The Detroit Tigers find themselves just one half game behind the Toronto Blue Jays and two games behind the Minnesota Twins for the final playoff spots in the American league, with just 27 games to play in the 2020 baseball season. Oddsmakers don’t fancy their chances to make the playoffs, but let’s dig a little deeper and see what it will take for the Tigers to make the post season for the first time since 2014.
Granted, a playoff spot in 2020 for teams seeded 5th through 8th in each league means playing a three game series on the road in the first round, barring any last minute bubble solutions. But then, there are no fans, so the home field advantage should be greatly neutralized.
With 8 of 15 teams in each league qualifying for the playoffs, it stands to reason that the eighth seeded team in each league will play around .500 ball, give or take a couple of games. At present, the Tigers are a game above .500 and they own the ninth best record in the American league. The National league’s eighth best team currently sits a game below, .500. So let’s figure that they’ll have to win just over half of their remaining games to make the playoffs.
KEYS TO SUCCESS:
As we’ve displayed in this article, the Tigers have produced runs at an above average pace in the first half of the season, with the 12th best offense in the major leagues, and 7th among American League teams. Being ranked fourth best in team batting average and fourth worst in on base percentage landed them with an OPS+ and a wRC+ of exactly 100- or league average. They have been a bit better over the past month, ranking seventh in the league in wOBA and third in batting average.
Jeimer Candelario and Jonathan Schoop have swung the hottest bats recently, with contributions from Miguel Cabrera. Jacoby Jones was the hot man at the start of the season, but he has cooled off considerably and is now out with a broken bone in his hand. Victor Reyes has hit well enough, runs the bases and has contributed with solid defense in three outfield positions.
Isaac Paredes has already shown an advanced approach at the plate and is getting time at third base. Willi Castro has swung a hot bat and has also seen some time at third, and figures to see time in the outfield and around the infield.
Grayson Greiner and Christin Stewart have been ice cold. Niko Goodrum has proven himself defensively at shortstop, but is hitting just .200 while striking out 38 percent of his plate appearances. He will need to get on track or give way to Castro or Paredes to get some offensive production from that position. Austin Romine has been a big improvement at the catcher position, contributing both offensively and defensively.
The biggest problem with the Tigers has been in the starting rotation, where they had the highest earned run average (ERA) in the major leagues through 32 games. As a group, they gave up home runs like they were throwing batting practice. The starting rotation holds the key to any chances that the Tigers have of making a playoff run this season. Here is why:
Spencer Turnbull has been the lone bright spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation, with an ERA of 2.97, not allowing a single home run in his seven starts while holding opponents to a .200 batting average. His weakness is giving out free passes, with a 5.34 BB/9 ratio.
2019 All star Matthew Boyd has been one of the culprits, with a 7.27 ERA/ 5.23 FIP, while allowing 2.14 home runs per nine innings. He pitched much better in his last two starts. Getting him back on track would give the club a big boost.
Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal made their much anticipated major league debuts in August, with very similar results. Each has an ERA of 6.75 in three starts apiece, and each allowing three home runs. Mize leads the team in his brief time up with a K/9 ratio of 10.75. These are two of the top pitching prospects, and they’re in a position to contribute to a playoff run if they can minimize the growing pains over the rest of the season.
Michael Fulmer is in his first season back following Tommy John surgery and has struggled, as most pitchers do, to the tune of a 7.27 ERA in 17 innings of work. The home run ball has also been his biggest weakness, allowing 3.17 HR/9 and a batting average of .344.
Fulmer pitched three scoreless innings on Tuesday, allowing 3 hits, 2 walks and striking out six. His starts will be limited as he continues to build up strength, but more appearances like this would make a solid contribution.
Jordan Zimmermann has missed the entire season thus far, but is threatening to return shortly. If he’s anything like he was the past few seasons, he’s not going to help. But of course the club will try to get him going, even to the detriment of the team. Ivan Nova is the other veteran who went on the injured list right about the time that the team started to win games. His 8.53 ERA was not a positive contribution to the team. He is also expected back before too long. The team should use the two veterans on a short leash, if at all, to maximize their playoff hopes.
Daniel Norris has proven to be very effective when limited to three innings, or about once through the batting order. He was given just one start, but has posted an ERA of 2.60 with a 2.44 FIP and 1.06 WHIP overall. He has struck out 17 batters, and allowed just three walks, and one home run in 17 innings this season. With Fulmer, Mize and Skubal being limited in their starts, he has been very useful in long relief.
We won’t go through every pitcher to spin through the revolving door that has been the Tigers’ bullpen, but suffice it to say that they have been a bit above average as a group, and they have managed to find a few good pitchers to protect leads when they get the ball to them.
Gregory Soto has taken over the closer’s role from Joe Jimenez and has siezed the opportunity with a 3.12 ERA. 0.87 WHIP, and 10.9 K/9 and holding batters to a .164 average
Jose Cisnero has assumed a late inning role with a 1.45 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and .161 average without allowing a home run. He has 20 strikeouts and six walks in 18-2/3 innings.
Buck Farmer ended a streak of 16 scoreless appearances, including five to start this season, and has kept opponents off the board in nine of his twelve outings this season. He has allowed three walks and struck out six without giving up a home run.
Tyler Alexander joined Norris in a long relief role, leading the team with a 5.00 K/BB ratio. He broke the American league record by striking out nine consecutive batters in relief.
Bryan Garcia has contributed 13-2/3 innings, allowing an ERA of 1.98 with five walks, seven strikeouts and has not allowed a home run. 14 of his 16 appearances have been scoreless outings.
Joe Jimenez took over from Shane Greene as the closer in 2019 and started this season in the same role, but he struggled with a 11.70 ERA, 3.17 average and four home runs allowed in 10 innings. He will have to earn his way back into a late inning role.
With just 10 to 20 innings so far for these relievers, the numbers can be very much prone to random variation, but if the above body of work can be projected over the rest of the season, the bullpen will be fine.
The Tigers rolled the dice by not bringing in anyone to replace Greene in the closer’s role, instead giving tryouts to many pitchers, both relievers and converted starters such as Soto, Alexander, Kyle Funkhouser, and Beau Burrows. The latter two struggled early on, but have shown promise in relief after being touted as future major league starters.
The Tigers have been getting sufficient offense, particularly in recent games over their six game winning streak. The bullpen has been adequate as they’ve held the leads that they have been given. The key will be their starting pitchers keeping them in the game. A number of starters will continue to be limited in their workloads, but they need to be effective, and stop giving up so many home runs.
There are three tough opponents in the American league’s central division, but they have been competitive- winning series against Cleveland and sweeping Minnesota just recently. The Tigers have seven games remaining against the Twins, four against Cleveland, three against the White Sox, and six against Kansas City, plus four makeup games against the St Louis Cardinals and three more against Milwaukee.
The Toronto Blue Jays, who hold the final playoff spot currently, have ten games remaining against the New York Yankees, with series scheduled against Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and the New York Mets. Their home games are played in Buffalo.
The Minnesota Twins have five games remaining against the White Sox, seven against Detroit, three against Cleveland, and a series each against the Cardinals, the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs. Winning most of those head to head games could put the Tigers’ in the drivers’ seat for a playoff spot.