So, what went wrong? More specifically, what didn't go wrong for the Tigers this year? A whole heck of a lot didn't go right. I could go on and on ... and on ... about what failed or got in the way of a successful 2015 season. But I won't. We'll just take a look at the five largest issues the Tigers faced this year. That doesn't mean that individual problems weren't glaring, just that on the whole those individual shortcomings were reflective of a larger issue.
It's easy to find what went wrong with a team. It was far more difficult to see what went well. But when it's been a down year, talking about what went well is nearly a necessity. Now it's time to cross that off the checklist and move on to the issues. Peer into the doom of frustration and all that went wrong. Let's start with the biggest culprit.
To be precise, it was something the Tigers couldn't do this year. Even in the offseason there were issues. Miguel Cabrera had to have surgery on his right foot to repair a stress fracture and remove bone spurs. Justin Verlander started the season on the disabled list with a right triceps injury and didn't make his first start until June 13. Victor Martinez had to undergo left knee surgery after he tore his medial meniscus while playing catch.
|Name||Date of DL or sidelined||Injury||Returned to team:||Total time missed:||Notes:|
|Alex Avila||May 9: 15-day DL (retro to 5/7)||Loose body, L knee||7/3/2015||57 days||Had lower back tightness in ST|
|Anibal Sanchez||Aug. 20: 15-day DL||R rotator cuff strain||N/A||Season-ending||Dealt with injury throughout year|
|Bruce Rondon||April 5: 15-day DL (retro to 4/1)||R biceps tendinitis||6/15/2015||75 days||-|
|Bryan Holaday||Aug. 18: 7-day DL||Dislocated tip of L thumb||8/26/2015||Eight days||Was w/Triple-A at time, recalled by Tigers on Sept. 1|
|Buck Farmer||Sept. 9: Sidelined||R forearm tightness||9/22/2015||13 days||-|
|Daniel Norris||Aug. 19: 15-day DL||R oblique strain||9/16/2015||28 days||Pitched through thyroid cancer in 2015, will have offseason surgery|
|Joe Nathan||April 6: 15-day DL||R flexor strain (later torn UCL/TJ surgery)||N/A||Season-ending||Underwent Tommy John surgery on April 29|
|Jose Iglesias||Sept. 3: Sidelined||Non-displaced R middle finger fracture||N/A||Season-ending||5/3-5/11 L groin tightness: Missed nine days|
|Justin Verlander||April 8: 15-day DL (retro to 3/29)||R triceps strain||6/13/2015||76 days||-|
|Kyle Lobstein||May 24: 15-day DL (60-day 7/30)||L shoulder soreness||9/3/2015||102 days||Struggled since return to team|
|Miguel Cabrera||July 4: 15-day DL||Grade 3 L calf strain||8/14/2015||41 days||Dealt with effects of offseason surgery on ankle during year|
|Shane Greene||Aug. 18: 7-day DL||R shoulder pseudoanurysm in circumflex artery||N/A||Season-ending surgery||Also dealt with mild ulnar neuritis in May, throughout the year|
|Victor Martinez||May 19: 15-day DL||L knee inflammation||6/19/2015||31 days||Struggled before and after DL due to offseason knee surgery|
Altogether, that's a total of 742 DAYS without regular position players, starters, and relievers on the roster. Take away Holaday's eight, Greene's since he was in the minors at the time (though he went down there because he was struggling and it was later learned that he struggled because of the injury), and even Farmer's 13 days, and you're still left with 672 days without solid everyday players. That's a lot.
Avila, Sanchez, Verlander, Cabrera, and Martinez shared a total of one (!) healthy day on the roster (July 3) until Aug. 14, when Cabrera returned. They then had an additional six whopping days where all five core players were (relatively) healthy until Sanchez was sidelined on Aug. 20 for the rest of the year. If you're looking for a culprit for lack of strength from the base of the team, there's your guilty party.
As much as other aspects of the team's shortcomings were to blame, the team never got off to a healthy start and a sizable chunk of the issues can be traced back to a lack of it. When I started on this chart, I knew the injuries had contributed to the issues, but I didn't realize just how monumental of a barrier it was. If anything's to blame, injuries should bare the brunt of it.
