April review: Tigers on the right track despite early concerns

Leon Halip

One month into the 2014 season, the Tigers are on the pace they need to be, despite some early concerns.

The Tigers finish April with 14 wins, 9 losses, which is good for a winning percentage of .609.  If they were to maintain this pace all season, they'd win 99 games, and almost surely win their fourth consecutive division title.

Most encouraging about the Tigers' record thus far is that they've done it despite their all world slugger, Miguel Cabrera, performing anywhere near what they're used to seeing from him.  They've done it despite a bullpen that has a 5.48 ERA as a group, second highest in the league.  And they've done it despite losing their starting left fielder, starting shortstop, and primary set up man.

The Tigers stand atop their division on the strength of the league's best pitching rotation from top to bottom.  That was and is fully expected.

Also expected by most, is a drop in run production, from a team that finished second in scoring in 2013, to one that ranks sixth in the league at 4.5 runs per game.  The Tigers still lead the league in batting average, as they did a year ago, but there has been a noticeable drop in power.

So let's start with the offense.  Here is where the Tigers rank among American League teams in some popular categories. As we keep saying, it's way too early to draw any conclusions, but it's interesting to look for trends to keep an eye on.

Batting:

Category 2013 AL Rank 2014 Rank
Runs per game
4.91
2nd 4.50
6th
Batting Average .283 First .273
1st
On Base Pct .346 2nd
.329
7th
Slugging Pct .434 2nd
.409
4th
wOBA .339 2nd .326
6th
OPS
.780
2nd
.739
6th
Hits 1625
1st
205
12th
Doubles 292
5th 40
14th
Triples 23
7th 4
9th
Home Runs 176 6th 18
12th
ISO (Isolated power) .149 9th .136
10th
Stolen Bases 35
Last 20
4th
Caught Stealing 20
2nd best
8
2nd most
Stolen Base Pct 64% 14th
71%
12th
Strikeout Pct 16.8% Lowest
17.0
3rd Lowest
BB% 8.3 % 8th
7.4%
12th
GIDP 146
2nd
17
11th
Contact Pct 81.0 3rd 82.1%
3rd
Extra Bases Taken (XBT)
33. %
15th
40 %
10th
Sacrifice Bunts 32
6th 3
8th
BABIP
.320
2nd .312
5th

*To get the pace that the Tigers are on, multiply the 2014 number by 7.36. For example, 18 Home Runs x 7.36= 132.5. The Tigers are on pace for 132.5 Home Runs, down from 176.  That's a 25% drop.  Again, it's early, but it's a trend.

BABIP= Batting average on balls in play, description

wOBA= Weighted on base Average, description

Caution: Be careful when comparing the Tigers in counting stat categories such as home runs, hits, etc.  The Tigers have played just 22 games in April, whereas most teams have played 26- 27 games.  Add another 20% (x 1.2) to the Tiger total and you get a better idea. Those numbers will have more meaning as the season progresses. The percentage stats, however, give a truer indication of where the Tigers are performing in the early going.

So the Tigers still have the best batting average in the league, but their power has dropped significantly.  Take Fielder and Peralta out of the lineup, and that is to be expected.  They are also drawing fewer walks, lowering their on base percentage and cutting into their run production. We'll see if that's a temporary problem.   The Tigers still make excellent contact, and they have a very low strikeout rate.

Base running:  Stolen bases are up, but so is the number of times caught stealing.  They're success rate is up, so that's a good thing.  Something I want to keep an eye on this season is the XBT %.  That is the number of times that a base runner takes more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double.  The Tigers were dead last in 2013, but are moving up this year.  This can help to replace some of the lost power.

Now, let's look at some pitching numbers.

Rotation

Category 2013 2013 AL Rank 2014 2014 AL Rank
ERA 3.44 First 3.12 2nd
FIP 3.12 First 3.06 First
WHIP 1.21 First 1.21 4th
K/9 8.63 First 8.58 First
BB/9 2.49 2nd lowest 2.84 6th
HR/9 0.74 First lowest 0.62 First
IP/ Start 6.31 First 5.91 3rd
WAR 25.3 First 3.4 First

The Tiger rotation was the best in the game in 2013, shattering the team strikeout record, and leading the league in almost every major category.  The 2014 rotation is picking up where they left off.

The Tiger rotation has the highest WAR, a cumulative statistic, despite playing fewer games than any other team. They lead the league again in strikeout rate, FIP, and WAR.  The walks are up a bit and that elevates the WHIP ratio.  This is again the strength of the team, and the reason they are leading the division.

Bullpen

Category
2013
2013 AL Rank
2014
20124 AL Rank
ERA
4.01
11th
5.48 14th
FIP
3.29
First
4.38 12th
WHIP
1.34
11th 1.41 10th
K/9
9.57
12th
8.42 7th
BB/9
3.73
10th
3.07 3rd
HR/9
0.71
Third lowest
1.34 14th
Saves
39 11th
7 4th
Save Pct
71%
4th
70% 6th

FIP= Fielding Independent Pitching, description here.

Holding the second highest bullpen ERA in the league is a cause for concern. But the Tigers' bullpen M.O. in recent years is that they have a high overall ERA, but are usually in the top half of the league in save percentage.  That is, they are stronger at the back end of the bullpen.   It's fair to say that is where the concern lies this year, with finding a couple of set up men to hold the lead for Joe Nathan.

In that regard, the Tigers are better, with a 70% rate of holding a lead of three runs or less in the seventh inning or later.  Further, the two saves that were blown by Nathan in the first week of the season resulted in two victories.  There were a couple of times that the bullpen gave away the lead, one being on the grand slam given up by Ian Krol.  The number of home runs is another concern.

Encouraging is that the BB rate is way down from last year's performance.  That has helped to minimize the damage caused by an increase in the home run rate.  After Nathan and Joba Chamberlain got off to a rough start, they've settled down and given some reason for optimism.  Finding another set up man is key to the success of the relief corps this year.

Suffice it to say that this is probably the biggest concern going forward, other than key players remaining healthy.  We'll be back from time to time and see how these trends are holding up.

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