Monday, May 14, 2012

What's Going on with the Tigers?

After a 9-3 start, Detroit has gone almost a month without winning two games in a row, and it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the problem.  Clearly, Ryan Raburn’s .135 average (the worst average of anyone in the AL with at least 80 at-bats) is not helping, but only so much can be blamed on K-burn.  The Tigers dumped their other offensive malignancy (Brandon Inge) and haven’t seen an improvement in offense since his glorious departure.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, actually. From Avila (OBP has dropped .389 to .311 since last year) to Cabrera (OPS dropped from 1.034 to .817) to Fielder (BA dropped from .299 to .266, hitless in his last 21 at-bats) ... then there’s Boesch (swings at everything, has only 3 walks in 130 plate appearances) and Worth and Santiago (making it nearly impossible for Leyland to bench Raburn by hitting only .176 and .157, respectively) to Delmon Young (a .243 OBP since his anti-Semitic comments got him arrested). 

The only bright spots in the lineup have been Andy Dirks (3rd in the AL in batting average, hitting .447 in May) and Austin Jackson (top 10 in average, OBP, OPS, runs, and steals).  These two guys are keeping the offense afloat, and Dirks has claimed the 2 spot in the lineup until further notice.  But despite their blistering OBPs, the monsters in the middle of the lineup (Miggy and Biggy) haven’t been able to produce enough RBIs to keep our offense from wilting.

The most telling stat of the season is this – since the sweep of the Red Sox to start the season, the Tigers’ offense averages just 3.7 runs per game.  Last year, Detroit averaged 6.2, while the worst offense in the league (Seattle – who by the way is 5-1 against Detroit this year) averaged about 3.5 runs per game.  In other words, Detroit is on pace to have the worst offense in the MLB. With the 5th biggest payroll. 

Now, the good news. 

Eventually, Cabrera and Fielder WILL start hitting. That’s indisputable.  Fielder may take a while, as we’ve seen the adjustment from NL to AL usually takes a while (case in point, Albert Pujols).  But Cabrera will finish the season in the top 5 in average, OBP and OPS, just like he does every year.  Right now, he ranks around 30th in all those categories. Fielder may not get his average up into the .300s, but he’ll definitely fill up the HR and RBI numbers.  Those two guys we can count on.

And while we may not be able to count on Boesch, Avila, or Delmon to replicate their brilliant 2011 seasons, we know that even at their worst those guys are all .250 hitters.  As for the mess at 2nd base, we can count on Dave Dombrowski making a change; either trading for a decent bat before the July 31 trade deadline, or sending Raburn to Toledo and instituting a Sanitago/Worth platoon, which may not improve our offense but at least improves the defense and gives us some speed on the base paths.

That leads me to what I believe is ultimately the problem with this Tigers offense.  They’re slow and they’re boring.  They’re super predictable.  They don’t steal bases, they can’t go 1st to 3rd, they don’t hit-and-run, they don’t bunt. They don’t manufacture runs.  They aren’t creative. They don’t take enough bad pitches.  They don’t work pitch counts, they don’t frustrate pitchers.  They relinquish easy outs.  They swing at everything. They rely on power and don't use the entire field.  Those are traits that embody nearly the whole team.  I'd like to blame Leyland for all that, but it's probably Lloyd McClendon - the hitting coach - who needs to be examined.  Why is it that when a guy like Granderson or Will Rhymes leaves Detroit their hitting all of a sudden explodes?  I'm not even going to bring up Brandon Inge's recent onslaught of homers.  

If you look at the great offenses in the AL – Texas, Tampa, New York – they all have speed and they all draw walks.  Sure, the Rangers and Yankees can mash home runs, but they also steal bases like crazy.  Detroit is in the bottom 3 in both walks and steals.  You need to have a few big dudes with power – like Cabrera and Fielder – but I think Detroit has a few too many, with Delmon, Avila, Peralta, and then Raburn (who can’t hit or run), and Boesch, who could run if Leyland let him.  We’ve got the biggest, bulkiest, heaviest, slowest lineup in the Majors, and that’s not translating into runs. 

It may be time for Leyland to try out a lineup that includes more Kelly and Worth and less Raburn and Delmon.  We might not hit as many homers, but the ability to draw walks, steal bases, and advance base runners is more pertinent right now.  I don’t think Leyland understands this; frankly, I’m not sure Leyland understands the difference between a .350 batting average and a .150 batting average anymore. 

