As the calendar hits July, the Detroit Tigers will start the second half of the season needing to improve. As teams enter play on June 29, Fangraphs says the Tigers have a 35 percent chance of making the postseason this year. They also say the Tigers will probably win 84 games this year. Entering the year, I think every Tiger fan would say 84 wins would qualify as a disappointment.
That being said, the big question is: why are the Tigers in third place? They currently trail the second place Minnesota Twins by only one game and the division leading Kansas City Royals by 6 1/2 games. Surely the Royals no longer rank as a "surprise" team, fresh off of their World Series appearance in 2014. The Twins were expected to be improved, but second in the division? No one saw that coming. Before pointing fingers at the Tigers, here's a look at why the Royals and Twins are currently outpacing our Tigers.
The Twins played out of their minds in May. That's really all there is to it. They limped out of the gate, losing six of their first seven games. An improved offense helped them finish the month 10-12. In May, the Twins went 20-7. Obviously, that pace is unsustainable. They got hot months in May from Brian Dozier and an improved starting rotation. However, Minnesota is just 10-16 in June.
Dozier and a resurgent Trevor Plouffe are currently leading the way for the Twins. Both are exceptional defensive players and Dozier has as many home runs (15) as Miguel Cabrera. Torii Hunter has posted an OPS+ of 111 to this point as he continues to show very little age at the plate.
The top of their rotation with Phil Hughes, Mike Pelfrey and Kyle Gibson has been very sharp. Hughes leads the club in innings pitched and has still walked only nine batters all season. The back of the bullpen has been a strength as well. Closer Glenn Perkins has a sub 1.00 WHIP while Blaine Boyer and Ryan Pressly have been major surprises.
However, there are reasons to think the Twins may falter. They continue to get negative production from their top prospects. Aaron Hicks has continued to be a disaster at the plate with a career OPS+ of just 68. Byron Buxton was just injured, but prior to hitting the disabled list, he hit just .189/.231/.270. Young slugger Kennys Vargas did well last fall but has just five homers this year to go with an on-base percentage well below .300.
While the club will get Ervin Santana added to the rotation soon, Pelfrey and Gibson are both playing way above their normal levels of performance. Perkins is the real deal as the closer, but Boyer and Pressly have never played this well before. Boyer was actually out of baseball for all of 2012 and most of 2013.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals currently have the best record in the American League. They have had a winning record in each month of the season so far and are a pretty good bet to keep it up. They are 8-6 in one-run games and have a winning record at home and on the road. They don't look like a fluke team anymore. If the Tigers catch them in the standings, it will likely be because they played well and won their head-to-head games against Kansas City.
This is news to no one, but the Royals success has a lot to do with their defense. Not one of their starters rates out as a negative at their position. Many of them rate as world-class. Salvador Perez is one of the best behind the plate while Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain catch everything in that outfield.
They have had good fortune in terms of health. Alexis Rios has been hurt, but that's been about it on the offensive side of things. Manager Ned Yost has been able to pencil in his regulars just about every night. Kendrys Morales has an OPS+ of 123, giving the club some additional pop that they missed last season. Players like Cain, Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are all on-base machines.
If the lineup has any holes it's in the power department. Perez is the only player on the team with more than nine home runs. There are not really many players on this roster that an opposing pitcher would fear. However, they have speed and guys that work the count.
The Royals lost staff ace James Shields to free agency and then replaced him with Edinson Volquez. This should not have worked, but so far it has been a perfect fit. The well-traveled Volquez is 8-4 and leads the club in innings pitched. He currently sports an ERA+ of 126, 43 points higher than the well-paid Shields.
The Royals rotation as a whole is not as sharp as it was last year. Jeremy Guthrie has taken a beating to the tune of a 1.52 WHIP. Young ace Yordano Ventura has made only 12 starts thanks to suspensions and injuries. However, the bullpen has been just as good as advertised. Wade Davis has an ERA of 0.27. In fact, their top six relievers in terms of innings pitched have been lights out. Davis, Greg Holland, Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales, Kelvin Herrera and Joe Blanton. This six-headed monster has only one member with a WHIP above 1.00 (Holland at 1.05)!
More than the Twins or the Royals, the injury bug has been unkind to the Tigers. Victor Martinez has played in only 43 of 75 games. Alex Avila has missed over 50 games. Justin Verlander has made only two starts and Joe Nathan got only one out. That's serious blows to two starting bats, a staff ace and the preseason closer. In many ways the Tigers struggles could have been much worse.
Nick Castellanos continues to be a problem. Of all players in the American League with at least 250 plate appearances, only three have a lower OPS+ than Castellanos. Only five have a lower on-base percentage. Only six have a lower sluggling percentage. He's hitting like a glove-first shortstop, but is playing a position where all teams would expect and need more offense. Castellanos is going to continue to lose playing time to Andrew Romine who is outplaying him in every way.
Anthony Gose is hitting .167 in June over 70 plate appearances. That has been done while primarily hitting leadoff in Brad Ausmus' lineup. While young guys go through slumps, the club cannot afford his lack of production at the top. Gose hit .314 heading into June, hopefully he is able to adapt.
The starting rotation has been worse than expected. Over the past two years the Tigers have said goodbye to Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello. At some point, those chickens were going to come home to roost. The lack of depth in the rotation is showing. Kyle Lobstein and Shane Greene have combined to throw over 115 innings of below-average baseball. While Anibal Sanchez has turned it around lately, his struggles so far this season have been massive and damaging. Detroit is just 7-9 in games started by Sanchez, and that's only after winning his last four starts. In 2013, the club was 17-12 in his starts.
The Tigers have also given serious innings out of the bullpen to Angel Nesbitt and Tom Gorzelanny. Both hurlers have been well below league average and Gorzelanny has been a disaster prior to his recent changes in his delivery. His WHIP is approaching 2.00 (the Nate Cornejo zone) and his walk rate is the highest of his career. Sadly, the Tigers' lack of pitching depth does not have a remedy at the moment.
So, what's the silver lining here? The Twins are coming back to Earth in a hurry. Bruce Rondon, Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander are back. Alex Avila will be back soon. Sanchez has been very good the past month.
The best news of all? The Tigers still have 87 games to play.