How Easy do the Tigers Really Have It?

Right or wrong, coming into the season we made an assumption around here: the Tigers were the favorites in the AL Central. More than that, the Tigers were the hands-down favorites in the AL Central, and they looked to have a pretty clear path to the postseason. At the start of the year, they were given a 61% chance to win the division, and as of this writing they’re alone in first place, five losses better than the second-place Royals. They’re on pace to finish with seven more wins than the next-best team, so in that regard, what was expected is coming true. Though the gaps aren’t yet large, we’re barely a third of the way through the schedule.

But, of course, the Tigers have been floundering, which hasn’t gone unnoticed. And you can notice something interesting on our Playoff Odds pages. On one page, we have projected standings using blending ZiPS and Steamer inputs. On another page, we have projected standings using season-to-date stats as inputs. There comes a certain time at which it might become preferable to use the most current data, and as far as the Tigers are concerned, the two different pages will tell you two different things.

From the About tab, to explain:

Season to Date Stats Mode

This mode uses current season stats, weighted more heavily towards the most recent games, to calculate the winning percentage of each remaining game in the major league season.

Let’s begin with the main Playoff Odds page. Here, the Tigers are projected to play better than anybody else in the American League the rest of the way. They’re given a 77% chance to win the division, which is the highest chance of any team in baseball. So, of 30 teams, the Tigers are the most assured of an automatic berth in the division series.

Now flip over to the season-to-date Playoff Odds page. The Tigers are still projected to play well, but less well. They’re given a 39% chance to win the division, which is the lowest chance of any division favorite. On one page, the Tigers are the most secure favorite. On another page, they’re the least secure favorite, and this page takes into greater consideration what the players have actually done for 2.5 months. On this page, the Tigers’ shot at the division is half what it says on the other page.

Which is, easily, the greatest difference in division odds in baseball. The Tigers show up with a difference of 38 percentage points. Next are the Angels, with a difference of 21 percentage points. Then you get the Nationals, A’s, and Marlins, at 20 percentage points. So based on how you weight what’s already happened, there are two very different ways to think about the AL Central.

This came up, kind of, in Dave’s chat. Responding to a question about breakouts:

There is no reason to assume that 2014 performance is a more accurate predictor of the future than ROS projections.

In theory, rest-of-season projections should give you the clearest idea of true talent, as they include a lot of information. You can never ignore what a player has done in the past, even if he’s suddenly performing much worse or much better. Rest-of-season projections consider both recent data, and more historical data, which is smart. But then you start to think about exceptions. For example, Dallas Keuchel. The rest of the way, he’s projected for 1.2 WAR. He’s already been worth 2.2 WAR. It would certainly appear that Keuchel has broken out, and in cases like his, the projections can be slow to correct.

If we accept that, sometimes, players just rise or sink to new levels, then those would be reasons to somewhat disregard the historical projections. The tricky part is in identifying those players. Who’s meaningfully different from how he was perceived a few months ago? How confident are we in the belief? To bring this back to the Tigers, how heavily do we really want to weight what’s been happening, in particular over the past few weeks?

We can basically ignore the offensive component. The Tigers have posted a .330 wOBA, .326 over the past month. By ZiPS and Steamer, they’re projected for a team .329 wOBA. Those are fine. The differences are with the pitching staff.

Over the past month, the Tigers have had a somewhat average starting rotation, middle-of-the-pack by WAR but bottom-third by FIP. And the bullpen has been a problem, in large part because Joe Nathan has been a problem. Based on our expectations, and based on last season, the Tigers should have a phenomenal pitching staff, but if you heavily weight how they’ve been actually pitching of late, it drags the team down quite a bit. And then you have to decide how much you believe in that.

It’s not this simple, but you can make it this simple. Important players:

  • Is Justin Verlander one of the three aces of the staff, like the projections say, or is he the comparative wreck he’s been recently?
  • Is Drew Smyly a guy to be counted on, or is he going to be inconsistent and homer-prone?
  • Are we or are we not seeing the sudden end of Joe Nathan?

From here on out, those guys are projected for an even 4 WAR. Over the past month, they’ve been worth 0.0, and there’s some reason to believe it’s not just noise. With Verlander in particular, he could be declining rather severely, and Smyly’s transitioning to the rotation, and Nathan’s closer to 40 than 39. One thing the Tigers aren’t is particularly deep. They entered with plenty of star power, but they’re not equipped to handle some of those stars breaking down.

So how you feel about the Tigers in large part depends on how you feel about Verlander, Smyly, and Nathan. Every team is more than three guys, but a difference of a few wins can make an enormous difference when it comes to the playoff odds. If you’re more down on those guys than the projections are, then you think the Tigers will be in for a fight. If you believe in those players, then the Tigers are a secure team that’s just been in a slump. A slump that’s left them still in first place by a decent margin.

If you’re wondering about the rest of the division, there’s surprisingly little to say. Flipping between the two Playoff Odds pages doesn’t show much difference in the Royals’ expectations. The season-to-date page likes the White Sox a little better, but it still doesn’t actually like them. The Indians project about the same, the Lonnie Chisenhall/Michael Brantley breakouts somewhat countered by the Nick Swisher/Carlos Santana slumps. The Twins do move up quite a bit, from a 0.8% shot at the division to a 13% shot at the division. It helps when Phil Hughes looks like an award contender. It helps when Brian Dozier looks like an award contender. It helps when Daniel Santana has a .500 BABIP.

So the Twins are deserving of their own post, but the AL Central was thought to belong to the Tigers. At present, it still belongs to the Tigers, but from here on out, the race could be close or it could be a battle. It depends a lot on how you feel about some of the Tigers’ most talented players. With Justin Verlander, the Tigers looked like sure title contenders, but now what is Justin Verlander, really? Just which interpretation do you choose to believe?

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.