Then, there’s the issue of pitching.  To keep it brief – Verlander has been brilliant, Smyly has blown away all expectations and is leading the AL in ERA (!), Fister missed 4 starts but has been great since, and Max and Rick have been their typical erratic selves. The starting pitching has been good, but not great.  Could still use an upgrade, and if Scherzer continues to struggle I’d like to see Jacob Turner brought up.  Or trade a package that includes Turner or Oliver and get a stud like Matt Garza or somebody like that.  To compete in the playoffs, were going to need an upgrade in the starting rotation – it may come internally, it may not.  But the need for an upgrade is pretty obvious.   In the meantime, Verlander will keep Detroit from falling apart.

Then, there’s the bullpen.  Holy crap.  Jose Valverde has been abysmal, which comes as no surprise to anyone who watched him pitch last year.  Going 49 for 49 in save opportunities is amazing on paper, but when you realize that the majority of those saves were ass-backwards-lucky, it explains why the Big Potato has given up 15 hits, 11 walks, 8 runs, and blown 2 saves.  Here’s the worst stat – in 16 games, he’s thrown over 300 pitches, while never pitching more than 1 inning.  That means it’s taking him almost 20 pitches to get through an inning. Compared to the better players in the bullpen, like Below (14 per inning) or Coke (13) or Dotel (15), 20 pitches per inning is way too high.  It’s pretty pathetic.  But it’s understandable, because the Potato is so busy jumping and strutting and dancing and acting like an idiot, that he’s not really thinking about how to get outs.  He is probably the worst closer in the league, and it’s really going to bite us in the ass come playoff time if we don't make a change.  (My take- give Potato a few more chances, and if he keeps struggling, put Below in the closer role.  Give him a couple months and see how he does.  If he fails, try out Coke.  You can't be tinkering with the bullpen come September.  Gotta figure it out before then. Be proactive.) 

On the positive side, Leyland finally took Stink’s son Daniel Schlereth out of the bullpen and send him to the minors. Danny’s 10.2 ERA was a hideous sight, as was his 2.71 WHIP, which was the worst in the Majors.  In six games, Schlereth did not have a single clean inning.  He gave up an average of 1 run per 2 outs, almost exactly.  It took Leyland far too long to get Schlereth off the roster, but at least it finally happened. (I'm not putting it past Leyland to bring Schlereth back the second there is an injury and immediately throw him out there in a tie game) 

A trend I’ve noticed as a Tigers fan is that I often use the phrase “worst in the Majors.”  Two years ago, we had Gerald Laird and Adam Everett competing for the worst OBP in the Majors, both getting a lot of playing time. Last year, Raburn and Inge were in the same position.  And this year, we’ve got Raburn in the lineup 6 days a week while batting .135, while Schlereth pitched 6 times in April with the worst stats in the league.  Leyland just has an unshakable affinity for losers, and always mumbles about how they’ll “turn it around.”  Would the Lions employ a running back with a 2.2 YPC or a kicker who could only make 20 yard field goals?  Would the Pistons start a point guard with a 30% free-throw percentage?  Why does Leyland still have a job?

Despite all the glaring problems with the Tigers and their stupid 17-17 record, I’m not in panic mode.  I’m in frustration mode, anger mode, and worry mode.  But not panic.  Not because I have so much faith in Leyland or even the guys on the roster, but because I have faith that the rest of the division will fall apart and allow us to win the AL Central with only 85 wins. As long as Verlander and Cabby stay healthy, we’ll get there.  Smyly and Jackson won’t keep up their torrid play, but Boesch and Avila will pick things up, and it’ll swing around. Our division is complete crap, and JV is on the verge of a massive winning streak - maybe 15 straight.  So we’ll be fine.

*Asterisk – if either Cabrera or Verlander get hurt and miss more than 20 games, the season is sunk.  That’s why April and May do matter; it’s important to build up a cushion in case of a serious injury.  Also, it wouldn’t hurt to have homefield in the playoffs.

*Second asterisk – if Victor Martinez is actually able to make his return to the DH role in September as some reports have said, it will be exactly what the Tigers need: patience at the plate, very few strikeouts, clutch hitting with runners on base and/or two outs, and a spark of life to a boring offense. 

When the playoffs come, assuming we stay healthy and assuming the division tanks as it should, Leyland better think twice before he trots out his poop-platter lineup of Raburn and Laird. This roster was made for a World Series, and it’s too dang talented not to get there.  It would be a shame to go down in flames to Texas in the ALDS, or worse, finish with 80 wins and watch Cleveland get swept in the first round. 

Go Tigers.  

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant. I don't disagree on a single thing. This team is has been handled horrible by Jimmy Smokes and he is too stubborn to make needed changed until DD makes him. Our lack of a consistent line-up is also a huge problem in my opinion.