I think a lot of analysts before the season picked the Tigers to finish in third, behind some combination of the Twins and White Sox. The Sox, clearly, had a nice team on paper. The Twins just win a lot for little apparent reason. The Tigers were at best a sleeper pick, as a team with Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander cannot be ignored.
All along, I saw a team that looked like it would be able to score some runs in bunches, with starting pitching capable of winning games in bunches. Make no mistake, this wasn't going to be a club that won 95 games or anything. Fortunately, outside of the AL East that's not really a requirement for making a playoff push.
As we cross the unofficial midpoint of the season -- the 81-game mark was actually more than a week ago -- we have reason to worry but reason for confidence, as well. Despite two positions of below-average production, the Tigers are among the best in the league in getting on base and getting the run home. Yet the rotation beneath Verlander has been inconsistent and the bullpen frequently teeters on the verge of disaster.
The Tigers are in first place at the break. Will they be there in the end?
As I wrote in the introduction, the Tigers rotation received praise before the season. Verlander needs no introduction. Max Scherzer was nothing short of brilliant from late May through the end of the season in 2010, and had an incredible K/9 rate in 2009 during his first full year in the MLB. Rick Porcello has always teased fans and analysts with his potential. He always seems like he's on the verge of a breakthrough. Then you have Brad Penny, who had been incredible with the Cardinals in 2010 before his season-ending injury. Put it together and the fifth starter wasn't even supposed to matter all that much. So Phil Coke got a shot there.
Verlander has been nothing short of phenomenal. Cy Young of the first half. His 2.15 ERA is amazing, nearly .60 better than his FIP. His strikeout rate improved, his walk rate greatly improved. Generally speaking, you have to assume Verlander isn't going to be that good in the second half. That's what we did for some of the other top pitchers in the division as well. However each of those guys is the ace on their staff for a reason, and Verlander is in a world of his own. I would not be surprised if he had a second no-hitter this year, he's just that good on any given night. I would expect the ERA to increase a bit but I wouldn't expect any big changes.
Scherzer has been riding a see-saw. He won his first six decisions of the year and then started giving up 7 runs a game in late May and June. Since winning that sixth game, Scherzer's ERA is 5.93. His K/9 rate, generally in the upper 8s or above, is just 6.75 during that time. People can say what they want about pitching to contact or any of that other stuff, but when Scherzer struggles to put batters away he struggles to keep runs off the board. His season ERA of 4.69 is slightly higher than his FIP of 4.23. His HR/FB rate looks like he's back to pitching in Arizona rather than Detroit. If he could get that back to league-average (or his rate last season in Detroit) he'd probably see improvements in the second half. He might be suffering from a bit of bad luck too, as his BABIP is .318. But he's definitely not pitching to his abilities so that might be a sign of it more than just random variation. When Scherzer's mechanics are working, he can be incredible. Detroit has to fix those quick, because right now he's barely at third starter level.
I've spent some time in the past writing about Rick Porcello, so I won't spend a lot of time going over the exact figures. Suffice it to say, his strikeout rate is up, his walk rate is down. He needs to limit hard-hit balls a bit better and keep the ball down better. His ERA is actually rather misleading, because he's spent most of the season giving up two runs or fewer per start. If the hiccup against the NL teams was just a hiccup, expect a good second half.
Penny is kind of boring. He's a bottom of the rotation pitcher throwing to his abilities. He's not striking out a lot, but gives his team a chance to win. His ERA, FIP and xFIP are all basically in line with each other around 4.50. I wouldn't expect much to change.
The Tigers real problem comes at fifth starter. No one has been able to sustain success there. You don't expect much of your fifth starter, but even then you wind up disappointed. Detroit's has been nothing short of a disaster since Coke returned from injury. I doubt Duane Below will be much better than Charlie Furbush or Coke. Detroit would be served looking elsewhere for real answers.
On to the bullpen: It's been among the worst in the AL. If not for the Twins, it would be the worst. Fortunately the problem hasn't been when Detroit was protecting a lead. The Tigers are 37-2 when leading after the sixth inning, 40-0 when leading after the seventh inning; 43-0 after the eighth. That is how we saw it happening before the season began. Joaquin Benoit regressed from his amazing 2010 season but is still solid after a few hiccups in May. Jose Valverde scares you at times but is perfect in save opportunities. Certainly in the second half one or both of these guys might have a slip-up. Valverde struggled after the break last season and teeters on the verge of blowing the save at times. But they should remain solid.
