The Tigers Aren’t Falling Apart On Their Own

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.

* * *

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
Team G W L W% RDif RS/G RA/G W L W% +/- W L W% +/- RDif RS/G RA/G
Tigers 129 70 59 0.543 30 4.66 4.43 68 61 0.524 2 69 60 0.538 1 48 4.69 4.32
Royals 130 72 58 0.554 28 4.12 3.91 68 62 0.524 4 63 67 0.486 9 -16 3.93 4.06

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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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.


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george
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george
2 years 1 day ago

I’ll take issue with one sentence, just one! Mainly because it’s been mentioned in a few other articles and places.

“They never did fix the shortstop issue.” Suarez has been a really solid player this season. With his recent hot streak, is up to a 100 wRC+ and is at 1.1 WAR in only 60 games or so. He has a tendency to turn easy plays into mistakes, but the Tigers have gotten much more from him then they could have ever hoped. Meanwhile the “fix” everyone was clamoring for early in the year is hitting .173.

But to the point of the article, screw the royals

KCExile
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KCExile
2 years 19 hours ago

Come on now! Screw the Royals? The team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 29 years? Blessed be the meek Royals and their steadfast fans.

maqman
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maqman
2 years 23 hours ago

The Mariners don’t care who they beat in the AL playoffs.

Who is Zorbist?
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Who is Zorbist?
2 years 23 hours ago

I wouldn’t really say that Shields was “lit up”. He gave up 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks through 6 innings. Then, he got Yosted. For some reason, with the best bullpen in baseball, Yost allowed this to happen to Shields in the 7th inning: Home run, single, single, FC, single, single, Sac Fly, BB. He was finally removed, after 109 pitches.

It all fell apart in the 7th, but I put that more on Yost than on Shields. Davis, Herrera, and Holland were fresh, as none of them had pitched since Friday. Big Game James was left out there to self destruct, while 3 of the best relievers in baseball were all given their third day off in a row.

Costanza
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Costanza
2 years 21 hours ago

What world do you live in where giving up 10 hits, 6R, 6ER, 3BB against 3K isn’t getting lit up?

RSF
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RSF
2 years 20 hours ago

Shields had throw 87 pitches entering the 7th. The series of events you described from the HR to the sac fly took 15 total pitches (just over 2 per batter).

Your post grossly mischaracterizes what happened. Yost’s main failing is not being able to see into the future.

Walter
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Walter
2 years 19 hours ago

87 pitches , 7th inning, 1-run game, to me that all adds up to needing to be ready to put out a fire should one start. 15-pitches or not, Yost probably should have had someone up when that homer was hit, sent the pitching couch out after the 1st or 2nd single and got him out of the game at least 3 batters earlier. Personally, I think it’s a crime to ever not be ready to take the SP out of the game once the SP is starting through the line up for the fourth time. There is just no excuse for not being ready once Ellsbury came up with the game still 3-1 and two on, one out. Leverage is high there and Any SP the 4th time through the order is a bad bet. Ignore the pitch count, it’s not very predictive.

Who is Zorbist?
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Who is Zorbist?
1 year 11 months ago

The homerun and 2 singles should have been more than enough to get Shields removed. The next 3 hits and a walk were on Yost.

Jeremy
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Jeremy
2 years 23 hours ago

WOW. Screw the Royals. Must be doing something right to start getting hate. Don’t know how to process this

Jason B
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Jason B
2 years 22 hours ago

EVERY team that plays well for any length of time plays that card around here: “FanGraphs writers hate us! WAAAAAAAH *snivel* WAAAAAAAH!!!!”

Reaching back a few years: Giants (after winning 2 WS), then Braves (last year), then Brewers (early 2014), then Orioles (last two months), now Royals. Welcome to the club!

DetroitFanatic
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DetroitFanatic
2 years 23 hours ago

The Tigers should have gone after a swing man, who can be used both in the pen and starting. Maybe a Jenrry Mejia or Cesar Ramos type. Both could be had for a single A prospect, and both could have stabilized a terrible bullpen a little, and been an emergency starter. Having a great starting 4 like Price, Scherzer, Sanchez and Porcello, but having to rely on a guy who was in single A a month ago as your emergency #6, seems horribly short sighted. With a 170 million dollar payroll, Robby Ray should not have been the first plan if someone got injured, and now, having to use rule 5 pick Kyle Lobstein to help you make the playoffs is asking for failure.

How can you not claim Bartolo if you are in this situation? A prorated portion of 2 years, 20 million seems like a bargain if it means you get to the playoffs. Verlander gets moved to the pen when Sanchez is healthy, and now you have fixed 2 problems.

Jason B
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Jason B
2 years 22 hours ago

“they’ll slide back. They simply have to”

WAAAAY false. Gambler’s fallacy. They are *likely* to. Then again they could go 25-7 the rest of the way.

