin to look more normal.

Through Thursday, 84 games, here's how things look:

The curve begins to look more normal, with the spike remaining around six, and a lot more games in the three to five run range. That 22% of games with 3-5 runs is now up to 30%, and when you include the fact that the Tigers' offense is better this year and expand the range to 3-6, it's up to 44% (compared to 53% of games with 3-6 runs in 2012). In other words, some of the inconsistency is going away over time.

But, not all of it. Why? It's pretty simple. The Tigers offense is better, and better offenses have the firepower to score more runs more often, and that's exactly what is happening. In 2012, the team scored 10 or more runs just eight times. In 2013, they've already scored 10+ runs ten times, and we're only about halfway through the season. Teams that have the ability to score more aren't going to be as clustered around the three to six run range like average offenses are.

As for the very low scoring games (shutout or scoring just one run)? Well, in 2012, the Tigers scored no or one runs 20 times. So far in 2013, they've scored that many ten times, right in line with the 2012 trend. Good pitching and a number of other factors, including just general variance from game to game, can result in low scoring games – it happens to all teams, not just the Tigers.

Case in point, the only team scoring more than the Tigers so far in 2013 is the Boston Red Sox. They've been shut out four times, and scored one run five times, a total of nine, just slightly better than the Tigers' ten.

So, there has been some inconsistency early in the year, but that is working itself out with more games played, and what's left in inconsistency is actually a good thing – it's a product of the Tigers having a really good offense that can score a lot of runs in any given game, and they're not being held in check any more than average.

ANSWER: MOSTLY FALSE, and what is left of the inconsistency is actually a good thing.

3. The Tigers can't score in late game situations

We've finally reached an interesting point here. While the Tigers are one of the best offenses in baseball (second in runs scored), they've been quite bad at scoring runs late in games. In fact, they're 29th in MLB in runs scored in the 7th inning or later, with just 86 runs scored (just 20% of runs coming in over one-third of innings played). It's not a production but no runs thing, either – their OPS is .629, which is 28th in MLB.

There could be a number of reasons for why this is happening, including that it can and will balance out over time, just needing more games played. But, even with things evening out over time, it's worth investigating further how the 2nd best offense in baseball becomes the 2nd worst late in games through more than half a season of play.

We're going to focus on three possible explanations; Jim Leyland's managing decisions, the lack of balance in the lineup due to Miguel Cabrera, and the rest of the lineup struggling late in games.

For the first one, anyone that has watched manager Jim Leyland's teams over the years know that when things get close and late, he likes to get down and play small ball – bunt guys over, play for a single run, etc. While there are extensive arguments against this strategy, that's another discussion for another day. What we want to know, are Leyland's teams worse at scoring late in games?

Looking at the past five years and where the Tigers come in under Leyland's guidance, each of the last three seasons, they've performed worse in the late innings than overall. But the two years before that, they actually did better.

There were also some differences in personnel that could have lent itself better to Leyland's style in 2010 and 2009 than 2011 and on. Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, Torii Hunter, Omar Infante and Prince Fielder have slowly replaced guys like Ryan Raburn, Ramon Santiago, Brandon Inge, Johnny Damon and Magglio Ordonez in that time. And in 2009, while the run differential ranking was better, the team's OPS+ was still worse in innings 7-9 than innings 1-3.

In addition, when we look further in Leyland's history, we can see a trend that continues with minor late inning struggles. With the 1998 Florida Marlins, the team's tOPS+ (the OPS in that specific split relative to its overall OPS) was best early in games (109), average in the middle (99), and below average late (91). Same was true, though to a lesser extent, in 1997 with the Marlins. And the same was true of the 1999 Colorado Rockies, with a relative OPS 9 points worse in innings 7-9 than in innings 1-3.

So, it's possible, and even likely, that Leyland is contributing to the offense's late inning struggles. But, we are historically talking about a few index points of OPS+ worse, so he can't be responsible for all of it, or even most of it.

The lineup balance is another issue. It goes without saying that Miguel Cabrera is currently the best hitter in baseball, but when so much of your team's productivity is attributable to one player, he alone can swing performance, and when other teams can and do pitch around him, it puts the pressure on others to produce.

And in fact, we can absolutely see Cabrera struggling late in games; his relative OPS+ is 50 in the 7th-9th inning. For his career, he has been slightly worse late in games, with a relative OPS+ of 89 in the late innings. This could be due to Cabrera forcing late in games, or teams pitching around him and not giving him something to hit, and it's important to remember that in general teams score less in late innings than the rest of the game. For example, managers can choose pitching matchups more selectively in late innings. So far in 2013, the MLB average OPS is .718 overall, but .687 in the 7th and later. But, Cabrera is posting just an OPS well over 1.200 in the first six innings, and an OPS of just .821 in the 7th on.

Beyond Cabrera, what about those that are expected to help carry the load? In fact, it's a problem afflicting others, too.

Victor Martinez's relative OPS+ for his own production comes in at 60 late in games, well below average, and his OPS+ compared to the rest of the league in that range is even worse, at 49. Jhonny Peralta has the same issue, with his own relative OPS+ at 47, and his OPS+ compared to the rest of the league at 76. Possibly the worst offender has been Torii Hunter, whose relative OPS+ is just 14 (an actual OPS of just .426) in innings 7-9. Both Hunter and Peralta have had minor issues like this throughout their careers (all with relative OPS+ similar to that of Cabrera around 90), but none as bad as what we've gotten.

What does it all mean? It appears that all three factors are contributing to make a situation very bad. Leyland's teams have historically done worse than average in late inning situations. Miguel Cabrera's OPS in the 7th-9th inning is more than 400 points worse than it is in the first 6 innings. And others like Martinez, Peralta and Hunter are having similar struggles, and in the case of Peralta and Hunter, have had struggles like that throughout their career. Such struggles are especially odd for a switch hitter like Martinez, who shouldn't be susceptible to matchups like a one-side of the plate only hitter.

ANSWER: All the evidence indicates that it is in fact a problem. Some of it should/will be fixed with time (Cabrera isn't going to continue to hit 400 points worse late in games), but other players have had issues with it throughout their career. And in addition, Leyland's teams have traditionally been worse later in games, and that trend has gotten worse with this particular group of players, potentially indicating he's doing his team a disservice by asking good hitters to bunt and not hit, and giving away outs when he shouldn't.

So in total, the Tigers offense is not bad, and in fact, it's very good. It's also not the boom and bust inconsistent group, that some may want you to believe, with the inconsistency actually a good thing, because it means the Tigers are scoring more runs. But, they're not scoring much late in games, and it appears to have a number of factors contributing, none of which are easily fixed.

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