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Why the Tigers are not in first place with 20 games remaining this season

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A statistical breakdown after 142 games shows the strengths and weaknesses of the Detroit Tigers, and where the Kansas City Royals have an advantage on them.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. The Detroit Tigers were expected to win their fourth consecutive division title easily. Yet, after 142 games, the Tigers find themselves in second place, trailing the Kansas City Royals.

The Detroit Tigers have scored more runs than any team in the American League. Detroit’s starting rotation is as good or better than any in the league. So, why are the Tigers in second place? Let’s break it down. Numbers used for this analysis are through Sunday morning, September 6, 2014, with 142 games in the books, and 20 games remaining in the season.

Offense

The Detroit Tigers have scored more runs than any other team in the American league through Saturday's game, right on pace with the Los Angeles Angels. The Tigers also have the highest average of runs per game, at 4.70. The Tigers lead the league in batting average by 14 points over the second place Royals. They have the highest on-base percentage, the highest slugging percentage, and naturally, the highest OPS. The Tigers’ offense leads the league in fWAR, OPS+, wRC, and total average. The Tigers’ run production is also best in the league in the second half of the season.

Detroit leads the league in hits, doubles, runs, and sacrifice flies. They rank fourth in triples, fourth in stolen bases, and sixth in home runs. The weakness? Detroit ranks tenth in unintentional walks, and tenth in pitches per plate appearance. They could work the count a bit better.

What about squandering scoring chances? The Tigers have scored the highest percentage of baserunners in the league, at 32 percent. Despite leading the league in putting men on base, they have left 969 runners on base, which is exactly the league average.

Kansas City is scoring 4.02 runs per game, just below the league average, ranking ninth in the league. They convert 31 percent of their baserunners into runs. Yet, they are in first place.

How about baserunning? The Tigers were dead last in the American league in percentage of extra bases taken in 2013, but not any more. The Tigers take an extra base (first to third or runner scores on a single from second, or runner scores from first on a double) 39 percent of the time, which is just below the league average of 41 percent. The Royals take an extra base 40% of the time. Scoring runs is helped by baserunning, but getting a base knock is much more efficient.

Pitching

The Tigers’ pitching rotation was expected to be the best in the league, and they have been just that. Tigers’ starting pitchers have the highest fWAR in the American league by a wide margin. The Tigers’ fielding independent pitching (FIP) also leads the league at 3.42.

The Tigers’ rotation does not rank as highly using ERA. Their 3.93 ERA is more than half a run higher than their FIP, and ranks only eighth in the league. Why the big difference? In a word, defense, but we will come back to that. Anyway, if you’re going to use outdated metrics to measure the rotation, better to stick with wins. The Tigers' rotation has 59 W's on the season, which leads the league.

Kansas City led the league in team ERA in 2013, at 3.48, while the Tigers' rotation was tops at 3.43. The Royals' rotation has a 3.53 ERA this season, and their pitching overall is at 3.51, both fourth in the American league. Their FIP of 3.74 suggests that they've had some good fortune and good defense behind them.

Bullpen

There are two way to look at the performance of a bullpen. One is to use the available data for the entire relief corps, disregarding the context of their performance. The other is to look at how well they perform in terms of the outcome when they are given a lead to protect. We’ll use both methods here.

Overall, the Tigers’ bullpen has been one of the worst in the league. Detroit ranks 14th out 15 AL teams in bullpen fWAR, 12th in bullpen ERA, and 14th in bullpen FIP. Tiger relief pitchers rank 10th in strikeouts per nine innings, 14th in walks per nine, and 13th in home runs per nine innings. They are dead last in the league in batting average allowed and WHIP. In fact, their collective WHIP of 1.48 is bad enough that any given pitcher with that number should probably be released.

What about inherited runners? The Tigers’ bullpen has allowed 32 percent of inherited runners to score, which is second-highest in the American league. Ian Krol (16), Phil Coke (14), and Al Alburquerque (12) all rank among the league’s biggest culprits in letting inherited runners score. This is one big reason not to trust ERA to measure the performance of a relief pitcher who works a lot of partial innings.

