Friday, July 6, 2012

What's wrong with the Tigers?

Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder expected to do a lot
more celebrating this year than they have.

The Detroit Tigers last season won 94 games and pulled away from the rest of the AL Central, then won their first round of the playoffs and came close to knocking off the Texas Rangers in the ALCS.

Then they signed Prince Fielder, and everybody -- well, pretty much everybody -- figured them for 100-plus wins, an easy divisional title, a strong contender for the World Series.

We're now halfway through the season, and things aren't going that way for Detroit.

What's wrong?

Roy Smalley, doing the commentary on the Twins telecast Thursday, at one point said something along the lines of: The difference between the Twins and the Tigers is that the Twins play better defense.

Which is an odd thing to say, because if that were true — that the difference is defense, and the Twins are better — the Tigers shouldn't be 5.5 games ahead of the Twins in the standings.

But defense was the obvious flaw in the Tigers roster before the season, and it has been bad, and it's tempting to blame their disappointing first half on that flaw.

I'm not so sure that narrative is supported by reality.

Consider this: The average American League team entered play Thursday having scored 365 runs. The Tigers have scored 361.

The Tigers are fourth in on-base percentage (.331), and closer to second than to fifth. They're just barely above average in slugging percentage. That combination ought to provide more than average runs scored.

The problem, I think, is that the offense is basically three men: Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Nobody else with 200 plate appearances is above average in either OPB or SLG.

The Tigers have allowed 368 runs, a bit worse than average — and given the defensive profile of their lineup, that's not too surprising. The "runs saved" defensive metric compiled by Baseball Info Systems suggests the defense has cost Detroit 30 runs compared to the average team; take 30 runs off their runs allowed, and they go from 10th most allowed in the AL to fifth. Good pitching negated by lousy defense.

If they were scoring runs the way they anticipated, the defensive problems wouldn't matter. That's what hasn't happened — yet — for them.

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