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The 2018 Astros sorta remind us of the 2013 Tigers, but better

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Both teams seemed built to win when they faced the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS.

84th MLB All-Star Game

Back in 2013, fresh off a trip to the World Series, the Tigers seemed poised to take another run at victory. They had a remarkable season, handily winning the AL Central, and had one of the greatest pitching staffs in modern history on hand: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer (who won the Cy Young that year in his breakout season), Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello, and Doug Fister. These were players at the peak of their game, it seemed, and with the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the plate every night, fans felt assured that this would be the year for the Tigers.

Then, as we know with the lens of hindsight on our side, it all fell apart in the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox. The Tigers went home without their coveted rings, and long-time manager Jim Leyland decided to call it a career. In a lot of ways, 2013 was the end of the line for the unstoppable force that was the Detroit Tigers.

There is currently another team that has that same momentum. They are still riding high after their 2017 World Series win, they have Justin Verlander as their ace, and they seem on the verge of another trip to the big match this year. That team is, of course, the Houston Astros.

The similarities between the two clubs, with their hot pitching, MVP sluggers (Miguel Cabrera won in both 2012 and 2013, Jose Altuve won in 2017), and high expectations against these same Red Sox, brought up the question: just how much are the 2018 Astros like the 2013 Tigers?

2013 Tigers

Record: 93-69
Manager: Jim Leyland

2018 Astros

Record: 103-59
Manager: AJ Hinch

Pitching

2013 Detroit Tigers Starting Pitchers

Pitcher Games ERA IP FIP WHIP SO/W
Pitcher Games ERA IP FIP WHIP SO/W
Justin Verlander 34 3.46 218.1 3.28 1.315 2.89
Max Scherzer 32 2.90 214.1 2.74 0.970 4.29
Doug Fister 33 3.67 208.2 3.26 1.308 3.61
Anibal Sanchez 29 2.57 182.0 2.39 1.154 3.74
Rick Porcello 32 4.32 177.0 3.53 1.383 3.38

2018 Houston Astros Starting Pitchers

Pitcher Games ERA IP FIP WHIP SO/W
Pitcher Games ERA IP FIP WHIP SO/W
Justin Verlander 34 2.52 214.0 2.78 0.902 7.84
Dallas Keuchel 34 3.74 204.2 3.69 1.314 2.64
Gerrit Cole 32 2.88 200.1 2.70 1.033 4.31
Charlie Morton 30 3.13 167.0 3.59 1.162 3.14
Lance McCullers Jr. 25 3.86 128.1 3.50 1.169 2.84

If you talk to most Tigers fans, there are few pitching rotations that stand out as being as good as the 2013 Tigers. Three pitchers on the roster were on postseason teams this year: Verlander, Porcello, and Sanchez. The 2013 season was also when Max Scherzer solidified himself as a superstar in the making, won his first Cy Young, and was named the American League’s starting pitcher for the 2013 All-Star Game. Anibal Sanchez had the best season of his career that year as well.

Still, comparing the numbers, there’s no doubt that the 2018 Astros starters are better. They have a version of Justin Verlander who might very well be a pitching robot dressed in a Verlander suit, because since joining the Astros last season he has dominated so completely it is nearly inhuman. The fact that Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel is their “weakest” starter this year... well, it tells you just how good their starting pitching is.

Bullpen

2013 Detroit Tigers Relief Pitchers

Pitcher Games ERA IP FIP WHIP SO/W
Pitcher Games ERA IP FIP WHIP SO/W
Joaquin Benoit 66 2.01 67.0 2.87 1.030 3.32
Drew Smyly 63 2.37 76.0 2.31 1.039 4.76
Al Alburquerque 53 4.59 49.0 3.72 1.490 2.06
Phil Coke 49 5.40 38.1 4.14 1.670 1.43
Luke Putkonen 30 3.03 29.2 3.82 1.315 3.11
Bruce Rondon 30 3.45 28.2 3.01 1.360 2.73

