Coming into the 2014 season many Tigers fans had some concern about the team's offensive firepower. There's been much debate and analysis about whether the Tigers could contend after losing two of their best hitters in Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta. Their replacements in the lineup - rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos and defense-first shortstop Jose Iglesias - were not expected to completely replace the production at the plate. When Iglesias and left fielder Andy Dirks went down to injury during Spring Training the apprehensions only grew.
However, the team squashed such concerns early in the season with a hot start. They won their first four games while averaging 6.4 runs per victory. By May 7th, the Tigers had exploded out to a 20-9 record, a 5-game lead in the division, and had scored over five runs per game. Most fans had forgotten that they were ever worried to begin with.
But since that hot streak the Tigers have gone 11-13 while scoring only 3.9 runs per game, a figure that would rank them 20th in the league, right between the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs. Worse yet, since the beginning of their series against the Texas Rangers on May 22nd, the Tigers have scored two runs or fewer in over half of their games, and averaged only 3.2 runs per game. That figure is worse than any team has accomplished this season.
The recent offensive struggles (and it has been offensive) are reminding many fans of their concerns heading into the season. The main culprits have been exactly where they were expected to be; shortstop and third base. sOPS+ is a stat that compares a player's OPS to that of a league-average player. The Tigers third basemen (mostly Castellanos, with a dash of Don Kelly) have batted .232/.279/.348, good enough for a 75 sOPS+. This means that production at the position has been 25% worse than average. Tigers shortstops (Andrew Romine, Danny Worth, and Alex Gonzalez) have posted a 44 sOPS+ with a line of.194/.247/.244. If you were eating when you read that last sentence, I apologize for your sudden loss of appetite.
It's hard to say that this is surprising though. We knew that the team would probably need to allow Castellanos a bit of a learning curve. It's a low penalty to pay for the player he will hopefully become. Similarly, the offensive hole at shortstop is not surprising given the injury to Iglesias. The team was not prepared to replace him and were forced to scramble to patch the hole. The result is a sub-.500 OPS. But the fact that these struggles were somewhat expected does not make them any easier to bear, especially when the rest of the team hits a rough patch.
The only other positions on the team with a sub-100 sOPS+ are left field, which is also unsurprising given the injury to Andy Dirks, and center field. Austin Jackson has spent by far the most time in center this year and he has not performed as well as hoped with his move down in the batting order. His .305 wOBA is the lowest of his career, tied with his "Sophomore Slump" season of 2011.
The good news is that Castellanos will likely find a groove at some point soon. He has shown the ability to adjust to pitching at every level of his professional career, and he needs to be given a long leash this year. As for shortstop, do not be surprised to see Dave Dombrowski swing a trade for a stopgap such as Jimmy Rollins or Asdrubal Cabrera at the trade deadline. Personally, I just don't see him entering the postseason with Romine or Worth in the lineup every day.
Another reason to be optimistic is that the last few series have the look of an anomaly. Over the last week the Tigers have posted a lowly OPS of .680. As a group, the starters posted an .800 OPS last year, and .812 since 2012. Their track records indicate that even if the holes at third base and shortstop aren't patched, the rest of the team should be able to carry them over the long-run.
Hopefully the last three series' have been nothing more than a rough patch and the Tigers true level of offensive production lies somewhere between their hot start and the recent slump. After all, even after the last couple weeks of ineptitude the Tigers are still third in the American League with 4.6 runs scored per game. If they can carry that number through to the end of the regular season and beyond they will be in good shape.