Sparky Anderson always said that you really can’t tell what type of a team you have until 40 games into the baseball season. Well, the Tigers have now, finally, played their 40th game- one quarter of the way through the 2014 season, so let’s see where they stand and how they got there.
After the first quarter, the Tigers own the best winning percentage in major league baseball. They are on pace to win 109 games, which would be easily the most in the history of their storied franchise, the previous high being in 1984 when they won 104 games. To what do they owe their success?
The latest check of the rankings show that the Tigers, as expected, rely on baseball’s best pitching rotation, and an offense that gives them enough run support to win most of the time. Their rotation leads the American league in ERA, FIP, xFIP, and WAR. They have allowed a miniscule 0.56 home runs per nine innings. Reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer leads the AL in ERA and strikeouts. That is their greatest strength. But I'll get back to the pitching department in a separate article. For now, let's focus on the Tiger lineup and see how they're getting things done.
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Through Sunday's games
Offensively the Tigers are not quite as potent as they were a year ago, when they ranked second in the league with 4.91 runs scored per game. Their 4.78 rpg is good for fourth in the league. The 2013 Tigers were second to the Red Sox in run production.
The Tigers easily lead the league in batting average, but the team is fourth in on base percentage due to a very weak BB rate. In the power department, the Tigers are among the leaders in the league in SLG, OPS, and 7th in isolated power (ISO). Correspondingly, the club is fourth in runs scored per game.
Specifically, the decrease in run production is primarily attributable to a drop in power and walk ratio. The Tigers led the league in team batting average last season, and they do again this season. Despite a drop in average, the margin over the rest of the league is now over 14 points The team can still hit, no problem.
Pythagorean formula: One thing that the Tigers have done this season, is that they’ve made better use of the run production that they have. The pythagorean formula projects how many wins a team should have, given the number of runs they’ve scored, vs the number of runs they’ve allowed. The 2013 Tigers won six fewer games than their pythagorean projection. The 2014 Tigers are plus two wins so far. So, you could say that, all things being equal in the runs department, the Tigers were due to win a few more games.
Part of the reason that the Tigers are getting more wins for their bang, is that they’ve been able to produce runs in the late innings and in close games. They have come from behind 14 times already this season. A team that was 20- 26 in one run games and 6- 13 in extra innings a year ago is now 8- 5 in one run games, and they’re 2- 2 in extra innings after Monday's game in Cleveland.
So the Tigers are ahead of last year’s win pace, in part, because their run distribution has been more efficient, and because they had it coming. I won’t get into whether the Tigers’ more efficient results are just good fortune or whether they have developed a knack for being able to "manufacture" runs as needed. That’s another discussion.
The big trade that sent Prince Fielder to Texas and brought Ian Kinsler to the Tigers, together with rearranging the infield and acquiring Rajai Davis, were expected to result in that decline in power, but compensate for it with better defense and base running. Let’s see how that is working out.
The new kid, Nick Castellanos, has proven to be more than adequate defensively, and certainly an upgrade from the limping Miguel Cabrera, who could hardly move by the end of the 2013 season. At the plate, however, you might attribute a good deal of that decline in on base percentage here, as he holds an OBP of just .265. Castellanos swings more often than any other qualified hitter in the league, at a 60% rate, and has the highest percentage of swinging strikes. The rookie strikes out 25% of the time, and walks just 3.1%. That will have to improve.
Ian Kinsler, on the other hand, makes contact better than any hitter in the league on balls inside the strike zone, and has the second highest overall contact rate in the league. Austin Jackson has increased his BB% from 8.5% to 11.5% and cut his K rate from 21 to 15.4%. Victor Martinez leads the league in batting and leads the team in home runs, a far better start than he had a year ago, with no signs of slowing down.
On the bases, the Tigers were dead last in 2013 in stolen bases, and also dead last in extra bases taken (XBT). XBT is the percentage of chances that a base runner goes from first to third or scores from second base on a single, or scores from first on a double. The 2014 Tigers lead the league in steals, going from worst to first, and rank 11th in XBT% at 38%. The league average is 41%. The Tigers have taken and extra base 45 times so far. In the trendy TOOTBLAN or BOOB (base runner out on the bases) plays, the Tigers have 15, which is just above the league average of 13, YTD.
On the downside of base running, the Tigers have also been caught stealing more than any other team, and their SB% is 9th in the league, at 73%. Overall, the news is very good, as the Tigers score 34% of their base runners, which is tied with Oakland for best in the league.
Something else that the Tigers are good at is putting the ball in play. Only the Kansas City Royals and the A's have a lower strike out percentage at the plate, and when they do put the ball in play, the Tigers tend to put it in the air more than other teams. As a result, they ground into the second lowest percentage of double plays, and that tends to keep rallies alive.
In the late innings, where the Tigers drew some undesired attention to themselves for much of last season, they lead the league with a .289 batting average, which is 34 points higher than the second place Texas Rangers. That will tend to sort out the pythagorean bug that bit them a year ago.
A quarter of a season is still a relatively small sample, but we can look for trends and see where the team is on the right track, and where they could use some improvement.The bottom line so far is that the Tigers have scored fewer runs than they did last season, on average, but they have been more productive in their run distribution that, together with pitching that has dominated the league, has them on pace for a historically good season.