2018 Houston Astros Relief Pitchers

Pitcher Games ERA IP FIP WHIP SO/W
Pitcher Games ERA IP FIP WHIP SO/W
Hector Rondon 63 3.20 59.0 2.79 1.322 3.35
Collin McHugh 58 1.99 72.1 2.72 0.912 4.48
Brad Peacock 61 3.46 65.0 3.47 1.169 4.8
Will Harris 61 3.49 56.2 2.44 1.094 4.57
Joe Smith 56 3.74 45.2 4.06 1.007 3.83
Tony Sipp 54 1.86 38.2 2.41 1.034 3.23

The Tigers bullpen gets a lot of flack, historically, and in the 2013 season they were just okay. Phil Coke, who had been such a strong reliever one season earlier, was showing signs of decline, and the remainder of the bullpen were just so-so.

Comparatively, the 2018 Astros have such strong depth in their bullpen, it begs the question why the even bothered putting their reputation on the line to acquire Roberto Osuna. Certainly, Osuna has been good, but with the likes of Collin McHugh (who could probably be a mid-level starter on any other team in baseball) and Tony Sipp (who I would very much like to have cloned), the Astros have one of the strongest bullpens in baseball. Just looking at the numbers of six of their top relievers above compared to the 2013 Tigers ‘pen, it’s clear that the Astros are well protected deep into games.

Also, looking at the innings pitched, we can see they rely on those relievers more than the Tigers did, giving a little breathing room to their starters whenever necessary.

Offense

The 2013 Tigers has some impressive power at the plate. Miguel Cabrera, fresh off his 2012 Triple Crown win, hit .348/.442/.636 on the season with a whopping 44 home runs and 137 RBIs. Torii Hunter was a pleasant surprise that year with .304/.334/.465 and 84 RBIs, putting him third in run production behind Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

Fielder hit for .279/.362/.457, but it would be his flippant remarks following the ALCS loss that caused Tigers fans to turn against him. When the Tigers lost the Game 6 heartbreaker in Boston, he said, “It’s not really tough, man. It’s over. I got kids I got to take care of, I got things I got to take care of. It’s over.” The love affair with the uppercut-swinging slugger ended there. Over the offseason, he was traded to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler, who would go on to become one of the most beloved old-school players in modern Tigers history.

The 2018 Astros had a slightly weaker offense, if that can be believed, considering they have the likes of Jose Altuve, George Springer, and postseason poster-boy Alex Bregman on their roster. In 2013 the Tigers had a 114 wRC+, compared to Houston’s 110. Notable as well is the fact that only two Astros players had more than 600 plate appearances this year, while the 2013 Tigers had five players hit that mark. Only one Astros player had more than 100 RBI for the season (Bregman), and only three other players had more than 70 all season: Yuli Gurriel (85), Evan Gattis (78), and George Springer (71). Their numbers were fine overall, but the Astros combined team slash line was .255/.329/.425 for 2018, compared to the 2013 Tigers line of .283/.346/.434.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that where the Astros were slightly weaker offensively, their defense was light years ahead. Collectively the Tigers had a -62 DRS in 2013, whereas the 2018 Astros have a +26. So while they might not have been generating as many runs, they were significantly better at reducing those of their competition on field. Based on the Pythagorean win formula, eight of the 10 wins that the Astros have over the Tigers are a result of defense alone. Which means that regardless of a slightly weaker offense, the defense more than made up the difference.

At the end of the day, though, the 2018 Astros look like a better team. Though the 2013 Tigers had the best starting pitching in recent memory at the time, it’s really hard to top the rotation the Astros have put together this season. It’s also beyond a doubt that the Astros current bullpen is superior to that of the 2013 Tigers, who were good, but hampered by players on the decline. The Astros trust in their relievers is evidenced by just how much more they used them this season than the Tigers did in 2013. Houston’s superior defense also makes a huge difference in this comparison.

Beyond the numbers, just looking at what the 2018 Astros have done shows that they are more likely to get an ALCS win against Boston than the Tigers were. Not to mention, there’s no David Ortiz on the Red Sox anymore, waiting to launch a grand slam into the bullpen.