The starting rotation to begin the year was thus: David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Shane Greene, Alfredo Simon. But Verlander started the year on the DL and two more finished the season on the DL. The starting five-ish to close out the year was a mosh posh of Verlander, Simon, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Randy Wolf, and Lobstein -- depending on who wore out the fastest and essentially made it a split start between two starters. Price was traded to the Blue Jays. The Tigers were counting on strength in their starting staff but instead they got a shaky foundation that kept crumbling. Bit. By. Bit.
Those who were healthy weren't steady, with the exception of Price and Verlander (after he got going) ... and Norris, when he arrived via trade ... for Price. Wolf was on his last leg and Boyd needs more time in the minors. Simon was as volitile as projected. The Tigers lost a lot of games because no matter how many runs the offense drove in, the starting rotation gave up the game before the bats had a chance.
Oh, that bullpen. This issue isn't a new phenomenon. And in the end there were some surprisingly solid pieces for the future, not exactly something to be said for in the past -- which gives hope. But on the whole it was a disaster. The worst part was no one knew who would blow up, or when. You could point to the Minnesota game or the trade deadline as turning points of the season, but after a strong showing in April and May -- with cautionary signs of future trouble -- the bullpen reverted to its typically unstable and self-destructive force.
Not all parties were guilty and some actually showed their strength despite a caving structure around them -- Alex Wilson, Blaine Hardy, Drew VerHagen, for example. But having to bear a bigger workload because of the majority of the 'pen wore on everyone. And with the starting rotation already in disarray, often when the Tigers fought back with enough force on offense to take or retake a lead, the bullpen gave it right back. And it made or a very frustrating season.
Baserunning and power
Or rather, the lack of it on both accounts. The Tigers had the second-best on-base percentage in MLB but they gave away far too many outs. It wasn't even on account of forcing the issue/trying to create something. Silly mistakes like getting thrown out on the bases because someone wasn't paying attention, or getting caught attempting to steal a base.
As a team, the Tigers finished with a -6.3 wSB per FanGraphs, second-worst in the majors only to the Mariners. In other words, of the 22 one-run losses, the Tigers' baserunning cost the team over six runs, which might have otherwise translated into wins instead. Sure it might have only meant the difference between fifth and third place in the division, but one game can turn into two, two into three, so on and so forth. As if that wasn't enough, Detroit's wGDP according to FanGraphs (runs lost on account of grounding into a double play) was -7.4.
Add that to the six-plus runs (and possible wins) lost for poorly executed stolen bases, and you have nearly 14 runs, 14 possible WINS that resulted in losses. That's second place. Yes, it's a stretch to say all of those would have ended in wins instead of losses. But the team would have stood a much better chance to come out on top had there not been so many errors made on the basepaths.
I nearly forgot the lack of offensive power in all this. There isn't much to say other than this part is primarily the result of the injury gremlins. You can't force power if it just isn't there. It's not there when players are hurt. And when players are hurt, players compensate, they struggle, and the team has to find other ways to score. Like playing small ball. And that in turn created fundamental baserunning issues. And those problems originate with the players who made the decisions in the first place.
Brad Ausmus didn't have much to work with this year. Nearly every force of baseball nature was against him and he had a hill of beans to work with at times. But when he did have players he could use properly, more often than not he failed to utilize them to their full potential. He showed an inattention to detail with critical decisions/issues, would keep a starter in for too long or take him out too early, and displayed poor bullpen management. There's something to be said for how a team treats, responds to, and trusts its manager, though. If nothing else, the players certainly have that for Ausmus.
As the season wore on and he couldn't afford "roles" or the luxury of trusting a starter to go deep, it seemed to push him to make tougher choices. Whether you agree with his managerial approach, the Tigers have given him another year to prove them right by retaining him as the organization's field manager. Given a healthy staff, it'll be interesting to see what version of Ausmus pops up, but for now the criticism and misgivings leftover from 2015 are seared fairly deep into the subconscious.