One saving grace about the Tigers’ bullpen is that they have had to pitch fewer innings than any other team in the American League thanks to the rotation. With this cast of characters, bullpen avoidance is indeed an effective strategy to deploy, as much as possible.

When it comes to protecting leads, however, the Tigers’ bullpen has been much more efficient. Their 14 blown saves are third lowest in the league, and their 16 losses are fewer than all but the Kansas City Royals. The Tigers’ 69 percent save percentage ranks sixth in the league, far behind the Royals’ 82 percent save rate, which leads the league.

Joe Nathan, in particular, has outperformed his peripheral statistics in relief. Nathan has six blown saves, but the Tigers have only lost three of those games. Detroit has lost three of Joba Chamberlain’s four blown saves, and all five of the saves blown by Ian Krol, Phil Coke, and Jim Johnson. They have otherwise fared very well in the seventh and eighth innings, losing only two leads in each of those innings. So, their performance while holding a lead has far out-paced the overall effectiveness of their bullpen. Still, this is one area where the Kansas City Royals hold a decided advantage over the Tigers.

Defense

The sad truth of the matter is that there is no 'D' in Detroit. Or at least not a very good defense. The Tigers are one of the worst defensive teams in the American League, regardless of which metrics you choose to look at.

The Tigers rank 14th of 15 teams using Bill James’ defensive runs saved (DRS) with a negative 64 runs for the season. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has the Tigers 13th in the league, at 39.6 runs allowed below average. Revised Zone Rating (RZR), which calculates the number of plays made on balls hit within a fielder’s defined zone, puts the Tigers 12th of 15 teams. With over 2,000 balls in the zone, you can pretty much rule out random variation.

The Tigers’ defense has been sub-standard all around the field. Only at second base do the Tigers rank above league average using both DRS and UZR. They are slightly below average at catcher according to DRS, and above average according to UZR, but below average at every other position according to both metrics. They have been particularly bad in right field and at third base (-20 and -29 DRS runs, respectively), where Torii Hunter and Nick Castellanos have both been worst in the league defensively at their respective positions.

The Kansas City Royals, by contrast, lead the American league in UZR, at plus 52 runs. With the Tigers at -39.6, that would be a difference of 92 runs attributed to fielding. A whopping 79 of those 92 runs are attributed to outfield defense, mainly because the Royals have been 49 runs above average in the outfield.

Pythagorean

The pythagorean formula indicates that, for the number of runs scored, and runs allowed, the Tigers have won two more games than they should have. The fact that the Tigers have out performed their expected number of wins is an indication that their run distribution is not a "feast or famine" mirage. Their offense is what it looks like in their run totals.

The Tigers have scored 2 runs or fewer in 41 games through Saturday. They are 6-35 in those games. The Royals have scored 2 runs or less in 51 games -- even more famine -- through Sunday, and have won 10 of those games. (Ed.: Add another one to that total, as they beat the New York Yankees 2-0 yesterday).

The Kansas City Royals have out paced their pythag by six wins. Teams that can leverage their runs scored by holding close games tend to do that. The Cleveland Indians were able to close the gap in the AL Central division in 2013 to within one game by out performing their pythag, and the Royals now hold the lead by better leveraging their run differential.

All is not lost for the Tigers, by any means. They have eliminated Ian Krol from the roster, and hope to get Joakim Soria back soon. If Brad Ausmus can avoid the temptation to use Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque in close games with runners on base, the bullpen should be better. If he uses a defensive replacement in right field and at third base, the defense can also be improved.

So, back to our initial question: why aren’t the Tigers leading their division? The Tigers have had the most productive and the most efficient offense in the league. They have the best starting rotation in the league, although they miss Anibal Sanchez presently. But the Kansas City Royals have been more efficient overall, deploying a far superior defense and bullpen, converting a +24 run differential into more wins than the Tigers have with a better run differential.