One- third of the way through the 2011 season, I wrote an article with the headline What's wrong with the Tigers? Easy as one, two, three." The Tigers were struggling to stay above .500, and had fallen behind the Indians in the Central Division. They were getting good starting pitching, solid help at the back end of the bullpen, shaky middle relief, and the lineup was under-performing. The topic of that article is much the same a year later, but the issues with the Tiger lineup are different. This time around, the top three spots in the order are not the issue.
In part one, we reviewed issues that the Tigers have had with their pitching staff. Following is a look at the problems that the Tigers have with their lineup and fielding through 40 games, or about one quarter of the 2012 season.
Leading off, Austin Jackson has been the bright spot in the Tiger lineup through 40 games. Everything is looking up for AJax. His average is up to .335, and his on-base percentage is a sizzling .414. Unfortunately, Jackson is the only returning starter that has posted improved numbers over 2011, and over his career numbers. Andy Dirks is finally getting a chance to play every day, and seems to have found a home in the two-slot, where he has replaced Brennan Boesch by hitting .351 with a .404 on base percentage. Dirks and Jackson actually lead the team in OPS, at .993 and.958, respectively. That they're doing so well is great for them. That they lead the team in OPS is not a great thing for the Tigers.
The Tigers addressed the third spot in the order by moving up Miguel Cabrera and slotting Prince Fielder in the clean up spot. They’re both hitting well, but not $22 million worth. The dynamic duo have OPS numbers of .850 and .851, while their career numbers are .947 and .926, respectively. Noticeably missing are the extra-base hits. The Tigers are fourth in the league in batting average, (and fourth in average with runners in scoring position, by the way), but seventh in runs scored and isolated power.
Although the Tigers seem to have solved the issues at the top of the order, it’s been all down hill for the Tigers lineup after the top four. Among the other regulars, only Jhonny Peralta has an average above .250 or an OPS over .700. The Tigers have Delmon Young and Peralta on the team for their ability to drive in runs, and that’s not been the case. The pair have just two home runs each, while Delmon is hitting just .246 with an OPS of .664. The Tigers rank at the bottom of the league in OPS from the sixth spot and barely better from the fifth spot. The two lefties in the second half of the order, Brennan Boesch and Avila, are also struggling, while managing to hit an occasional home run.
Then, there is the black hole of shame: second base. Ryan Raburn is dead last in the American League in batting average, and 113th of 114 in OBP, SLG and OPS among all hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. Yet, the alternatives aren’t doing much better. Ramon Santiago, Danny Worth, and Brandon Inge all hit under .200 with OPS numbers in the .400s, and all had lower hitting ceilings. There is no apparent internal solution to the second base problem other than internal improvement.
Finally, the Tigers have no bench worth talking about. There is nobody to call upon when a key hit is needed in the late innings. The Tiger lineup is stacked with big, slow, free swingers. Too often, they don't try to work an opposing pitcher, wait for their pitch and put the ball in play when they get runners in scoring position. I believe they miss Victor Martinez as much as they are glad to have Prince Fielder in the lineup.
Despite all of that, I still believe that the Tigers will generate more offense than their division rivals, and with at least three solid starters on most nights, should be able to secure their second consecutive division title. Why is that? Because there are too many players in the Tiger lineup that are performing too far below their career numbers, and their ages would suggest that they should be in the prime of their careers.
||2012/ Career OPS
||2012/ Career BABIP
||2012/ Career wOBA
OPS= On Base Percentage plus slugging percentage.
BABIP= Batting average on balls in play, excluding home runs. The percentage of balls that fall in for hits.
wOBA= Weighted on base average. A measure that strongly indicates run creating ability.
There have been some recent signs of life at the bottom of the order, with Delmon and Peralta each starting to hit and Alex Avila patiently putting the ball in play for a
two one out, two strike, two RBI knock up the middle on Sunday to beat the Pirates. The Tigers need more of exactly that kind of plate appearance from the latter half of the order. Peralta is hitting .314 for May, with a ..453 OBP and a 906 OPS. Boesch and Young are each hitting a more respectable .250 for May.
In addition, the Tiger hitters have been somewhat victims of misfortune.The chart below shows that every starting player except Jackson and Dirks have an OPS and a wOBA that is below their career averages. Most of them also have a BABIP that is significantly lower than their career BABIP. Balls just have not been falling in for them, and that is an indication that things should begin to get better for them
When it comes to fielding, the Tigers are just not very good, and it’s not likely going to get much better. Baseball Prospectus shows that the Tigers rank 25th of 30 MLB teams in defensive efficiency. It's still early in the season, and defensive metrics are very unreliable in small samples, but the eye test tells us pretty clearly that defense is not the Tigers' strong suit.
Austin Jackson is as fine a center fielder as there is in the league. Alex Avila is a solid catcher, although he has shown defensive weakness at times this season. That’s where the good news ends. Prince Fielder routinely misses balls that he should catch. Raburn is as poor as anyone in the league at second. Jhonny lacks range at shortstop, and while Cabrera is not the disaster that some predicted at the hot corner, he isn’t a defensive plus, either. The corner outfielders are adequate when Delmon isn’t out there. In short, the defense isn't a plus for the Tigers very often.
The Tigers should have a strong enough rotation, as long as everyone stays healthy, to carry them to their second consecutive division title. No other club in the division can match up with Verlander and Fister atop the rotation. Drew Smyly has been a pleasant surprise, and is a legit mid rotation starter. If they can get more consistency out of Porcello and Scherzer, they will be that much better
It is not reasonable to expect that the Tiger bullpen would continue the dominance in the late innings that they displayed last season, but they need at least the back end of the bullpen to stabilize, starting by reducing the number of walks.
The Tiger lineup has been under performing, but it is very unlikely that so many players will continue to play so far under their career numbers. Unlike 2011, when the Tigers struggled at the top of the batting order, the problems this season are from the middle to the end of the lineup, and there are signs of life recently from the bottom of the order. The Tigers still have much more talent than their division rivals, and they should be able to win the Central.