Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tigers Season, So Far

Because there's a Tigers game just about every day, it's tough to write anything about them. Everything changes so fast ... Just as I was about to say that Verlander has been terrible, he pitches into the ninth inning and allows just one hit against a good Angels line-up. Just as I was about to lament the fact that Austin Jackson was leading the MLB in strike-outs, he goes off for 16 hits in 6 games and now leads the MLB in batting average as well as hits. Did I mention he's a rookie?!

As of today the Tigers sit at 16-11, just a couple games behind the Twins in the early AL Central race. It's been an up-and-down, back-and-forth season for the Tigers. There are a lot of statistics I could use to recap the season in a nutshell. But one stat seem to be the most telling.


That's the average number of runners left on base per game, and it's the highest mark in the MLB. The Tigers have consistently put men on base, and consistently failed to bring them home. Often, with less than two outs.
As far as batting average and on-base percentage, the Tigers are near the top of the MLB. Total hits, extra-base hits, doubles, walks ... the Tigers rank in the top five in each of those categories. But when it comes to scoring runs, the Tigers are just sixth (still good), but they could easily be in first or second. A lot of the losses the Tigers have incurred this season have been close ones, and an extra one or two runs could be the difference between making the playoffs and falling short again.

As far as the WHY so many runners are being left on base, I have two thoughts.

Firstly, we've got a general inability to hit home runs. Cabrera has 5 and Ordonez has 4, but other than that Detroit had only 6 as a team, as of last week.

Of course, that was going to be my point, and then Inge wents nuts and hit 3 homers in 2 days, and then Laird, Sizemore and Boesch all hit their first homer of the season in the same game, and then Damon hit his first of the year a few days ago. So maybe the lack of HRs is not as major a concern as I thought? Or maybe it still is a problem, and this little flurry is just an outlier.

One thing is for sure: there's no lack of power. The Tigers rank first in the Majors with 74 doubles, and they're coming from all over the line-up. Detroit leads everybody with 449 fly balls. We can hit the ball hard and far. We just can't quite get it over the fence.

The main culprits are Damon and Jackson, who've got just 1 HR each. Carlos Guillen (who's injured, AGAIN) also has just one, and should hit a few more when he returns. Inge is doing okay with 3, but since all he does is strike out and hit homers, I hope we can count on another couple from him by the end of May. No one else is a threat, but it'd be nice to have an occasional homer from someone we don't expect.

The second reason why the Tigers aren't bringing runners off base?

To be blunt, because the bottom half of the line-up stinks. It just really honestly flat-out stinks.
Batters 1-4 - Jackson, Damon, Ordonez, and Cabrera - have each been excellent this season, and that's an understatement. Jackson is leading the Majors in batting average, hits, triples, and has more steals than the rest of the Tigers combined. I don't think you can ask for any more than that from a rookie. Damon just finished off a 15-game hit streak. Magglio is hitting about a thousand times better than he was last season. And all Cabrera is doing is leading the Majors in RBIs, as well as ranking in the top ten in both BA and OBP.

It's been a beautiful thing when the top of the order is up.

But batters 5-9 - Inge, Laird, Sizemore, Everett, and sometimes Raburn or Avila or Kelly - have all pretty much sucked. None of them are sniffing .300 or a .350 OBP, and their ability to turn base runners into double plays is unbelievable. The following is a hypothetical scenario, but I'm pretty sure it happens at least once a game ...

Mags walks. Cabrera doubles. Guys on second and third. No outs.

Inge strikes out.

Laird pops out.

Sizemore flies out.

Inning over, no runs.

It's been like that all season, and many of the 140+ hits from our top 4 hitters have gone to waste. What the Tigers need more than anything is some consistent production behind Cabrera. With Guillen hurt maybe it's too soon to rush to conclusions, but shouldn't Leyland at least considering tinkering with the line-up? Maybe make Santiago the lead-off man and let Jackson hit 5th?

When the August trade deadline comes a little bit closer, I think the Tigers will start saying "We're just one bat short," and hopefully make a move for a middle-of-the-order hitter. It'd be nice if they could find that bat soon though. Wait, didn't we send Clete Thomas to the Minors? Hmm...

For more detailed info on why the bottom of the order stinks, consider the following information ...

After going hitless in hit first 17 at-bats, catcher Gerald Laird is currently hitting a putrid .145, and that's actually better than his replacement, Alex Avila.

