Do the Detroit Tigers Have a Streaky Offense?

The Tigers have had a rough few weeks. Earlier in the season, they had a rough month. The Tigers seem to be prone to prolonged funks, even if their overall performance looks just fine. They’re a streaky team - particularly a streaky offense. Except they’re not. It may seem like the Tigers offense is less consistent than others, but a dive into the data shows otherwise.

Some of the team’s flaws are obvious. They can’t play defense, they’re ugly on the bases, and the bullpen stinks. The starting pitching, when healthy, has been superb and the overall offensive production has been great. The Tigers are losing games because of defense, baserunning, and relief pitching and they’re winning because of starting pitching and offense. But the offense is a pretty big topic of conversation and it’s worth exploring.

Is it possible that this all-around successful group of hitters is inconsistent, leading to a worse record than we might expect? The answer, in short, is no. Let’s examine the evidence in a few different ways.

We’ll start with some basics, entering play on Monday the Tigers were tied with the Blue Jays for the best Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) in baseball at .330. I won’t use park adjusted numbers in this post because we’re going to talk about raw run scoring, and that is obviously not park adjusted, but in the interest of fairness, the Tigers are tied for second in wRC+.

The Tigers are third in the AL in runs per game with 4.56 and FanGraphs’ BaseRuns model, which strips out sequencing (i.e. streakiness) suggests that they should be scoring 4.64 runs per game which would put them barely into second in the AL. In other words, the leading method for removing sequencing from a team’s performance suggests they are going to wind up scoring 13 fewer runs than they should during the 2014 season. That’s about one win of difference on the offensive side of the ball, which also includes their baserunning.

Yet while saying BaseRuns might be all you need to hear if you have a working knowledge of baseball analytics, we can explore this question further with much more accessible methods. The data I’ll be using below is slightly out of date and includes every team’s performance through 117 games (about a week ago for most), and was gathered with the help of Daren Willman of Baseball Savant. Let’s also just look at the American League, because who wants to adjust for the fact that pitchers get to hit in the Senior Circuit?

First, let’s look at the standard deviation of each team’s runs per game. The Tigers have the second highest standard deviation among American League teams. They must be streaky!

Well, that isn’t exactly true. If you take a look at runs per game and the standard deviation of runs per game, the correlation is unmistakable. Obviously, looking at only fifteen teams makes this far from perfect, but the Tigers are almost perfectly in line with the expected trend. Teams that score more runs also have wider standard deviations.

Maybe that doesn’t persuade you. Maybe BaseRuns and standard deviations don’t erase the frustration you feel in your gut. Let’s consider this graphic. This is all fifteen AL teams with the runs per game after each of their 117 games in the sample. In other words, a streaky team should see substantial fluctuation on this graphic. The Tigers don’t stand out.

So what is it, then? If the data overwhelmingly supports the notion that the Tigers offense isn’t inconsistent, why does it feel that way?

I have three theories. The first is that perhaps the Tigers offense was streaky in years past (I haven’t done this particular analysis for the last five years or anything) and it’s simply difficult to shake the association.

I also wonder if perhaps the offense looks streaky because the pitching so good. The Tigers are in the middle of a several year run of outstanding starting pitching and there may be some sort of penalty given to the offense for being less awesome than the starters. Don’t get me wrong, the bats have been excellent for a few years running, but maybe our expectations have been shaped by the starters.

But I think theory number three is the winner. I think fans have a really bad grasp on what other baseball teams are doing especially compared to other football teams.

How often do you watch a non-Tigers baseball game from start to finish? How regularly do you watch the same team, other than the Tigers? You have an intimate knowledge of how the Tigers are doing on a daily basis, but you simply don’t watch enough games beyond the Tigers to get a sense of the ebbs and flows of a season.

It feels like the Tigers are woefully inconsistent? Try watching the A’s or the Indians or the Blue Jays. You’ll see the same type of run scoring fluctuation. This is completely normal.

If you come with a football mentality, where you watch your team and a bunch of others pretty regularly, you’re going to think you have a good handle on the league. But you don’t. Even if you’re a stat-head who religiously follows the box scores and your fantasy team, you’re not watching enough baseball to really know how the other teams are doing. I watch baseball pretty much whenever there is baseball to be watched, and I still couldn’t tell you which teams are streaky and which teams aren’t this season.

This is a perception story. The Tigers are a flawed team, but at most their offensive sequencing is costing them a win over the entire season and that’s simply too small an effect to assign blame to anything other than random variation.

The Tigers have problems, but a streaky offense isn’t really one of them.

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

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