Why We Should And Shouldn’t Worry About The Tigers

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Eighteen long days ago, the Tigers were 27-12. They had just swept the Orioles and Red Sox in convincing fashion and were marching toward a division title that they were probably going to lock up in mid July. Things were going that well. The pitching staff was performing better than the near record-setting 2013 version and the bats were clicking on all cylinders. This was finally the year they were going to lead wire to wire and inflict very little regular season damage on our cardiovascular systems.

Eighteen long days ago.

Since then, the team has gone 4-13. Some of the losses have been shellackings. Some have been heartbreakers. It’s been a collective meltdown. The starters were bad. The bats started to vanish. The bullpen was more Phil Coke and less Mariano Rivera. After seventeen games in eighteen days, the Tigers are now holding a modest divisional lead rather than a dominating one. The Indians found their legs and came charging, hard. The Tigers are crumbling. The shine is off the apple and they’re one poorly placed step from falling off a freaking cliff…

Whoa. Pump the brakes. Get a hold of yourselves.

It’s 5:15pm on June 5th and the Tigers are 31-25. That’s a 89-90 win pace. That’s basically exactly how many wins I said they’d have. They have the 7th best offense in baseball (by wRC+) and are scoring 4.5 runs per game. That’s up to date information. They have the 8th best staff by fWAR and their rotation still ranks in the top five of both ERA- and FIP-.

At the lowest moment of the season, you can squint and say the Tigers are about the 8th best team in baseball. So let’s reevaluate things. At one point, just eighteen days ago, the Tigers were pretty much everyone’s consensus number one team. They were the best staff and one of the best couple of offenses. Even their defense wasn’t horrible. It hasn’t been good, but almost all of the non-Torii Hunter defense has been adequate as a unit.

FanGraphs projects the Tigers to win 90 games and think there’s a 78% chance they win the division. That’s lower than the 92% chance they had after they beat the Sox, but it’s still pretty darn good.

There’s a lesson here. You can’t let your opinions swing with the highs or the lows. We got really excited about the 27-12 team and started to forget that the team has real flaws. We can’t get too low about the 4-13 team and forget about the team’s strengths. You can’t base your analysis of a club on the best and worst parts of their seasons. I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel terrible and want to gauge out your eyes, but don’t all of a sudden think the team is terrible just because they’ve been terrible for three weeks.

If I just gave you their numbers to date, you’d think they were a good but not great team. The order in which those hits, runs, strikeouts, etc happened are irrelevant. Performance goes up and down. It just does. This isn’t fun, but it also isn’t reflective of who they will be. The darkness will break.

But I don’t want that to obscure the message that the team has flaws. The bullpen had average talent and is performing very poorly. Joba has been wonderful, Alburquerque has been solid. Reed looks fine for middle reliever and Krol looks capable of a middle relief role. But Coke and Nathan have been horrible and the team has struggled to settle on a 7th man. You can’t have two relievers, one of whom gets high leverage innings, throwing batting practice or your margin for error vanishes. If Nathan was pitching like Nathan, this might have been a 7-10 stretch and nobody panics.

The Tigers are also getting nothing from shortstop. This isn’t about having a weak hitting SS who is treading water, it’s the worst offense from SS in more than a decade. Suarez might help, but Suarez also might be hurt.

Castellanos hasn’t played up to his talent, but there are signs of life. Jackson has really slumped, but he does this all the time and rebounds. Torii Hunter is the offensive problem because he’s killing the Tigers on defense and doing nothing at the plate to redeem himself. He has a .286 OBP on the season and hits 2nd a lot of the time. If he hadn’t hit those three home runs in three days, it would look even worse. He’s at -0.7 fWAR right now. Left field was supposed to be the weak link.

The Tigers have a good rotation, but it is weaker than it was last year. Sanchez looks to be equally deadly while Porcello looks the part of equal or slightly better than his 2013 self. Scherzer isn’t quite that guy, but that’s only because 2013 was his career year. We knew that regression was coming. The Verlander dance is one we know and even if you’re bullish on him, you know he’s trending south. Smyly is a good pitcher with some value, but there’s no way he’s going to be Doug Fister. The strength of the team is still their strength, but it simply isn’t as strong.

You shouldn’t be diving into the abyss, but you also shouldn’t have been buying playoff tickets when they were 27-12. It’s human nature to do so, but we often need a reality check. The Tigers are flawed. The Kinsler trade was all kinds of awesome, but the rest of the offseason built a less team than the one we had a year ago. We forgot that too quickly and then we overcorrected when things started to turn.

The Tigers will be better, but they won’t win 110 games. This correction happened all at once, so it’s been a real bummer, but it was going to happen at some point. This is a good team, not a great team, and good teams will go through these kinds of funks. They don’t need a speech or a shot in the arm. They either need a couple of better players or we simply need to align our expectations.

It’s going to be a fun summer, just not as fun as it was eighteen long, brutal days ago.

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