Promising rookie Scott Sizemore is off to a similarly stinky start, hitting just around .260 with nearly as many strike-outs as hits.

Shortstop Adam Everett has been beyond horrible; his .205 on-base percentage is the worst in the major leagues. The worst. The absolute worst. As in, no one is worse than him.
He also looks like an elf ...

And the one guy who was being counted on to provide consistent hitting off the bench has been brutal, hitting .220 with an amazing 10 hits and 17 strike-outs. I'm talking of course about Ryan Raburn.
The lone bright spot outside of the top 4 batters has been switch-hitting Ramon Santiago. He's been great, and is very close to earning an every-night spot in the line-up.

Another valuable hitter off the bench has been rookie outfielder Brennan Boesch, who has 5 doubles in just 30 at-bats and never met a first pitch he didn't want to swing at.
Why doesn't Leyland start making some aggressive moves to improve this offense? We've got the potential to score more runs than any team in the majors, why not maximize that potential?
Why not move Santiago to starting shortstop, and move Boesch into right field, and let Magglio hit DH? And then let Guillen take over for Sizemore at second. You could even move Inge to catcher to take Laird out of the line-up, and then slide Guillen over to third. You've got flexible fielders who can play a lot of different positions.

Yeah, you might give up a few more runs if you tinker with the fielding. You might have a few more errors. But I'd rather score runs than worry about fielding. Doesn't that just make too much sense. Playing defense and losing 2-4 isn't much fun. Why not score 8 runs a night and dominate? Bah.
So to recap, hitters 1-4 are awesome, while hitters 5-9 are crappy, except for Santiago.

I just realized I haven't even said anything about pitching ...

Verlander is a stud. He's off to a slow start, but he'll be fine. He's throwing about 110 pitches per start (which is high) and doing some freakish stuff like throwing 99 MPH fastballs in the 8th inning, like he did Sunday against the Twins. He's a monster, and while the slow start puts him way back for Cy Young contention, he's still our most important player.
Scherzer has progressively gotten worse since his first start, a 6 inning shutout. On Monday he gave up 10 runs. He's good for about 4 or 5 innings, but not much after that.
Porcello has just been awful, and that's part of the reason why the Tigers are just hovering around .500 all year. You've gotta get solid pitching from your #1 and #2 guys, and Porcello has been anything but solid. Worst ERA on the team, and he's given up 5 runs in every start while not making it past the 6th inning yet. I'm chalking it up to a sophomore slump and some serious nerves. I think he'll be fine.

Dontrelle Willis has been a huge surprise, as he's got the best ERA of any Tigers starter. The biggest reason why is that his control is vastlyimproved. In 2009 he averaged .85 walks per inning, and in 2008 it was a staggering 1.46 walks per inning! This year? Just 12 walks in 24 innings. As much as I was a doubter, I'm happy to see him playing well.

And last but not least, Jeremy Bonderman has been pretty much what I expected. Not great, but not awful. One win, one loss, a 5.7 ERA. He looks like he's finally recovered from the blood clot issue that kept him out of all of 2009. He's a pretty decent 6 out of 10.

And the best part, conveniently saved for last ... the Tigers Bullpen. Believe it or not, they have the best ERA of any bullpen in the MLB. Not only that, but they've pitched the most innings per game. It's uterly phenomenal. The Tigers' biggest weakness has become their biggest strength.
Joel Zumaya is one of the primary reasons. He has been absolutely lethal, giving the Tigers 15 innings and just two earned runs. And NO walks.

The only better ERA than Zumaya has been our closer Jose Valverde, also called the Big Potato to spanish speakers. He's given up 1 run in 13 innings, for an ERA of 0.71. Hmm, I wonder what Fernando Rodney's ERA is these days? (2.84!)

The rest of the bullpen has been highlighted by Phil Coke and Ryan Perry, who routinely give the Tigers one or two innings of shutout, no-hit pitching. Eddie Bonine has been excellent. Even Fu Te Ni has been unhittable, with 15 strike-outs in just 11 innings. The Tigers' bullpen averages an uncanny, unbelievably 1.53 ERA.

So to recap once again, Tigers hitting = good, but not great;
Tigers pitching = decent starters, great bullpen.

Add all that up, and you have a 16-11 record and are a few games behind the Twins. Just ... 135 more games to go ....

I miss football season.

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