Detroit's chief issue has been in shutting down opponents during the mid-game. Daniel Schlereth, Brad Thomas, Adam Wilk, Enrique Gonzalez, Ryan Perry: All these guys have ERAs in the upper 4s or worse and have seen a fair amount of playing time. The hope is that Phil Coke's move to the bullpen might help settle that down a bit. Perry's ERA (7.17) is much worse than his FIP (4.04) but he has to cut down on walks. to be effective.
Pitching conclusions: It hasn't been pretty at times, but the pitching hasn't failed too miserably either. Given the track records of some of the players who are struggling -- Scherzer and Porcello notably, Perry and Benoit secondarily -- expecting them to improve in the second half is probably safe. However, Detroit simply must find a fifth starter and shoring up its bullpen would be beneficial.
Despite claims that the manager can't manage, the hitting coach can neither hit nor coach, and the third-base coach is a windmill in hopeless situations and a stop sign when the ball is no where to be found, the Tigers actually do fine here. You'd never guess it from the complaints, of course. The Tigers are third in on-base percentage, fourth in the sabermetric stat wOBA, fifth in runs scored and fifth in slugging in the AL. They lead the division in all those categories but average; KC has a .001 advantage there.
It comes as no surprise that Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera are helping lead the charge. What might surprise you is that five regular batters are contributing at above-average paces and two bench players are up there as well.
Cabrera may be leading the Tigers in most offensive stats, but he's actually playing a bit south of his career norms when you look at average and slugging. No second half setbacks are expected there -- as long as this "twinge" in his side during the all-star game isn't an actual injury. I have a feeling it just sounds worse because he left a meaningless game with gasps from Joe Buck, but we'll see what the Tigers have to say after examining him. One word of caution: his walk rate is at an incredible 17% thanks to seeing a bunch of IBB. Of course, fewer IBB probably results in more hits.
Victor Martinez's numbers are in line with expectations, too. One word of caution: he's batting incredibly well with two strikes this year: way above his career average and the MLB average. If he regresses there the slack will have to be picked up elsewhere. Bu again, V-Mart is not one of the players Tigres fans need to worry about.
The trio of Brennan Boesch, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta present more of an issue. Alll three players have a bit of a track record; Boesch's and Avila's track record more at the minor league level of Double-A; Peralta's several years ago. I do not think it's a stretch to say all of these players will finish the season with above-average numbers. I do think it's a stretch to believe all of those players will finish the season with the same level of success they've enjoyed so far.
Avila, for instance, is slugging at a rate higher than he did at any point in the minor leagues. He's getting on base at the highest clip of his professional career too. His BABIP is 39 points higher than his minor league norms, and he's a catcher. Add it all up and that makes me feel like a setback is inevitable. However, his best month of the season so far was June; he was no slouch in April and May either. He has regressed in July, but it's not like his stats are the result of a quirky couple of weeks.
Boesch has never been a high OBP guy and he didn't have a lot of power before Double-A Erie either. Yet this season he has the best OBP and second-best SLG of his pro career. Either the Tigers coaches are doing something right, or he's getting pretty lucky. Last season he started hot, then faded incredibly fast. I don't expect the fade to be so dramatic. He'll still be good; probably not this good.
If you like WAR, your trivia answer is Jhonny Peralta. The question was, which Tigers position player has the highest WAR. That's obviously thanks to his playing shortstop on a near-daily basis, but it's also because he's hitting pretty darn good. He's never finished a season with a batting average above .300 or a slugging average above .520. In fact, his career norms are .267 and .428 for those two stats. Yet this year he's batting .312 and slugging .529. From the month of May through today, I think we've seen a gradual decline. That will likely continue in the second half.
So what about the other guys? Austin Jackson's splits have shown steady improvement since a really bad month of April. Ryan Raburn has shown signs he might be picking it up. As you know he's usually Mr. August, that being his best month. He might be replaced in the lineup before then, of course. Magglio Ordonez was awful after returning from a broken ankle too early and being unable to use both legs to bat. Since returning from the DL he's batting .284 with .403 slugging.
