It was just a month ago that the Detroit Tigers entered the All Star break with a comfortable lead over the second place Kansas City Royals, after taking three games out of four from their closest division rival. What was once a 7-1/2 game lead is now a deficit.
There certainly is reason to believe that the Tigers will return to form and that their numbers will look more like their season's work. They have now endured two month long slumps and still rank among the league leaders in runs and starting pitching. But in any case, here are the numbers for the first month of the second half of the season, through games of August 15.
To say that the Tigers have struggled since the All Star break would be an under statement. The team ranks 12th of 15 teams in the American league offensively, 13th defensively, and 13th in the bullpen in the second half of the season. Since the break, the team has hit just .256/.313/.378. This is the team that led the league- and still does lead the league, in batting average and was second in run production, currently third in the league for the full season. Detroit's first half line was .280/.333/.445.
Detroit has played more games than any other team in the American League, with hardly a day off since the break, making up for lost games in April. In that time frame, their run production is down under four runs per game.
The Tigers' problems with the offense start at the top of the order, where Rajai Davis should not be batting against right handed pitchers at all, let alone in the lead off spot. Davis is batting .250/.293/.333 against right handers, in line with his career numbers. Behind him, Ian Kinsler, who had an All Star performance in the first half, is batting just .235/.264/.286 for an OPS of .550 and a wOBA of just .246 in the second half. Those are your table setters.
A search of the most valuable position players in the American league in the second half shows that the Tigers don’t have a single player among the top 40. Miguel Cabrera comes in 42nd. Cabrera has hit .308 with an on base percentage of .377 since the break, but he has just three home runs and 11 RBI over the past month. He leads the league in doubles this season, but has only one two bagger in his last 26 games. It’s hard to imagine the Tigers bouncing back unless Miggy produces much better than that.
The most productive Tigers’ position player since the All Star break has been Austin Jackson, who was traded to Seattle over two weeks ago. (i.e. AJax did more in two weeks than any other player has done in a month). Dave Dombrowski rolled the dice on the strategy that dictates starting pitching wins championships, when he traded Jackson and Drew Smyly for an upgrade in the pitching rotation. He did not, however, do anything to replace Jackson, much less upgrade the lineup, and the bullpen remains a disaster waiting to happen on any given night.
There is some good news for the second half Tigers. Nick Castellanos is starting to drive the ball very well, batting .278/.342/.528, leading the team in slugging and OPS of .870 since the break. Torii Hunter has awakened from his first half coma, and Victor Martinez continues to hit, although without the power that he displayed earlier in the season.
The bottom of the order hasn't done much good. Alex Avila is hitting just .200 with an on base percentage of .265, and a wOBA of only .288. JD Martinez, Eugenio Suarez, Andrew Romine, and Don Kelly have all played below replacement level in the second half. That’s just too many holes in one lineup. Almost any aging, over paid player that some non contender would like to dump would be an upgrade.
The strength of the Tigers continues to be their starting rotation. Tigers’ starters haven’t been as dominant as they were a year ago, but they lead the league in fWAR in the second half, and rank third in fielding independent pitching (FIP), but the rotation ERA is no better than eighth in the league at 3.70. A league high .322 batting average on balls in play, plus a significant gap between ERA and FIP is an indication that they’re not getting support behind them.
Which brings us back to another sore spot. Team defense. The Tigers have a team defensive UZR of - 24.3 since the All Star break, and a DRS of -44 runs saved. Pick your poison, they are one of the two or three worst defensive teams in the American League. These are full season stats, as I don’t want to get into small samples with defensive metrics. Suffice it to say that things aren’t getting any better in the field.
I hesitate to even discuss the bullpen. The Tigers’ bullpen has a combined fWAR of 0.8 wins below replacement level for the second half, by far the worst in the American League. That stands to reason, since they have been calling up so many replacements and sending them back down for the past few weeks. They are also dead last in FIP and rank 13th of 15 teams in bullpen ERA, as efforts to find internal solutions have fallen short.
If you’re looking for bright spots in the bullpen, as I surely am, Blaine Hardy has done a fine job, with an ERA of 1.98 and an FIP of 2.92. Joe Nathan has a second half ERA of 3.48, and Ian Krol has pitched better since being recalled from his demotion to Toledo, albeit in just six innings of work.
Joba Chamberlain had been pretty much the only reliable relief pitcher for the Tigers in the first half of the season, but even he has struggled since the break, with a 4.91 ERA and a negative fWAR. Reports of Phil Coke’s non demise have been greatly exaggerated, as he has an ERA of 4.22 and an FIP of 5.38. He had at least been keeping the ball in the park, not allowing a home run since June 5, but two recent blasts have wrecked that streak also.
Al Alburquerque remains one of the keys, and one of the great mysteries in the Tigers’ bullpen. Having cut his BB/9 ratio in half since 2013, when he led the league in free pass ratio, Al Al began to give up the long ball. His K/9 ratio is one of the best in the league, and his ratios have continued right into the second half of the season. He has an ERA of 2.70 with a WHIP of 1.10 since the break, and that will play well on any team. He still looks like an accident waiting to happen but his deadly slider holds opponents to a .200 batting average. He is, for lack of a better option, a set up man now.
Whether the Tigers bullpen can get it together is anyone’s guess. In recent seasons, they have at least managed to limit the damage in late innings even if their bullpen as a whole is well below league average. Nathan- Chamberlain- Alburquerque, with Hardy pitching in at least has the potential to be fairly decent. Brad Ausmus will have to avoid the stinking pitfalls of the remainder of the bullpen, whomever might occupy those roster spots at a given time, in higher leverage situations. That includes games where the Tigers are tied or down by a run.
Offensively, the lineup basically relies on three players for their run production. Cabrera, Martinez, and Kinsler have to produce, and they need to get at least one more hot bat from somewhere else in the lineup. J.D. Martinez was a godsend in the first half of the season, but he hasn’t contributed much for well over a month now. Castellanos has been providing a much needed lift.
One has to wonder when the team will call up James McCann from Toledo, to provide some offense from the catching position. If they’re worried about giving him enough playing time, just give it to him. Dave Dombrowski has to be keenly aware of the holes in his lineup, and should be burning up the phones looking for the next team to bail out and give up a player who could add some much needed offense in the lead off spot, in center field, or at shortstop.
Regardless of what roster moves are made, either internally or via the trade market, the success of this Tiger team will come down to the players who got them out to a lead in their division in the first half of the season. Hopefully, the past month is just another slump.
If it's any consolation, the one team that had outscored the Tigers in the first half of the season, the Los Angeles Angels, has scored fewer runs than any team in the American League since the All Star break, and are batting just .229 as a team. Despite that, the Angels have now drawn even with the Oakland A's and have the best winning percentage in Major league baseball.
We know the Tigers can produce runs, because they’ve done it this season. The surrounding cast may change, but Miggy has to be Miggy and Kinsler needs to wake up. If they do, the Tigers will be fine. If not, they won’t.