After three consecutive division titles, three straight appearances in the American League Championship series, and a World Series appearance in the past three seasons, the Tigers were not a team in desperate need of an overhaul. But four months after losing in six games to the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox, the Tigers are set to begin the 2014 season without eleven players -- or more -- who were on their opening day roster just one season ago.
On paper, you might say that the lineup is not as good minus Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta. Or, the pitching rotation cannot be as good without Doug Fister, or the bullpen will miss their three best relievers from a year ago, in Drew Smyly, Joaquin Benoit, and Jose Veras. Each of those things may be true.
Yet, Dave Dombrowski has an excellent track record putting together winning baseball teams. Each move made over the offseason was calculated to make the Tigers a better ball club overall. Each was part of a bigger strategy, paving the way for the next move. Whether those moves improve the team remains to be seen, but there are reasons for optimism as we head into the 2014 season.
Let’s start with the obvious. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know here. The Tigers should be dramatically better defensively. Better at first base and shortstop in particular, and potentially other positions. The Tigers suffered defensively when Omar Infante was on the disabled list, and Alex Avila had a poor season all the way around.
Lee Panas did a very interesting study on the Tigers' defense in 2013 and concluded that just fielding a league average number of ground balls -- instead of worst in the majors -- could be worth as much as 47 runs over the course of a season. That may be a bit optimistic, since Fister was one of their primary producers of grounders, but Jose Iglesias has exceptional range at shortstop, and Cabrera should be able to convert at least a few balls that Fielder would miss. How much the Tiger defense is improved is only a matter of degree. It will be better.
2. Base Running
I risk being called "Captain Obvious" once more in proclaiming that the Tigers are going to be a more productive team running the bases this season. They could hardly be worse. The 2013 Tigers were dead last in extra bases taken percentage, according to Baseball-Reference taking an extra base just 33% of the time on a single or a double.
Ian Kinsler was a master at taking the extra base, going from first to third or scoring from second on a single, or from first base on a double a whopping 61% of the time. Where the 2013 Tigers were league average in scoring efficiency once they put a man on base, due to the fact that they got so many hits, the 2014 team will try to make up for the hit deficit by taking more bases.
Of course, the other dimension to base running is stealing bases. The entire Tiger team swiped just 35 bases last season, whereas Rajai Davis stole 45 by himself. No team has gotten fewer steals out of their shortstop than the Tigers did from Peralta, and Castellanos could swipe more bags than Prince Fielder running backwards. Not only were the Tigers last in stolen bases, but second last in the league in stolen base percentage.
The pythagorean theorem of baseball measures how many wins a team should have at the end of the season based on the number of runs they scored vs how many they allowed. The Tigers won 93 games, but should have won 99 based on the pythagorean theorem. They left six wins on the table. For one, that would have been enough to give them home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But in the current situation, the Tigers should be able to have a smaller margin between runs scored and runs allowed, and still come up with 93 wins.
I could pose a theory as to why the Tigers under performed their pythag. Not scoring runs in the late innings, not being able to "manufacture" a run in close ballgames, and a below average bullpen could all be factors.
More to the point, the Tigers were 20-26 in one run games, and 6-13 in extra innings. If they just maintained their usual winning percentage, those records would flip to 26-20, and 11-8. The second place Indians, by contrast, were 10-2 in extra inning games, and 30-17 in one run games. In this case, objects in the rear view mirror may not be as close as they appear to be.
Despite winning 93 games, there is a case to be made that the Tigers were quite unlucky in 2013. They won the Central Division with several games left in the season, and Jim Leyland decided to rest players for the postseason, getting swept by the Marlins with much of a minor league lineup on the field.
The Tigers’ pitching rotation last season wasn't just good. It was great. They had four of the ten best starting pitchers in the league by several metrics, including WAR and fielding independent pitching (FIP). Justin Verlander was arguably their third best starter. Only Chris Sale of the White Sox could crack that top four among AL Central pitchers in either category.
The Tigers return four members of their starting five, and they’ll replace Fister with Drew Smyly. Rick Porcello posted a 13-8 record, to Fister’s 14-9. Won-loss record is not the best indicator of performance, but it is one measure of the results achieved, so those numbers are within reach for Porcello, even without improving his peripheral numbers. Moreover, Porcello, with the second highest ground ball percentage in the league last year, stands to gain more than any other Tiger starter by the improved infield defense.
The challenge for both Porcello and Smyly will be to provide the same or better production while increasing their work load. Porcello was limited to just 29 starts as the fifth starter being skipped on occasion. In 2012, mostly as a starter, Smyly posted an ERA of 3.99 with an FIP of 3.86. All his peripherals indicate that he can replicate or improve on Porcello’s production if he can only give more of the same while increasing his innings.
I still don't like the return that the Tigers got for Fister, but I wrote about how they could be as good next season without him in this article. The bottom line is that the Tigers still have the best rotation in the league, if not the game. There is certainly no team in their division who can touch them.
The competition has hardly gotten much better. The Indians have lost relievers Chris Perez and Joe Smith, outfielder Jason Kubel, and stand to lose one of their best starting pitchers in Ubaldo Jimenez. They signed John Axford to be their closer, but have done little else to improve their team, unless you count Jeff Francoeur as an upgrade.
The Kansas City Royals look like the biggest threat in the division. They return one of the league’s best bullpens, and have added former Tiger Omar Infante to shore up a weak spot in the infield, and Norichika Aoki, an on-base machine, to play the outfield. The Royals lose Ervin Santana and have replaced him with Jason Vargas. They have brought back Bruce Chen, and will give rookie Yordano Ventura a shot to fill out their rotation. They return Jeremy Guthrie and James Shields, who is a year from free agency.
The Tigers ranked second in the American League last season with 796 runs scored. The Royals were 11th with 648. That is a difference of 148 runs scored, and just too much to make up with such a large difference between the pitching rotations. Once again, the Tigers were league average in turning base runners into runs, but left wins on the table by not turning those runs into the expected number of wins.
The White Sox and Twins were not threats last year, and neither team has done anything that would lead one to believe they could contend this summer.
There are players on every team in every season who have career seasons, and players who have poor seasons. Andy Dirks and Alex Avila, in particular, should have better seasons. The Tigers were relatively healthy in 2013, but their most valuable player was hobbled by injury at the worst possible time.
So the Tigers are once again strong favorites to win their division, as they should be. Nobody is saying it’s going to be easy, but there are legitimate reasons to believe that the Tigers can do enough with what they have to produce at least as many wins as they had a season ago. Even if they appear to be coming up short, let’s not underestimate Dombrowski and the desire of Mike Ilitch to make adjustments to propel them deep into the post season once again.