Buck Farmer, despite the name, is a real person who exists. A month ago, he was making his final start for the Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps in Clinton, Iowa, a town that has a smaller population (26,885 in 2010) than 21 of the 30 MLB teams pack into their ballparks on any given night. When he did, on July 25, the Tigers, the top of Farmer’s Detroit organization, had a 6.5-game lead in the AL Central and a 94.0% chance of winning the division, had just picked up Joakim Soria, and were about to add David Price to a rotation that was already very good.
This isn’t about Farmer, really, though he’s part of it. He’s just a pretty good entry point into how the Tigers, a team that was flying free and clear to their fourth straight division title against relatively indifferent AL Central competition, could manage to turn that lead into a 1.5-game deficit into fewer than six weeks. Those playoff odds, which seemed to make them a near-certainty to win the division, dropped all the way to 43.3% before the Royals lost last night, which, as Jeff showed yesterday, is by far the biggest downturn of any team in baseball. They wouldn’t even be in the wild card playoff at the moment, thanks to the fact that the AL West has two of the best teams in baseball and a Mariners club that has just stopped losing.
A month ago, Farmer was pitching in A-ball. A week ago, he was getting exactly one out while allowing eight runs for Toledo against a Columbus team that had someone named Giovanny Urshela hitting cleanup. Surrounding that, he’s made two major league starts for a Tigers team desperately trying to hold off one of the biggest collapses we’ve seen in years. If you want to know how the Tigers have fallen apart, that’s a great place to start.
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There’s two things that go into the the downfall of the Tigers, and they’re both equally important:
1) Detroit, coasting for months after a hot start, has been hit hard by serious injuries, and
2) Kansas City has been hilariously, insanely, ludicrously hot
It takes two to tango, as they say, and for everything that’s happened, the Tigers haven’t been bad. This isn’t the Braves losing eight consecutive games to essentially hand the NL East to the Nationals even before Washington reeled off their own winning streak. Here’s the sum of the absolute catastrophe that has been the Detroit Tigers in August: 12-12. The Tigers have been so successful over the last half-decade that a month that’s merely .500 ball — in the last three seasons, they’ve had only one losing month — seems like a disaster.
Obviously, saying “in August” is a bit of an arbitrary endpoint unto itself, because Detroit did lose five of their final six games in July. If you want to say “since July 25, they’ve been a losing team,” you wouldn’t be wrong, and it’s not like they’ve had nothing to do with this. Of course, no one would have ever even noticed this had it not been for the Royals. The Dodgers, for example, are 12-11 in August, and it’s not news because the Giants haven’t taken advantage of it and the rest of the NL West is simply wretched. The Astros are 11-12, and no one cares because they’re a million games out in the AL West. Generally, a .500 month for a good team late in the season in a weak division is regarded as a speed bump to be sorted out before the playoffs, or the usual vagaries of a long season in the hottest part of the summer.
For the Tigers, it’s a bigger deal because of the Royals, who have ripped off the kind of streak that really can’t be predicted. If it isn’t Erik Kratz hitting two homers in relief of Salvador Perez, it’s Billy Butler suddenly remembering how to hit (five of his nine homers have come in the last 30 days). This is a team that still has little power and a near-pathological aversion to walks; it’s a team that has four members of their regular lineup (Perez, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Omar Infante) putting up sub-80 wRC+ marks over the last month, and yet the team is still winning. Maybe it’s the absolutely phenomenal outfield defense — your position on the Alex Gordon WAR controversy aside, he’s obviously outstanding, and so are Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson — or a bullpen where Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland have combined to allow two earned runs in the last month, or the emergence of Danny Duffy. There are certainly reasons that this team is playing well.
Even so, even the most optimistic Royals fan couldn’t expect this team to continue winning at a .741 clip, as they’ve done for the last month, all season long, because while it obviously takes some excellent play to go on a run like they’ve had, it also takes some luck, whether it’s balls bouncing your way or some favorable sequencing. When the Dodgers went on that 42-8 run last year, it’s partially because they had Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and friends all playing well at the same time, and partially because every last thing seemed to go right. It was fun, and it all counted in the standings, but it couldn’t last. The same thing will happen to the Royals.
The question, then, is to what extent. We can see that by BaseRuns — an attempt to remove sequencing and context from performance — the Royals have been playing wildly over their head, to the point that by all rights, they should be a below-.500 team:
|2014 Year to Date||2014 PythagenPat||2014 BaseRuns|
They aren’t a .500 team, of course, and those wins still count. All that really matters is the number on the left, the one that says the Royals are inexplicably 14 games over .500. Still, at the risk of sounding the “they peaked too early!” cry, they’ll slide back. They simply have to, and that’s the in for the Tigers to get back into the race.
But even if and when they do, there’s still serious issues in Detroit. After peaking at 16 games over .500 on July 12, they’re 17-22 since, and it’s not hard to see why. Though Price has been outstanding in his four starts with the team, and Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have been great, the rotation has been torn apart to the point that they’ve had to resort to starts from Farmer, Robbie Ray, and — once in July — Drew VerHagen. Kyle Lobstein may make his first major league start later this week. Anibal Sanchez has missed several weeks with a pectoral injury, though he may return this weekend; Justin Verlander has been both awful and injured, though he’s back in the rotation. What was to be an indomitable strength has had 40 percent of it held together by spit and duct tape for most of the month.
It goes on. Soria made only six poor outings before landing on the disabled list with an oblique injury; with Bruce Rondon missing the entire season and Joe Nathan being a massive disappointment, the team has had to dig up retread Jim Johnson out of desperation, and are currently trying to get Chad Qualls on waivers. They never did fix the shortstop issue, and the loss of Austin Jackson in the Price deal hurt the lineup. And then, of course, there’s Miguel Cabrera. It says a lot about Cabrera, I think, that he’s hitting .308/.375/.501 (139 wRC+) and it’s his second-worst offensive output since 2005. Cabrera, hobbled by offseason core surgery and now a sore ankle, has homered only once in the last month, and didn’t play on Sunday. He’s still better than an overwhelming majority of major league hitters; he’s just not giving Detroit as much as they expected to get from him in the past.
The Tigers will get Soria and Sanchez back in the next week, they still have Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez (!) playing at a high level, and the Royals won’t keep playing quite this way. Perhaps we’re already seeing it happen; after losing to Texas on Sunday and having James Shields lit up by the Yankees last night, Kansas City has lost two in a row for the first time since July 27 and 29. What seems like a terrible collapse by Detroit has been as much due to the unbelievable run by Kansas City as it does to what’s happened to the Tigers.
With six head-to-head games remaining, this race may just come down to which Royals team and which Tigers team shows up. If it’s the ones we’ve been seeing for the last month, Detroit is in trouble. Fortunately for them, it’s hard to see exactly that still happening by the time they next get together on September 8.
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