It wasn’t that long ago that the Tigers were on top of the baseball world. They had a huge lead at the All-Star Break even though their erstwhile ace was having his worst season and their two-time MVP was nowhere near the player he was for the last few years. The Tigers were running away without much from Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. Now they’re trailing.
During the last two weeks the Tigers added a shutdown reliever and one of the game’s premier starting pitchers to an already strong roster, but those gains have unraveled quickly with Soria hitting the disabled list for at least two weeks and Sanchez preparing to miss an entire month or more. Not only is Soria gone, but the downgrade from Sanchez to Robbie Ray is probably equal to the boost from Drew Smyly to David Price.
Everything the Tigers did to load up ended up being done to barely scrape by. The Tigers are in a freefall.
Wait a second. Let’s pump the brakes a little bit. The Tigers are on pace for 89 wins, they’re only behind the Royals by half a game, their roster is substantially better than the Royals’ even with the injuries, and the Royals are riding an eight game win streak that is sure to correct itself. It may feel like the wheels are coming off, but the deck is still stacked in the Tigers favor. They’re the better team and are even in the loss column.
I think we’ve tapped into the internal strife of the longtime Tigers fan. They’re built to win, and they’re not quite putting this thing to bed. Is the panic justified?
Why it’s justified
The Tigers bullpen isn’t very good. That feels like an understatement, but we don’t need to argue over semantics. They have the fourth worst park adjusted ERA and the eighth worst park adjusted FIP. Their batting average against is higher than every other bullpen unit in the majors. They’re 20th in Win Probability Added. They’re 26th in RE24. They’re bad.
Any while the bullpen won’t make or break an otherwise good team, the fact that the Tigers can’t count on their bullpen for much of anything means that there is no margin for error anywhere else on the roster. The starters have rebounded from their May and June haze, but they have to be nearly perfect each day or the bullpen might undo it.
Additionally, while the offense is good, they aren’t immune to anemic stretches. If they’re slumping, the bullpen’s struggles are magnified because losing a late lead means they probably can’t come back.
But it’s not just the pen. The Tigers defense is extremely poor. They’re in the bottom four in Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Nick Castellanos at third and the entire outfield unit, specifically Torii Hunter, have been extremely costly in that regard.
And the baserunning is almost as detrimental. They were 24th in baserunning entering Sunday when factoring in stolen bases, caught stealing, extra bases taken, and outs on the bases.
So the Tigers have a terrific rotation and quality offense, but the bullpen, defense, and baserunning are all among the bottom third in all of baseball. The Tigers can’t do any of the little things right. Maybe that won’t torch them, but it essentially makes it impossible for them to offset any sort of offensive slump.
We’re seeing that right now. Imagine the games the Tigers could have won if they hadn’t blown late leads and the defense and baserunning hadn’t given away outs.
And imagine the games the team might have won if Brad Ausmus didn’t look very overmatched strategically. In the Tigers’ 10 inning loss on Saturday, Ausmus sent his struggling closer to the mound to protect a close lead. You can forgive him for using Nathan, perhaps, but he didn’t get Joakim Soria up in the bullpen until it was nearly too late. This isn’t a matter of Ausmus being reluctant to replace his closer, it’s a matter of Ausmus not preparing for his first decision to go wrong. The same thing happened with Blaine Hardy earlier in the week when he was left to wilt because Ausmus didn’t have a righty ready behind him. And this is to say nothing of his encouragement of reckless baserunning.
The Tigers are a talented group, but they don’t have a good enough lineup to compensate for their deficiencies elsewhere.
Why you shouldn’t panic
The odds are still in their favor. The Tigers are essentially tied with the Royals with just under 50 games to play. Look at both rosters. Who would you take in a 50 games sprint? The Tigers without a doubt.
The FanGraphs playoff odds, which are built based on season to date record and rest of season projections, say the Tigers should win the division by roughly three games. FanGraphs still has them as more than twice as likely to win the division as Kansas City.
That might change if Sanchez misses more time than expected, or if Justin Verlander gets bad results from his MRI, but they have the better roster and they’re basically playing at their nadir. And Miguel Cabrera has provided much less value than he is quite frankly capable of and even a bit of a turnaround will do wonders.
They have a dramatically better rotation and a much better lineup. The Royals are miles better defensively and on the bases, but those two aspects matter less even if they matter. Their bullpen is certainly better too.
The Tigers are far from a perfect club, but one of these teams has starting pitching and offense and one has defense, baserunning, and relief pitching. Which would you take for the next 50 games?
So which is it?
Personally, I’m not one to panic. I certainly feel the frustrations building around the fanbase, but the team’s flaws aren’t different than they were two weeks ago. People are very worried about the bats, but the bats aren’t a very serious problem. Even after this slump, the Tigers have a top five offense and every team goes through stretches like this.
The Tigers problems remain defense, baserunning, and relief pitching. And it’s too late to really do anything about it. These flaws are flaws of design and management and they are much more likely to sink them in a five or seven games series than they are to sink them over a 50 games stretch against another very flawed roster.
The Tigers at the moment are playing their worst while the Royals are playing their best. Both teams will regress to their true talent levels and the Tigers will likely win the division, even if it’s going to feel like pulling teeth.
The team supposedly put an added emphasis on speed and defense in the offseason, but that was mostly just lip service. The recklessness with which the team runs the bases wipes out the gains of having Rajai Davis on the roster and the boost from shoring up the right side of the infield is washed out by their flaws elsewhere.
The Tigers, as they were in the past, are all about starting pitching and power. That should carrying them to October, but if Sanchez and Soria aren’t at full strength and Cabrera doesn’t get himself healthy, it might not be enough to win there. This is an 89-91 win team. Just like it was when the season started. Just like it was in May. Just like it was before the trades.
Is that cause for panic? Probably not, but it may be cause for malaise.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44