Last year, I debunked the myth as it related to 2014, but it’s back this season, and it might have a little more juice.
Let’s start with some basic facts. Entering Wednesday’s game, the Tigers had the third best offense in the league by wRC+ (an offensive stat that measures total production relative to league average, set at 100). At 111 wRC+, the Tigers trail the Royals by a bit and the Dodgers by a lot. Every other team’s hitting is at least three percent worse than the Tigers so far. This is an objective fact. The Tigers, over the course of 40 games, have had a very good offense.
But the issue at hand is not whether the team is hitting well overall, but rather, if they are getting those hits in an even and pleasing manner. Like I said in last year’s piece, a non-streaky team may appear streaky to a fan because they simply don’t have enough information about every other team to realize that every team goes through ups and downs.
Another thing I found last year was that better offenses generally have higher standard deviations as far as run scoring per game. In general, we would expect the standard deviations to be higher in a 40 game sample than in the 120 game sample I used last year, and we find that to be the case. The current standard deviation is 3.34 runs per game for the Tigers. It was 3.18 over three times as many games last season, which is hardly significant.
In other words, the team is no more inconsistent than last year. They’re hitting about as well and they’re scoring runs at roughly the same variance. But the interesting thing is that they’re down to 4.33 runs per game instead of the 4.67 they scored last year. That’s odd, you might think. Part of it is the April weather, as more runs are scored when the weather heats up, but there’s another little piece of it too. The Tigers are horrible at sequencing this year in a really weird way.
You can chalk pretty much all of the Tigers’ offensive woes this year (to the extent to which they exist), to the fact that they haven’t quite gotten enough hits in one particular situation.
If you’re among the statistically initiated, this is all you need to hear. The Tigers BaseRuns estimate for runs per game is currently 4.8 runs per game.
If you aren’t familiar with BaseRuns, it simply strips sequencing out of the equation. It takes the identical hits, walks, BABIP, and everything else, and estimates the number of runs scored under the assumption that the ordering of the hits doesn’t matter. In other words, a team with the Tigers raw output should be scoring 4.8 runs per game on average. But here they are scoring 4.33.
This may seem a bit confusing, as I just told you that the team doesn’t have a crazy runs per game standard deviation. This is because the team is consistently doing one thing poorly: hitting with men on base.
With the bases empty, the Tigers have a 114 wRC+, which is second only to the Dodgers this year. With men on base, it’s 110. That might not seem like a big difference, but somehow they’re 10th in baseball. That’s because everyone hits better with men on base. The league hits 92 wRC+ with the bases empty, so the Tigers are about 22% better than the average club there. With men on base, he league hits 102 wRC+, so the Tigers are just 8% better.
Try men in scoring position, and the league hits 101 wRC+ to the Tigers’ 117 wRC+ (about 16% better). Put another way, the Tigers are horrible with men on first base only. You’re probably thinking that’s a weird thing, and you’re right. The Tigers have a .704 OPS in 273 PA with a man on first only. In every other situation (1258 PA), they have a .780 OPS.
There’s really nothing that can explain something as strange as that fact. You can chalk pretty much all of the Tigers’ offensive woes this year (to the extent to which they exist), to the fact that they haven’t quite gotten enough hits in one particular situation. Shift a few of their bases empty hits to times when men were on first and you’re back to normal.
Their overall offense is good and their run distribution is fine. They just haven’t hit with only a man on first. Last year, they hit .800 OPS with a man on first only and .748 OPS in all other situations. It’s random. There’s literally no reason why they would actually be bad at this one thing. It’s a good offense having a normal season after 40 games. The only concern about performance isn’t a concern at all.
Certainly, losing Victor Martinez for a period of time will hurt, but while the team hasn’t scored a ton of runs in every game, the overall picture looks just fine.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to The Hardball Times, the Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44