Breaking down the Tigers' offense

The Tigers' Hitters Often Celebrate - Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Through 40 games the Tigers are leading the league in runs scored. But can they keep up the pace?

With the win over the Rangers last night, the Tigers have completed the first quarter of their season. This is a handy time to break down performances on offense. Counting statistics can be multiplied by four as a quick gauge of performance. Miguel Cabrera’s 62 hits become 248 for a season, matching Ty Cobb’s peak, and our appreciation grows.

At this point last year, the Tigers were two games below .500 and three games back of first place. This year the Tigers are tied for first place. While an improvement, we expect more. The Tigers have scored 55 more runs than they have allowed, a strong predictor of performance and the highest run differential in major leagues. But six teams have a better winning percentage. So what is keeping the team from producing more wins? Let’s look at the offense, in order of the value of their production.

Miguel Cabrera is on pace to follow up a Triple Crown year with the best season of his career. He is leading the league in on-base percentage, batting average, hits, total bases, runs batted in, and many more esoteric stats. I would expect him to slow down a bit, but at this point there is not much he can do to surprise us.

Jhonny Peralta is third among shortstops in batting average and on-base percentage. By fWAR, the most comparable shortstop is Troy Tulowitzki. That will quiet talk of a replacement for now, but he will not likely sustain this production. Omar Infante is providing offense well above the average second baseman. His 9.6% strikeout rate is a career low. When he makes contact balls are falling in more often, as evidence by a .331 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) exceeding a career .308 rate. Expect him to fall back a bit, but keep Ramon Santiago sightings to a weekly occurrence.

Andy Dirks was shelved for a time and a started off with a low batting average, masking that the 2012 problems in left field have been solved. Of course Matt Tuiasosopo will not sustain batting .375 with a .457 on-base percentage and .575 slugging average, but most of the combined left fielders’ value comes from Dirks. Their combined production has been in the top third of the league. If Dirks can stay healthy and keep Don Kelly on the bench, this should continue.

Prince Fielder started out hot but lately has fallen off a cliff. He is walking more than ever, but also striking out more than ever. His .517 slugging percentage is seventh among first basemen, but with below-average defense his value is rather average. Expect him to go on another hot streak and provide more value the rest of the season.

Torii Hunter delivers everything we can want, on and off the field. The .313 batting average last year was thought to be an aberration, but by striking out at a career-low rate he has nearly kept pace. His walk rate and slugging percentage are also below his career averages, so his run-scoring (and run-prevention) contributions should continue at this pace.

Austin Jackson cooled off and then hit the disabled list. The sore hamstring may explain the decreasing production. His primary role is getting on base, and a .333 on base percentage is middle-of-the-pack. This should improve and increase Cabrera’s already impressive RBI total.

Victor Martinez’s .213 batting average is not helped much by only two home runs and seven doubles. But his .229 BABIP and reasonable 12.0% strikeout rate point to bad luck as the culprit. The designated hitter will produce more runs as we approach summer.

Alex Avila is on pace for a career-worst walk and strikeout rate. He is next to last in batting average and slugging percentage among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances. At least Brayan Pena is providing some production from the catching position. Going forward either Avila will rebound, or more at bats will go to Pena. The catchers in the upper minors are making noise as well. One way or another, production will improve.

Don Kelly is on pace for nearly 250 plate appearances. This is too many for a team that expects to make the playoffs, but his production has been reasonable for his role.

Overall the offense has delivered. Going forward some hitters will cool off, but others will pick up the slack and the team’s lead-leaguing run scoring pace should continue. So is the pitching to blame? Most teams have allowed more runs than the Tigers. Is it Jim Leyland’s in-game management? Dirks was thrown out at the plate last night, can we blame Gene Lamont? Or is it just bad luck, and soon the Tigers will start to pull away from the pack?

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