Wednesday night's loss against the Cincinnati Reds was frustrating for many reasons. Some could point to manager Brad Ausmus' bullpen usage, and some could point to the rain delay costing David Price a chance at a complete game three-peat. Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all, though, was Detroit's hitting late in the game. Outside of Tyler Collins' pinch-hit homer, Detroit was shut down in the late innings. They were held to just six hits on the night, two of which came in the ninth inning or later. This is part of a disturbing trend that has shown up in Detroit since 2013.
In the past three years, the Tigers have been one of baseball's best offensive teams. Their .334 wOBA and 111 wRC+ lead all of baseball during that span by a healthy margin. However, they show a large split in performance when in what Fangraphs defines as a "low" leverage situation (a situation where an at-bat will likely not have a drastic effect on the probability of a team winning) and what is considered "high" leverage (an at-bat which will have a large effect on a team's win probability).
In low leverage situations, Detroit is hitting .281/.337/.432 for a robust wRC+ of 113. However, during high leverage opportunities, the team's batting line plummets to .242/.316/.383, which is an 89 wRC+. Quite literally, over the last three years the Tigers have been 21 percent less effective as hitters in clutch situations versus nonclutch situations.
There are reasons for the Tigers' hitting woes in big moments, not the least of which is quality of competition. To give extreme examples from Wednesday night, the Tigers were locked in a high-leverage battle with the Reds going into the ninth, and thus were forced to face Aroldis Chapman. The Chicago Cubs, who beat the Cleveland Indians 17-0, faced emergency reliever Ryan Raburn in the ninth. The results were predictable; Detroit was set down in order while many runs ensued for the Cubs in Cleveland.
That is to say, the higher the leverage in a game, the better the pitcher on the mound is likely to be. This is reflected in league-wide stats from 2013 to 2015, which show that the average wRC+ in low leverage situations is 95, while the league-average high leverage wRC+ is 91. There's a drop-off there, but nowhere near as dramatic as Detroit's. This table further breaks down the split in run creation by leverage.
Team differences in leverage-based wRC+
|Team||Low-Leverage wRC+||High-Leverage wRC+||Difference|
|New York Yankees||87||91||4|
|New York Mets||90||90||0|
|Chicago White Sox||85||83||-2|
Detroit's split in hitting effectiveness is one of the largest in the league, but it's not unprecedented. The woebegone Texas Rangers suffer a 27-point drop-off in performance in big moments, while on the opposite end of the spectrum the Kansas City Royals are essentially kings of the high leverage. The standard deviation on this sample (assuming all teams' opportunities are weighted equally) is about 11.5, so the Tigers scoring a negative 24 gives us a z-score of -2.09. This means that there is roughly a two percent chance that a team showing that sharp of a difference between wRC+ values based on leverage is due to pure luck, so we can go ahead and conclude the Tigers are just a bad team at clutch hitting.
Detroit's inability to hit in the clutch has plagued them over the last three years as much as bullpen issues. Hitting better in key scenarios would go a long way to take stress off of the beleagured relief corps and help Detroit climb back into the divisional race.