While the Tigers have won one more game than they did last year, they are doing so without winning in the same impressive fashion as they did last year.
For starters, when we take a look at their Pythagorean W-L record, they're arguably playing a little bit over their head right now. Based on their runs scored and runs allowed, the record should be sitting at something around 27-23, a three win reduction from where they currently stand. That sort of fluctuation isn't unusual, especially early in the season, but it does indicate the Tigers record might be a bit better than how they've played.
On the other hand, the 2013 club was underperforming, with their runs scored and allowed indicating they should have been sitting at 31-19 in their first 50 games. Of course, the Tigers continued that trend all season long and never saw their actual record catch up to their Pythagorean record, so it's not a perfect forecast, but it is a good proxy.
Is that because of the offense, or the pitching and defense? Well, the answer is both.
It probably comes as no surprise that the Tigers offense isn't as potent as it was last year. That was largely to be expected after the Tigers jettisoned Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta and Prince Fielder, and replaced them with Ian Kinsler, Andrew Romine/Danny Worth and Nick Castellanos.
The Tigers have scored 33 less runs so far this year than they did last year, seeing their average drop from 5.3 runs/game to a more modest 4.6 runs/game. That number puts them slightly above average in the American League, about where you'd expect an offense powered by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, but also trying to carry a two-headed shortstop that isn't hitting their body weight.
However, one frequent complaint about the 2013 offense was that it was all boom or bust. Early on in the season, that was certainly true. In 50 games, they scored ten or more runs six times, and scored 6-8 runs in nearly 40% of their games. On the other hand, they were shut out four times, and only scored one or two runs in nine games. That trend did smooth out a bit over the season, but the offense definitely had its peaks and valleys.
It's important to note that while the number of games a team is shut out in gets frequently mentioned, the likelihood of winning a game when you only score 1 or 2 runs isn't very high, either. It's less than 20% if you score one run, and only about 25% if you score two. So, focusing on low scoring games makes sense when trying to analyze the boom or bust impact, rather than the small fraction of times a team doesn't score a single run.
This year's offense shows a more normal distribution curve, without a large number of games coming in with 6-8 runs, and not as many double digit showings (four instead of six). However, while they were only shut out twice, they scored only one or two runs in 15 games. So they scored two runs or less in 17 games, winning three of those games. The 2013 group only did that 13 times, winning twice.
So, while it makes for a nice story that this offense is much more consistent, and last year's group was all over the place, the reality is that the 2014 offense actually has more games in which they only score a couple runs or less, while not reaching a high number of runs scored that would result in a likely win as frequently.
This year's pitching staff was expected to be a group that would carry the team, but somewhat surprisingly, that hasn't been the case. The Tigers, despite having made significant attempts to improve their infield defense on top of returning most of an excellent rotation, are allowing more runs this year than they did last year. At 4.3 runs allowed/game, they're just barely below the 4.4 runs allowed/game AL-average this season, and well above last year, when they gave up just under 4 runs/game.
Is that the pitching, or the defense behind it?
The defense, somewhat disappointingly, just hasn't been as good as hoped. They're currently at -14 in DRS (defensive runs saved), or in explicit terms, the defense has cost the team 14 runs more than average. That ranks the Tigers 22nd in MLB, so despite efforts to upgrade the defense, that hasn't translated into a good defense, at least not yet.
As detailed by TigsTown senior analyst Neil Weinberg earlier this week, Torii Hunter is a big culprit of this, along with the rest of the outfield. But the left side infield defense has been no picnic either, where Worth, Romine, Alex Gonzalez and Nick Castellanos combined are -15 in DRS.
FanGraphs doesn't provide advanced defensive metrics to be split out so we can't make a pure apples-to-apples comparison, but for the 2013 season, the Tigers were -66 in defensive runs saved. If we spread that out evenly, it means the defense through 50 games last year cost the team about 20 runs.
In other words, the defense might be a bit better than it was last year, but it still hasn't been good.
On the pitching side of things, the pitching staff accumulated almost 13 wins (12.8 WAR) in April and May last year, with a cumulative FIP under three in both months. They relied heavily on strikeouts (helping negate that poor defense), as the staff collectively averaged almost 10 strikeouts per nine innings. (Ed. Note: Tigers had actually played 53 games by the end of May in 2013, but for purposes of this analysis, it's a good proxy).
Meanwhile, so far in 2014, the pitching staff has only contributed about six and a half wins (6.5 WAR), with an FIP of 3.64. Their strikeouts per nine innings is a much more modest 7.7, with Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello having noticeable drops in their strikeout rates.
Without the horses at the top of the rotation dominating, the pitching staff doesn't pack the same punch. And despite the Tigers efforts to revamp the bullpen in 2014, it very much remains a work in progress, as we've seen Joe Nathan struggle periodically, while others have continued to battle inconsistency. Joba Chamberlain has been a bright spot, but he's also only one man.
The Tigers' offense has taken a step back as expected, but contrary to popular belief, they're putting up weak offensive games more often than last year's squad did. They're not bad, they're just not quite as good.
On the other side of things, the defense is better, but it's still not good, and the rotation hasn't been the dominant group that they were in 2013.
So, while the Tigers can point to a slightly better record through the first 50 games of 2014, and a larger division lead, they also don't have the same dominating underlying numbers they had last season, a potential sign for trouble to come as the season wears on.