For a while, it just seemed like a fluke. Given the schedule, it might still be. The Tigers started the season hotter than expected, winning games many didn’t expect in ways many didn’t expect. They made big comebacks against their first few opponents, and have surprised fans with their never-say-die attitude. That same steely resolve was on display again Thursday, when the Tigers scored a pair of runs in the eighth inning to secure a 3-2 win over the Mariners.
How are the Tigers doing it? One possible explanation seems to lie in late and close, or “clutch” situations. The Tigers have scored more runs in these situations than any other team in baseball, and are close to the top on a per late-and-close situation basis. But, as Peter noted earlier today, it’s not like they are hitting better than other teams in those situations.
Their hitting stats (average, on base, slugging) rank them in the middle of the pack among all 30 teams in these situations. Even their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is right around middle of the pack, so they aren’t just having a bunch of balls luckily fall in play. They are simply pushing across a lot of runs when the game is in the final innings and the score is close, and doing it with an otherwise average offense.
Amazingly, the Tigers appear to be making up the difference on the basepaths. They currently sit second among all MLB teams in Baserunning Runs, FanGraphs’ catch-all baserunning metric that the Tigers have ranked at or near the bottom in for nearly a decade; the last time the Tigers were better than 25th in MLB in this particular stat was 2010.
Can their newfound baserunning prowess lead to another win over the Mariners?
Detroit Tigers (20-23) at Seattle Mariners (24-19)
Time/Place: 10:10 p.m., Safeco Field
SB Nation site: Lookout Landing
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (1-3, 4.37 ERA) vs. RHP Felix Hernandez (5-3, 5.66 ERA)
Game 44 Pitching Matchup
The Tigers hit well enough to win against Felix Hernandez in their last meeting six days ago, but a leaky bullpen sank Detroit’s chances at yet another comeback win. The Tigers had fought to within one run after Michael Fulmer was pulled from the game, but Daniel Stumpf and Co. gave up three runs in the seventh to put the game on ice. Hernandez struck out seven and walked two, but also coughed up five runs in five innings.
While King Felix is no longer the pitcher he used to be, one would assume he would still be able to dominate a mediocre Tigers lineup that struggles against right-handed pitching. However, his new pitch mix plays right into the Tigers’ hands. According to FanGraphs’ pitch values, the Tigers are the best team in the American League at hitting both curveballs and changeups, two pitches Hernandez is using over 45 percent of the time. Sliders give the Tigers fits — they’re fourth-worst in baseball — but Felix has only used his about seven percent of the time this season.
Key matchup: Michael Fulmer vs. maybe these strikeouts aren’t so great after all
Four starts into Fulmer’s third MLB season, we were worried (to put it mildly) about his strikeout rate, or lack thereof. He fanned just 13 batters in 23 1⁄3 innings, but was otherwise getting hitters out. Even after getting bombed by the Cleveland Indians, Fulmer still only had a 3.47 ERA through those four outings.
Since then, Fulmer has been a strikeout machine. He has 26 strikeouts in his last 22 innings, an impressive 28 percent rate. However, despite missing more bats — he has a 13.8 percent swinging strike rate during this stretch — he isn’t missing as many barrels. Opponents have tagged Fulmer for a 5.32 ERA in these four starts, and 11 runs in his last two outings.
Felix flummoxes the Tigers and the Mariners even the series.