What’s Eating the Tigers?

A few weeks ago, it all looked so simple. The Tigers were steamrolling foes, and the rest of the division members languished. Detroit held a seven-game lead in the American League Central, and in fact had the best record in baseball. Fast forward three weeks and they have been the worst team in the AL since, with only the Colorado Rockies performing worse in the National League. It’s been an unexpected turn of events for sure, and it has flattened the AL Central standings. The Tigers still stand as the overwhelming favorite to win the division, but there is definitely more doubt now than there was in mid-May.

So, how did this all happen? Let’s break it down.

Torii Hunter’s defense: It’s been a couple of years since the Tigers were even a neutral defensive team. The hope was this season that with the team adding Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos to the everyday lineup and moving Miguel Cabrera back to first base that the team’s defensive performance would improve. So, far it hasn’t. Here are the team’s UZR/150 marks:

  • 2012: -4.9, 27th of 30
  • 2013: -3.1, 21st of 30
  • 2014: -7.7, 26th of 30

Small sample caveats apply, but so far things have been worse than ever. On a player level though, things focus on a single player — Hunter. Both his UZR and UZR/150 are the worst in the Majors among qualified players, and only Yunel Escobar has a worse DRS. Once upon a time, the man affectionately called Spider-Man was a pretty good fielder, and has eight Gold Gloves to his credit. But even in his best days, his defensive impact was likely overstated, and now it is pretty bad. His range simply isn’t what it once was, even in the corner. And yet, Hunter has been treated like an All-Star by his new manager, Brad Ausmus.

In his game logs, we can see that he has been removed from seven games that he started this season, but in six of them the Tigers had at least a five-run lead and in the seventh he came out for a knee injury he suffered during the game. In other words, the Tigers don’t see his defense as an issue. It is, and it is most likely costing the team games. To add insult to injury, he isn’t hitting much lately either — over the last 14 days, his 12 wRC+ is the worst on the team. Don Kelly is rarely the solution to problems, but in this case, he needs to play a little more, be it in full games or caddying for Hunter after the seventh inning.

Justin Verlander. Somehow, the team’s best pitcher has been its worst. Even in the early going, when he was good, he wasn’t that good. Let’s break his season into two fairly distinct blocks.

  • March 31 – May 9: 8 GS, 54.0 IP, 43 K, 21 BB, 1 HR, 2.67 ERA / 2.88 FIP / 4.27 xFIP, 93.1 MPH fastball
  • May 14 – June 5: 5 GS, 32.0 IP, 18 K, 14 BB, 5 HR, 6.75 ERA / 5.38 FIP / 5.48 xFIP, 93.5 MPH fastball

Well, at least velocity isn’t the problem. Essentially, the problem is that Verlander is working out of the zone more frequently, but batters are swinging at said out of the zone pitches less frequently. He’s throwing fewer fastballs and more curveballs, and with good reason. According to Brooks Baseball, his whiff percentage on four-seamers is just 6.62% this year, down from 10.29% in 2013 and 10.13% in 2012. The same is true of his slider, as batters have been swinging at it and missing at lower percentages than they have in the past. In short, Verlander is not fooling people right now.

Joe Nathan and Phil Coke. Who could have seen this coming? Well, OK, Coke was pretty foreseeable. He really wasn’t any good last season. And perhaps another velocity drop from Nathan should have been easy to forecast, but then, he had an even bigger velocity drop last season, and was just as lights out as ever then. But perhaps he has simply passed the velocity point of no return. He is getting strike one easily enough, but at his reduced velocity, batters are swinging less and making more contact, and that is a recipe for exactly what he has been — a disaster. It may be Joba Chamberlain or Al Alburquerque time very shortly if this continues.

Things are not localized to just these four players. Neither Austin Jackson nor Alex Avila have hit well lately, and both Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello have been cuffed around on the mound. But if there is a real concern, it’s that this run of bad play has been really bad. Two of the first three losses in this string were walk-off losses, and there was another walk-off loss and one other run loss mixed in, but in the other nine games the team has simply had its hat handed to them. They have lost those other nine games by four, seven, 10, eight, 10, four, two, six and four runs. Overall, since May 19, they have been outscored by 50 runs, and they have somewhat cancelled out the four walk-off/one-run losses with two one-run wins of their own.

This isn’t to say that the Tigers are suddenly a bad team. Far from it. They still have Cabrera, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, and Victor Martinez has been hitting everything. But with Scherzer and Martinez (and Hunter) set for free agency at season’s end, there may be suddenly be some pressure on a team with an already-poor farm system to make a big splash at the trade deadline in order to finally get that elusive title for their owner, and that is certainly not the position that most thought the Tigers would find themselves in this season.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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8 years ago

I’m sure the Phillies would be open to trading Revere and Papelbon