Making sense of Detroit's late-innings struggles

USA TODAY Sports

Why are the late innings such an issue for Detroit? GWilson weighs in.

Perhaps I was spoiled by 1984. When I look forward to a new baseball season, I anticipate the continuation of good things. And I expect bad things to get better. Then the season starts and, like in any new relationship, the team reveals itself day-by-day to its admirers. Soon enough, reality sets in and we recognize that the new season brings new challenges.

The onset of reality came early in 2012. The year before Justin Verlander had notched a win in every game that he left with a lead. The Detroit closer had converted every one of his save chances. On Opening Day 2012 we learned that these gifts would not persist. But just minutes after Valverde's blown save took away Justin's first win, Austin Jackson allayed the pain with a game-winning hit. Late leads would not be as safe in 2012, but the Tigers would enjoy their most walk-off wins since 2007. It was a new season. The clues were there in Game 1.

This year the Tigers crushed the Blue Jays 11-1 on April 11th before getting on a plane to California for their first extended trip of the year. The win improved their record to 5-4 for a .556 winning percentage and the margin of victory pushed their pythagorean win rate to .594. One inclined to use small samples to point out shortcomings might say that the team was underperforming. But over nine games this pythagorean underperformance works out to only about a third of a win. The gloomy could also point out that the Tigers had only homered in 2 of their first 9 games. But it was easy enough to blame that on the cold weather in the midwest.

It was warmer when the plane landed in northern California. Max Scherzer started the first game against the Athletics and put up two zeros while recording 5 of his first 6 outs via the strikeout. Fourteen pitches into the visiting third, deuces ruled with 2 on, 2 out, 2 strikes on the Prince, and Bartolo Colon preparing to throw a 2-seam fastball. Elementary physics dictates that a violent collision tends to occur when a high sinker encounters a baseball bat swung by a major league hitter. But Colon decided to live on the edge. Physics won out, the baseball went 403 feet, and Detroit led three to nothing. In just his second start of the season, Max left after exactly 100 pitches and 6 innings. He allowed only one earned run and his 11 strikeouts were countered by just 1 walk. An unearned run had crossed, however, and the relievers allowed another run in the seventh before redeeming themselves by tossing a scoreless 8th and 9th. If you've added up the numbers, you know that just one Tiger run over the final 6 innings of regulation would secure a victory.

But it was not to be. After the Fielder home run, Colon recorded the next 13 outs while facing just 2 over the minimum. He was done after the Tiger seventh and eluded the hook when the A's tied it in their half. The Tigers went out 1-2-3 in the 8th against Sean Doolittle but not before Hunter and Cabrera each flied out to Coco Crisp in deep center. In the 9th, Victor sent Reddick crashing into the right-field wall to bring down his bid for late inning heroics. Tiger bats had hit three deep flies within four batters. But the O.Co held all three. The Tigers would play their first extra-inning game of the young season.

As Cook replaced Balfour for the 10th, I thought back to the first Tiger extra-inning game of 1984. Alan Trammell started the 10th on that day by grounding a single up the middle and Dave Bergman bunted him to second. Trammell moved to third when Parrish hit a grounder off the pitcher and was thrown out by Frank White 1-4-3. Then Herndon hit another grounder that White couldn't handle as Trammell scampered home with the winner. With three ground balls and a bunt, the Tigers improved to 9-0 and the man who would be crowned MVP picked up his first win. Three ground balls and a bunt.

Back to 2013. In the Tiger 10th, Austin Jackson made a bid to win it but his fly ball was caught in deep center. With 2 outs in the 12th, Ramon Santiago tripled off the wall in left. The blast was close enough to leaving the Coliseum's playing surface that Ramon was seen querying the umpires with the finger twirl home run sign and manager Jimmy Leyland was seen jogging onto the field to ask some questions. But the triple ruling stood and Austin ended the threat by himself lining out to deep center.

In the 7th through the 12th, thirteen of the eighteen balls in play off Tiger bats were in the air. Six of the balls provided a serious threat to the outfield barrier. But no runs crossed the plate.

By now the Tigers were running out of pitchers. Brayan Villareal had allowed 8 earned runs in his last two-thirds of an inning but he was the manager's choice to pitch the 12th. Six pitches later Bryan had allowed another earned run and the Athletics walked off with their 9th straight win. Some would blame Villareal who had not allowed his 9th earned run until his 35th outing of 2012. But the Tiger offense had gone silent over the final 9 innings. I couldn't help but think back to that game in 1984. Three ground balls and a bunt.

