As the Detroit Tigers finished the month of June with 11 straight losses, a team that hung around near the top of the American League Central division as recently as just two weeks ago, has plunged into the depths of irrelevance among the league’s also-rans.
On the heels of a five game winning streak, the Tigers had pulled to within a game of .500, just three games behind the Cleveland Indians for first place on June 18. The club’s longest losing streak since 2003 dropped them to 12 games below the break even point, and 9 1⁄2 games out of a playoff spot. Not that anyone believed that this club really could contend in 2018, but the team’s recent showing is actually more like what was expected of them this season.
If performance against expectations is a measure of success, the Tigers were having a relatively good year until they lost their hall of fame slugger, Miguel Cabrera, for the season. Any delusions of granduer have been exposed as a mirage cast against the backdrop of a weak division where a team can look good only by comparison with others who are even worse.
Even Cabrera could not have halted the inevitable descent into obscurity, as he contributed just three home runs, 22 RBI, and 0.7 WAR prior to his injury. He ranks 80th in fWAR and 21st in the league in wOBA among players with 150 plate appearances.
As bad as the Tigers have been recently, they are still a full 10 games ahead of the Kansas City Royals, seven up on the Chicago White Sox, and only 1 1⁄2 games behind the second place Minnesota Twins through the end of June. That five game winning streak came exclusively at the expense of division rivals. It may come as small consolation that Detroit could be the best of a very bad lot this season.
In case there is any doubt about how good or bad the 2018 Tigers have been, a comparison against the entire league is revealing. The club is a full 20 games behind the league leading Boston Red Sox.
Here is where the Tigers rank among the 15 teams in the American league through the end of June:
Runs per game: 11th (3.99)
Batting average: 8th (.246)
On base percentage: 12th (.306)
OPS: 13th (.695)
Slugging percentage: 12th (.389)
wOBA: 13th (.301)
Home runs: 14th (67)
The Tigers’ offensive numbers reveal a picture of an offense that struggles to score runs, and is particularly weak in the power categories. A .246 team batting average is 10 points lower than the league average over the past few seasons, but this year, Detroit is in the middle of the pack. However, run production ranks in the bottom third of the league. Again, we find their division rivals ranked below Detroit in these categories.
Stolen bases: 7th
Stolen base percentage: 11th
Run scoring percentage: 7th
Extra bases taken (XBT) percentage: 7th
Once the Tigers manage to put runners on base, they are fairly average at pushing them across the plate. Part of this is due to a middling batting average, and part is due to base running that has been league average, which is refreshing for a team that featured older, slower, immobile runners in recent years. The Tigers manage to take an average number of extra bases, meaning they go from first to third or score from second on a base hit at an average clip. The bottom line here is that they push their fair share of runners across once they get on base.
Runs per game: 11th (4.71)
ERA: 10th (4.44)
FIP: 11th (4.50)
K/9: 11th (7.57)
BB/9: 9th (3.34)
HR/9: 9th (1.26)
ERA: 9th (4.31)
FIP: 11th (4.56)
Quality start percentage: 14th (36%)
ERA: 13th (4.67)
FIP: 12th (4.39)
Save percentage: 14th (56%)
Blown saves: 15th (17)
The Tigers’ pitching has been below league average overall. The numbers show a below-average rotation across the board, with a bullpen that has blown more leads than any team in the league.
In the starting rotation, the Tigers don’t have any pitchers ranked among the top 20 qualified pitchers in ERA, FIP, or fWAR. They also don’t have a starting pitcher getting lit up regularly like many of their division rivals have.
Blown saves are not a precise measure of relief pitching performance, but it’s a pretty good barometer of the pain index. There is nothing more demoralizing for players and fans than having the lead in late innings and letting the game slip away. In this regard, Detroit’s bullpen has inflicted a maximum amount of pain.
A closer look at where the damage is coming from shows a true team effort. Shane Greene, Daniel Stumpf and Alex Wilson have chipped in three apiece, while four other relievers have blown a pair of leads. Detroit’s bullpen has hurt the team in more than just save situations. Their 20 losses suffered in relief also lead the league. Greene also has five losses, with Stumpf, Wilson, and Farmer taking three apiece. The Tigers were either leading or tied in each of these games before the bullpen gave up the winning run(s).
Defensive runs saved (DRS): 11th (-16)
UZR: 3rd (+11.2)
RZR: 4th (.836)
OOZ: 7th (302)
We could dig into the defensive numbers much more, but we’ll stop here. In the most often cited metrics, the numbers are inconsistent, with UZR, RZR and out of zone plays (OOZ) showing an above average effort while defensive runs saved (DRS) paints a bleaker picture. The most common concern about defensive metrics does not apply in this case, as a team total of over 1,000 plays and 6,700 innings is more than enough of a sample size to rule out random variation.
The team has committed an above average number of fielding errors and below average number of throwing errors, but those numbers are prone to erratic official scoring, as we know. The Tigers have made an above average number of plays both in and outside of the defined zones used to measure defensive performance. A larger number of double plays is as much an indication of putting more runners on base as anything else, but it helps to mitigate some of the damage.
Detroit’s defense has not been a major issue this season as it has been in recent years. Adding some younger, more athletic players have helped that cause.
The 2018 Tigers are a thoroughly mediocre team in just about every way. In hitting, pitching and base running, as well as in the standings, they are in the bottom third of the American league, but not as bad as a handful of other teams, including a few of their division rivals.
The Tigers lack an ace pitcher for the top of the starting rotation. They lack power in the middle of the lineup, and their bullpen has been giving games away. The Tigers could be better immediately by adding some power and a few bullpen pieces. Doing so would not make them instant contenders, but it could have kept them relevant in the standings for a while longer instead of being out of the race before the All-Star break.