25+ years ago, Sparky Anderson came up with the oft mentioned quote, "You can't tell anything about a baseball team until 40 games have been played."
I'm guessing, as was Sparky's wont, he was just spewing his usual entertaining BS to the local writers, and didn't expect his "You need 40 games" bromide to be taken as gospel. But it was, and has been a mantra in Detroit ever since.
The "40 games" quote is brought up every spring, even more so in the odd season where the Tigers have a competitive team. You didn't need 40 games to figure out what sort of team the Tigers were during that lost decade from the mid 90's to the mid 00's...really stinking bad.
As you've likely noticed, we've recently passed the 40 game mark in 2010. If you believe the genius that was Sparky, we should now be able to tell what sort of baseball team we have on our hands.
It should be cut and dry, right?
The Tigers are an odd collection of talent, a mix of aging veterans, raw rookies and a couple of the best players in all of baseball, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. Weird though it may be, the mix has the Tigers in contention despite the worst possible early schedule.
So just what, exactly, can we tell after 40 games?
First, we can tell the Tigers are a patient team at the plate. 7 players have an OBP over .350. The Tigers team OBP is 3rd best in all of baseball at .346, and they are 6th overall at drawing walks. The Tigers, who had been a team full of Vlad Guerrero wanna-bes for years, swinging at damn near any and every pitch, are now a roster filled with Billy Beane approved Moneyball advocates. I'm a combination of stunned, shocked and flabbergasted!
It's obvious the addition of Johnny Damon (.399) has helped with the team OBP, as has the almost inhuman hitting we've seen from Austin Jackson (.386) and Brennan Boesch (.360). But the black hole at the bottom of the order, Brandon Inge (.289), Gerald Laird (.259) and Adam Everett (.209), cancels that out. The punchless trio at 7-8-9 regardless, overall it does appear the organizational goal of better plate discipline is beginning to pay off.
Despite being told the Tigers were going to improve their defense after the debacle of 2008, we can also tell this will be a team that will struggle to pick up the ball all season long. In pretty much any defensive statistic, the Tigers rate in the lower half, if not at the bottom, of the majors. To name 3, the Tigers are 2nd overall in total errors, 28th in fielding percentage and 16th in defensive efficiency ratio.
The defense has been all around ugly, and I don't see it getting better. The Carlos Guillen moving to 2nd base experiment is a go, the corner outfield slots are being manned by players better suited to DH (Damon and Magglio Ordonez) and the Tigers will have 3 or 4 rookies in the lineup who will make defensive mistakes, no matter how talented they may be.
More than anything else, we can tell the Tigers are a team of contrasts.
- The bullpen has been great, but save for Verlander, the starting pitching hasn't.
- The defense is awful overall, but is excellent at certain positions (3rd base, center field, 1st base, short).
- The Tigers get on base, yet have trouble offensively when runners are in scoring position.
- They depend entirely too much on rookies, but the Tigers wouldn't be in contention without them.
- They don't hit for a great deal of power, 24th overall in HR with a lowly 32, but are 3rd in doubles with 95.
- The Tigers shouldn't be in contention considering their almost unfair scheduling, bad dense, inability to hit with RISP, and inconsistent, at best, starting pitching. Then I look at the standings. Despite the ongoing issues, and not having played their best baseball, the Tigers are only 1 game back in the division, and own the 5th best record in the American League.
So at 40 games, I think it's safe to say the Tigers are a playoff contender, and will be playing meaningful games in September.
I think Sparky would agree...though he'd say, "Good seasons start with good beginnings." And this season has definitely been a good beginning.