Now we've reached the All-Star break. The Tigers have a .553 winning percentage and a .593 pythagorean win rate. These numbers are eerily similar to the .556 and .594 that we had after 9 games. But now the pythagorean underperformance works out to a major league worst 3.7 wins with the Tigers also owning a ML-worst 6-game-under-.500 record in extra-inning games. The second-order and third-order win rates which predict expected wins based on underlying statistics tell an even starker tale. These measures give Detroit a .650 and .647 expected winning percentage respectively. Multiply by 162 and both measures see a team that should win 105 games. The difference between where the Tigers should be and where they are cannot be overstated. It's the difference between a triumphant march to the most wins in Detroit baseball history and standing just a single win ahead of a mediocre Cleveland team going into the mid-summer classic.

Teams that fall significantly short of their win estimates typically get there by failing to live up to their overall level of performance when it matters most. The 2013 Tigers are no exception. Detroit's .281/.348/.437 batting line places them in the top 3 in major league baseball for each of the three slash statistics. But what about plate appearances, henceforth to be called crucial, in the 7th or later when the game is within a run? In these situations, Detroit is hitting an anemic .211/.300/.301 over 420 PAs. It is, of course, fair to expect some decline in crucial PAs since you're up against the best bullpen arms that your opponent has to offer. But how big of an effect is this? Major leaguers are hitting .254/.317/.401 overall in 2013 and this declines somewhat to .242/.323/.372 for crucial PAs. But the Tiger decline is much more severe. Let's try to figure out why.

We'll start with the fielding-independent (K-rate BB-rate HR-rate) vector using a denominator of plate appearances for each component. Major league baseball overall checks in at (.198 .078 .026) before the break and these numbers adjust to (.216 .095 .023) for crucial PAs. These numbers make sense. The high-end bullpen arms strike out more batters and allow fewer home runs. Since crucial PAs occur late in close games it's often beneficial to work around certain batters since allowing one run might be as costly as allowing a big inning. Thus the walk rate goes up for crucial PAs. For reference we can compute the difference between these fielding-independent (FI) vectors for crucial PAs and overall PAs to obtain (.018 .017 -.003) where the signs signify the strikeout and walk rates going up and the home run rate going down.

How about the Detroit offense? Their overall FI vector is (.173 .090 .028) with an adjustment to (.240 .098 .009) for crucial plate appearances. This gives a difference vector of (.067 .008 -.019). Thus, compared to how an average team adjusts to crucial PAs, the Tigers see a larger rise in K-rate, a smaller rise in walk rate, and a bigger decline in HR-rate. An initial assessment might surmise that Tiger batters are swinging harder and displaying less patience in crucial PAs.

Is the greatest hitter on the planet immune to these deficiencies? Unfortunately, he's not. The MVP is hitting only .158/.373/.184 over his 51 crucial PAs. His FI difference vector is (.144 .095 -.070). In English, this means that in his crucial PAs, Cabrera is striking out and walking a lot more and has yet to reach the seats. Clearly opponent pitchers are not willing to give Cabrera much to hit in these situations and he's leaving the zone, without much success, in an attempt to make something happen. If his teammates can't do it, he may feel the need to reach above and beyond in an effort to do it himself.

Can we learn anything from looking at batted ball results? Tiger batters have an overall .318 BABIP in 2013 and a .279 BABIP in crucial PAs. It's tempting, therefore, to attach the bad luck label to some of the struggles. But something interesting pops out when we look at batted ball distributions. The GB/FB statistic is the ratio of ground balls to all other batted balls after bunts are excluded. Overall, the Tigers have a GB/FB ratio of 0.798 which is slightly above the AL average. In crucial PAs, however, the Detroit GB/FB rate drops to .695 which, as an overall rate, would rank ahead of only the Athletics among the 30 ML teams. Thus, Tiger batters have an increased tendency to hit the ball in the air in crucial PAs.

Relievers tend to induce lower GB/FB rates than starters. You might reasonably ask if the tendency of Tiger batters to hit the ball in the air at the end of close games is due to facing hard-throwing fly-ball inducing relievers. And part of it is. The overall 2013 major league GB/FB rate of 0.830 drops to .786 for crucial PAs. But if you're keeping up with the math, the Tiger batters decline in GB/FB for crucial PAs is more than double this overall ML decline. So now we're led to believe that Tiger batters are not only swinging harder and displaying less patience in crucial PAs but they're also putting more loft in their swings in an attempt, we might suppose, to put the ball in the air.

Elementary physics predicts that a batter trying to hit fly balls will have poor results against pitchers who tend to induce fly balls. Tom Tango and his collaborators perform a wonderful analysis of this prediction in "The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball." You should read their analysis on this subject as well as the rest of the manuscript, but their final conclusion is a simple "FB pitchers own FB hitters." At the anecdotal level, many pitchers have offered the observation that it's easier to pitch in extra innings because hitters are trying to end the game with one swing. The evidence suggests that Tiger hitters have fallen prey to this mindset, and then some, in 2013.

The All-Star Break gives us the wildly popular Home Run Derby. Plus we all know that chicks dig the long ball. But when the chips are on the table, you can have the big swingers. I'll take three ground balls and a bunt.

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