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How close are the Detroit Tigers to contending?

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Tigers have been holding their own with contenders for three months

Detroit Tigers Spring Workout Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers have been a much better team over the past three months than they have been at any time in the past five seasons. From May 8, 2021 through August 7, 2021, their 44- 34 won-loss record is fifth in the American league, which would be just about good enough for a wild card playoff spot.

So take this as your third quarter review, looking at the past three months. And by “contender” let’s say playing meaningful games in September with a shot at at least a wild card playoff spot qualifies.

That’s the same pace as the Boston Red Sox. They would be a game behind the New York Yankees and 1-1/2 games behind the division leading Chicago White Sox. Three months is half a season, not such a small sample, even if we did get to select the starting date.

As for what might happen in a potential playoff, or playoff series, the Tigers haven’t fared badly in their most recent head to head competitions vs the AL’s playoff contenders. They swept the Yankees, took 2 of 3 games from the White Sox and Red Sox, and split a four game series with the Houston Astros. Maybe we’re not ready to print playoff tickets just yet, but it’s become fair to pose the question: How close are the Tigers to being a legitimate contender for a playoff spot?

The Tigers are a much different team than the one that started the season last April. We’ve written about the addition by subtraction, and how moving on from some players and calling up others has boosted their fortunes as the season has progressed. Remember Jacoby Jones, Wilson Ramos, Nomar Mazara and Bryan Garcia?

The Tigers have also improved despite significant injuries to their two most experienced starting pitchers in Mathew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull, and more recently their starting catcher, Jake Rogers, who was just settling in behind the plate and at the plate.

Overall offensively, the Tigers rank 5th in the league in runs scored since May 8, 5th in wOBA, 6th in wRC+, 3rd in batting average, and 4th in On base percentage. In the power stats, they’re not quite as good, ranking 10th in ISO, 9th in home runs, and 8th in slugging percentage. They are tied with the Royals for the league lead in stolen bases. They’re also 9th in fWAR as a team when defense is factored in.

Breaking down the lineup by position, with under 50 games remaining in the season, taking games since May 8, here is how the Tigers stack up against the rest of the American League.

Detroit Tigers lineup Rankings

Position 2021 wRC+ Since May 8 AL Median AL Rank
Position 2021 wRC+ Since May 8 AL Median AL Rank
Catcher 101 107 96 4th
First Base 104 128 105 5th
Second Base 70 79 93 13th
Third Base 113 112 100 4th
Shortstop 77 76 97 13th
Right Field 93 103 104 9th
Center Field 93 108 94 4th
Left Field 118 129 100 1st
Designated Hitter 83 93 115 11th

Keep in mind that wRC+ is strictly a batting metric where 100 is league average. Defense is a separate issue which we’ll address below.

The Lineup: One doesn’t have to look too hard to find the holes in Detroit’s lineup. They’re lacking offensively and defensively in the middle infield positions, and the middle of the batting order lacks a legitimate power hitter. Moving the newly resigned Jonathan Schoop back to second base would fill one hole, but then a temporary fill in would be needed at first base until Spencer Torkelson arrives.

Designated hitter is also a weakness, but there are 64 million reasons why that’s not going to change for another two years. Possibly, Cabrera can cover first when Rogers returns, allowing Eric Haase to DH. AJ Hinch won’t be deploying the same lineup every day.

I asked Tigers’ fans on Twitter if they’d be okay with a 2022 outfield of Grossman- Derek Hill and Akil Baddoo. The reaction was generally positive, with comments directing attention to Riley Greene, who is mashing away at double-A Erie. Haase also has to be considered in the outfield mix when Rogers returns as the primary catcher and the DH slot is blocked. He and Grossman with some help from Baddoo have formed the league’s most potent platoon in left field over this three month span.

Derek Hill’s performance at the plate will help to determine whether the Tigers need outfield help, but the early signs are very encouraging. Defensively, he’s a stud. He has taken his time, even being exposed in the rule 5 draft, but the former first round draft pick may finally be ready to assume the role of starting center fielder.

Defensively, the Tigers have work to do. They rank last as a team in UZR and second last in DRS with -37 defensive runs saved. There are no plus defenders, measured by DRS. Hill would sort out the center field issue, while Grossman, Baddoo, and Candelario can hold their own. Rogers is more than fine behind the plate, but the rest of the infield defense is just bad. Fortunately, the same positions that need help offensively are also the spots that need defensive upgrades.

Whether the Tigers move Schoop to second base, or sign his replacement, an upgrade is needed there. Shortstop is the most glaring need on the team both offensively and defensively. There are plenty of options available this winter, none of them inexpensive, but that has to be the biggest priority next winter.

Pitching: The performance of the Tigers’ rotation has been encouraging with the absence of Boyd and Turnbull. Overall, the team ranks 7th in the league in team ERA over the past three months, and it’s no coincidence that the six teams ahead of them are all playoff contenders. They rank in the middle of the pack in BB/9 and HR/9 but 14th in K/9 ratios. They lead the league in ground ball percentage, which is a good thing.

The starting rotation ranks 7th in ERA, 14th in strikeouts, 4th in walks and 10th in home runs. They’re 9th in innings pitched, and in fWAR as a rotation, and sport a 23- 22 record despite the team being 10 games over .500 for that same period. The starting rotation has been close to average all season.

The bullpen has seen the greatest improvement since the start of the season. Detroit’s relief corps also ranks 7th in ERA, They rank 9th in strikeouts, 9th in walks, and 4th in home run ratio. In fact, the Tigers are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the fewest blown saves in the league since May 8. The most painful game experience- losing a lead in the late innings- has been kept to a minimum.

The Tigers’ bullpen ranks 8th in saves and 4th in holds, so the back end relievers who are asked to hold a lead are getting the job done.

Back to the original question: How close are the Tigers to contending? Given the fact that they’ve been holding their own with a couple of holes in the lineup and some patchwork in the rotation, they should definitely sign a shortstop. They need a starting pitcher, a stop gap first baseman, and a reliever or two.

Some of that help is already in the organization. Whether they start the season with Spencer Torkelson is not known, but they certainly don’t want a long term contract for a first baseman. An outfield/ 1B player with some power would be a nice addition. They can see what Isaac Paredes can do at second base this season, but don’t hold your breath. Better to move Schoop back to his natural position.

Payroll is about $50 million shy of the major league average, so they have money to spend, if they’re willing. They can be relevant in 2022 and contending in 2023 with the right moves.