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Why can’t the Tigers score runs in the ninth inning?

The Tigers lead the league in runs per game, but why can't they score runs in the late innings?

Don Kelly homered in the ninth inning at Houston on May 3. It's not Kelly's fault!
Don Kelly homered in the ninth inning at Houston on May 3. It's not Kelly's fault!
Bob Levey

The Tigers’ ninth inning problems are much bigger than just their bullpen, although the bullpen issues are serious enough. The fact of the matter is that the Tigers can’t seem to score runs in the late innings, especially the ninth.

This issue has been brought to our attention by Singledigit, who suggests that there might be something more than just coincidence in this issue. I don’t know, but I can’t think of any reason why a team would lead the league in runs per game, but then be unable to score runs in the last three innings.

On paper, the issue is significant enough. The Tigers were dead last in the American League last season with an OPS of just .602 in the ninth inning, according to the stats at

This season, they’re right back at the bottom, ranking 14th of 15 teams with an OPS of just .517 in the ninth. Worse yet, the Tigers are dead last with an OPS of just .605 in the seventh inning or later.

The problem also translates, naturally, into lower run production. The Tigers have scored just 55 runs in the seventh inning or later. Only the Seattle Mariners have scored fewer, with just 54.

Well, you might say, the Tigers have not batted in the ninth inning during their wins at home. That’s true, and that can partially explain why they’ve scored a league worst 8 runs in the ninth inning this season. But the team ranks sixth in the league in plate appearances in the seventh inning or later. They’re just not hitting and not scoring runs in the late innings so far this season.

The Tigers aren’t the only team that scores fewer runs in the ninth. Beyondtheboxscore broke down team runs per inning in this article, which shows that the first is the highest scoring and the ninth is the lowest scoring inning across the board. But that doesn’t explain the Tigers’ performance relative to other teams, and it doesn’t explain why the league’s most potent offense dries up in the late innings.

I tend to attribute this phenomenon to just chance, or coincidence, mainly because I don’t have any other logical explanation for it. I’ve come up with, or come across a few suggestions. Like maybe their hitters have a problem with late inning relievers, who tend to throw a lot more high velocity fastballs. I don’t buy that one.

Or maybe the use of defensive replacements in the late innings kill their offense. Yeah that’s it. It’s all Don Kelly’s fault. I knew he was the culprit! Nah.

There are other factors that point to coincidence. The Tigers led the league in OPS and were second in the league in runs scored in the eighth inning last season. Then in the ninth, they couldn’t hit and couldn’t score, relative to other teams. Also, the range of numbers in the smaller sample of this season is naturally wider than the range of numbers at the end of last season, which suggests that a regression to the mean is in order as the season progresses.

But if not coincidence, then the team must be doing something to alter their approach to hitting in the late innings, right?

This is something that can be monitored as the season progresses. Maybe there is an explanation. But if the trend continues, at what point do we rule out coincidence?