I see no hope for Brandon Inge. I at least see hope the Tigers might realize that based on some Leyland quotes.
Batting conclusion: I could see the team batting worse in the second half. Of course fans would try to put that on the coaches and blame Leyland. But the fact is, several players are performing above reasonable expectations. You shouldn't expect them to keep that up. If they can't, the Tigers are going to score fewer runs. Of the teams in the division hunt, I think Detroit's batting stands on the most precarious ground right now.
The good news is, the Tigers have compiled some pretty good numbers -- and first place -- while playing a tough schedule. Several analysts who looked beyond the strength of schedule number have said the Tigers have a top-five easiest schedule in the second half. Don't underestimate how much that matters. In past years, the Tigers have traditionally had one of the toughest remaining schedules, while their opponents have often been the ones with an easier schedule.
Like all teams, Detroit will play a lot of games against teams in its division. Fortunately for the Tigers the division was easy to handle in the first half. They ran out to the best record in it: 18-8. If they can keep up anything close to that in the second half, the division will be won in a romp.
Beyond that, they have six games against Oakland -- who just lost their best pitcher to Tommy John Surgery -- and seven against the Orioles.
It's no sure thing -- there's no such thing -- but you really have to like the Tigers' chances this season. Things seem to be really set up in their favor. Longtime readers might remember the analysis I wrote at the half last season. I titled it something like "Detroit against the field? I'd take the field." While I took some heat for negativity, the predictions turned out to be far too correct. There were just too many reasons not to like those Tigers. With a tweak or two, there are too many reasons to like these Tigers to bet against them.
It seems reasonable to expect the pitching to improve, whether by pitchers with track records showing improvement or by GM Dave Dombrowski fnding fresh blood to fill a black hole at the back of the rotation. Several members of the bullpen have been worse than expected. The batting is a cause for a bit of concern because three members are performing better than you'd expect. But even when you consider regression the Tigers have a better lineup than any of their division opponents. You expect it wouldn't be too hard to find upgrades an upgrade for second and/or third base, but you never know.
I'd be remiss if I didn't consider that the second half has not been kind to the Tigers in the past decade. Dave Dombrowski teams in Detroit have never had a better second half record than first. if you base your "analysis" solely on the fact the Tigers haven't had sublime second halves, then you're just being lazy. Often times, you could see it coming if you really wanted to look for the clues. The team was winning at an insane rate in 2006 and led baseball in 2007. Other times, injuries came up -- 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 all have injury issues that easily come to mind. One persistent problem for Detroit -- again a GM issue more than a manager issue -- has been a lack of depth. So injuries again could be a deciding factor. If Detroit avoids losing any key players for once, it'll be fine.
To get to the 88 win mark, the Tigers need to go 39-31 in the second half. That's obviously a better winning percentage than they had in the first half, but it's not out of the question when you consider the schedule. It's also more likely they win at a .557 pace than the Twins or White Sox win .600 to .650 for the rest of the year.
If the Tigers get their pitching issues sorted out, I think they can win 88-90. If not, 85-88 seems reasonable. That's a pretty wide projection, I know. After the trade deadline I'll have a lot better projection.
A division championship isn't a sure thing, but as we exit the All-Star Break the Tigers stand as the favorite.
Some numbers (rankings are AL only):
Record: 49-43 (.533) 1/2 game lead
From Baseball Prospectus:
Playoff odds: 60.8%
Expected win % rest of the season: .520
Simulated wins: 85.5
From CoolStandings Remaining Strength of Schedule: . 473 (easiest in division)
From ESPN.com: Current Strength of Schedule: .503 (11th hardest in MLB, 2nd in division)
Rotation ERA: 4.08 (9th)
FIP: 3.88 (5)
xFIP 3.98 (10) (seriously 3.98 for all three stats. remarkable.)
Bullpen ERA: 4.68 (13)
FIP: 4.28( 11)
AVG: .264 (4th)
OBP: .332 (3)
SLG: .415 (5)
wOBA: .328 (4)
Baserunning: -7.8 (last)
UZR: fielding: 2 (7th)
Defensive Runs Saved: -16 (11)
Defensive efficiency: .704 (11)