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Monday morning thoughts: Tigers should still win the central division

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Coming off two tough losses at home to the Orioles doesn’t leave a very good taste in the mouths of Tiger fans this morning. However, the White Sox have just been swept by the Kansas City Royals, so the Tigers actually gained a game in the standings over the weekend, and we can chalk up the past two games as lost opportunities, but no ground has been lost in the quest for the ultimate goal of making the playoffs.

The Tigers are just a game and a half behind Chicago, with 41 games left on the schedule. They have seven games left against the White Sox, and there is a lot of baseball left to be played. At this point, it’s clearly a two team race for the division, and I don’t believe that the Tigers are even considering the possibility of landing a wild card berth in the playoffs as a consolation prize

The Tigers were a near unanimous pick to win the Central division when the season started, and I was right there with all the pundits, proclaiming that the Tigers had the best lineup, the best rotation, and the best bullpen in the division. I still believe that to be the case, although the Chicago White Sox are making things a bit uncomfortable, to say the least.

In many respects, the two teams are very close, statistically. Chicago has scored just nine more runs than Detroit, and they have a team ERA of 3.97 to the Tigers’ 3.98. After Sunday’s action, the White Sox have scored 64 more runs than they have allowed, while the Tigers have a positive run differential of 24,. However, the Tigers have the advantage since the All Star break when Chicago held a plus 63 to plus 6 advantage. It’s no coincidence that the Tigers have edged closer in the standings since the all star break, when they were in third place, 3.5 games behind Chicago.

Following are the reasons that I like the Tigers chances against the White Sox:

Lineup- Advantage Tigers: While Chicago has scored a few more runs this season, the Tigers have done much better recently after getting Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks back from the disabled list, and adding Omar Infante and Jeff Baker in trades. The White Sox acquired Kevin Youkilis, which is a big help for them, but the Tigers have posted better numbers across the board since the All Star break. Detroit has scored 13 more runs, has more hits, doubles, triples, and a better average, on base percentage and slugging percentage. Chicago has more home runs. These trends bode well for the Tigers.

Breaking it down by position, whether using wOBA or more traditional statistics, the Tigers have been more productive than their Chicago counterparts at first base, second base (with Infante), shortstop, third base, left field, and center field. Chicago has been more productive at catcher, right field, and DH. By position in the lineup, the Tigers have been more productive in all except the fifth and sixth spots in the lineup. Tigers' team wOBA is .330, Chicago .320. This is an indication that the Tigers have more players producing, and fewer holes to be plugged.

Pitching Rotation- Advantage Tigers: The two teams have a near identical team ERA as stated above, but a closer look shows that the Tiger rotation has the best fielding independent pitching (FIP) in the league at 3.72, while Chicago is seventh at 4.24. Detroit’s rotation also leads the league in strikeout rate and they out pace the White Sox in BB rate, ground ball ratio, and home run rate. Remove defense from the equation, and the Tiger rotation rules the division, if not the league.

The White Sox are counting the innings of Chris Sale, who made the all star team in his first full season as a starting pitcher. Rookie Carlos Quintana has pitched extremely well, and Jake Peavy has rebounded nicely from several injury riddled seasons. Phil Humber is struggling with a 5.76 ERA, and Gavin Floyd has been inconsistent. The Tigers have a full rotation performing increasingly well as the season progresses. They have Doug Fister back from two trips to the DL, and have yet to realize the benefit of adding the proven veteran, Anibal Sanchez.

Bullpen- Advantage Tigers: This may cause some controversy, as the White Sox have a slightly better bullpen ERA by a margin of 3.67 to 3.81, but again the Tigers have the better FIP (3.87 to 4.09), better strikeout rate, better BB rate, and the two clubs have identical home run ratios. Turning back to traditional stats, the Tigers have a better save percentage, and Chicago is second in the league with 16 blown saves, to the Tigers 12. Detroit does not have the lock down back end of the bullpen that they had in 2011, but the bullpen overall is deeper, and outperforms Chicago in high leverage situations.

Defense- Advantage White Sox. The flip side to the FIP coin shows that the Tigers’ defense is costing them runs. That’s nothing you didn’t already know, I’m sure. The Tigers have committed 17 more errors than Chicago, and allowed 58 unearned runs to the White Sox’ 24. In fact, the Tigers have allowed two fewer earned runs, but their defense has allowed an additional 34 unearned runs. Back to saber stats, the Tigers show a negative 30 defensive runs saved, which is worst in the league according to fangraphs, while Chicago has a minus 10.

Schedule- No advantage: The Tigers have 41 games remaining, 21 at home and 20 away. The White Sox have 42 games left, 23 games at home, and 19 on the road. After canceling out the games that the two teams have in common, the Tigers have three game series vs the Angels, Jays, and Oakland at home, and finish the season with three at Kansas City. Chicago’s four extra series are against the Yankees, Rays and Seattle at home, with a four game series at Baltimore. The seven games between the two clubs, four games in Chicago and three at Comerica, will of course be critical.

Injuries: The White Sox have had virtually no significant injuries to their lineup. Starting pitcher Phil Humber missed a month on the disabled list, and John Danks is out for the season after having shoulder surgery. Meanwhile the Tigers lost Jackson, Dirks, Smyly, Avila, and Fister twice with significant injuries. We can’t make excuses and speculate where the Tigers would be if all those players were healthy all season, but they’re all healthy now, and that can only help Detroit’s chances going forward.

Other factors: Chicago, like the Twins and the Indians, were resting their 2012 hopes on having big rebound seasons from several veteran players. Well, Chicago is getting all that they could have hoped for and more. Adam Dunn and Alex Rios have practically risen from the dead and are having monster seasons for them. AJ Pierzynski and Paul Konerko are hitting as well as they ever have. Alejandro DeAza and Dayan Viciedo have come of age and are having solid seasons. Only Alexei Ramirez is noticeably below his career numbers, and he still plays a solid shortstop.

The Tigers, meanwhile, are getting the usual all star level production out of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, who rank first and third in the AL in wOBA over the past 30 days. Austin Jackson has become one of the game’s best center fielders and lead off men, but he is the lone Tiger hitter who is producing well above expectations. Several others are well below their career norms. Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch have been terrible, leaving runs on the bases with regularity. Former All Stars Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta are performing below their career numbers. Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn provided no production at all before hitting the waiver wire or the DL.

Whether all those trends continue is anyone’s guess, but with all that going on, the Tigers have played Chicago almost to a draw through 120 games. They have added Omar Infante at second base to shore up the defense and provide some punch from a position where they got no production at all in the first half of the season. Should any of the White Sox fall their current production levels, or should some of the struggling Tigers awaken, that only strengthens the Tigers for a stretch run.

In summary, it has taken many breaks for Chicago to remain on top of the division this far into the season, and it will take more breaks for them to win it. Take nothing away from them, especially the players that have bounced back from terrible performances in recent seasons. But I believe that there are many reasons for Tiger fans to be optimistic about their chances of winning the division this season. It’s been a long, tough season for the Tigers and their fans, but things are moving in the right direction, ever so slowly, but surely.