Likely? Nope! Possible? Quite!

KCRoyalClemsonTiger
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KCRoyalClemsonTiger
2 years 17 hours ago

Very well said. Just because a coin rolled 9 heads out of 10 doesn’t mean it will roll only 1 heads in the next 10

isavage30
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isavage30
2 years 21 hours ago

The need to start Buck Farmer, is pretty much the reason why people thought Dombrowski must have lost his mind when he traded Doug Fister for Robbie Ray.

KCDaveInLA
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KCDaveInLA
2 years 21 hours ago

You ask most baseball people which they would rather have: Elite hitting and starting pitching, or, elite defense and relief pitching, it’s not too hard to guess which they would prefer, and which strengths would more likely result in a playoff appearance.

Here’s the scary part to me as a Royals fan: Dayton Moore has asked us to trust a “process”. So in the infancy of his grand plan, was he really thinking “If I can get some Gold-Glovers and put together the toughest bullpen on the planet, I can beat the offensive juggernauts”? Almost all those high-stock guys from his “greatest farm system ever” – Hosmer, Moustakas, Lamb, etc. have already or are fizzling out. The plan was to surround a solid middle-of-the-order lineup with above-average starting pitching, and to put it mildly, that has not worked out. This team is NOT a result of Dayton Moore’s intentions, but rather is a team playing to unexpected strenghts.

dan gorczycki
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dan gorczycki
2 years 20 hours ago

Isavage is right as the article is incomplete without the mention the biggest boneheaded move of Dombrowski’s era – the trading of Doug Fister. If the Tigers go nowhere this year, one can only dream of how they would do with his presence. What, they could couldn’t use somebody who has an ERA that starts with a TWO? Oh, but at least he got Robbie Ray in return, who has an ERA that starts with a SEVEN! Can somebody at least tell me what the heck he was thinking?

Kevin Stovall
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Kevin Stovall
2 years 10 hours ago

I agree that what they got for Fister was less then what you would have expected given his level of production the last couple of years plus his contract status. Ray is clearly a couple of years away from being effective in MLB, Krol has been very inconsistent, prone to giving up HR, and they gave away Lombardozzi for NOTHING.

At the same time, they would have been unable to acquire Price without the deal. There is absolutely no way TB would have taken Smily if he hadn’t proven that he could be an effective starter. Dealing Fister allowed them to get Price, so in the end the Tigers are better for making the Fister deal.

Jason B
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Jason B
2 years 25 minutes ago

Are they though? Price is a better pitcher than Fister but they’re not too far apart. Meanwhile he’s also more expensive, Robbie Ray hasn’t shown anything yet, and they’re down Smyly + Jackson too (the cost to acquire Price).

All things considered, I would much prefer (Fister + Smyly + Jackson) to (Price + Ray + Krol).

Terence
Member
Member
Terence
2 years 19 hours ago

JD Martinez (!) had a 185 wRC+ before the all-star break. It’s 96 since. That drop correlates with a .397 BABIP becoming .308 and HR/FB% of 22.8% halving itself to 11.4%. Maybe he’s not playing at a high level? Maybe he wasn’t before.

Jason B
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Jason B
2 years 19 hours ago

Maybe he *was* before?

RSquared
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RSquared
2 years 19 hours ago

The usual flawed bullpen, injured offensive stars (Kinsler, Cabrera) will do this team in once again, whether now or in the playoffs.

LaLoosh
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2 years 16 hours ago

Have to agree that the one thing the Tigers absolutely need is…… MORE COWBELL!

No, seriously Colon might fit as well for the Tigers as for the Angels. And with Scherzer sure to be gone after this season, Colon is likely to have a rotation spot next year. WIth Anibal hurting and a questionable Verlander, Colon seems good fit. Dixon Machado?

KC
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KC
2 years 16 hours ago

Now Anibal Sanchez out for the year, adds to the terms screwed along with cursed? for the Tigers.

zatchj62
Member
zatchj62
2 years 13 hours ago

The West Michigan Whitecaps actually play in Comstock Park, MI, which has an even smaller population of <11,000. It's within 30 minutes of where I live. Thought it deserved me mentioning haha. Other than that, nice piece Mike!

The Party Bird
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The Party Bird
2 years 6 hours ago

Hardly counts as a small town though, since it’s part of a metro area with c. a million people.

Mike13
Guest
2 years 12 hours ago

trading for a pitcher would help the Tigers immensely

Playing well is all that matters
Guest
Playing well is all that matters
1 year 11 months ago

The thing i disagree with is the idea the Royals are playing so far above their ability. At the beginning of the season a lot of odds makers had the royals winning the division. So why when they play great do we say they are playing WAY above their their ability? Maybe they’ve been playing under their ability all season. Guys who usually hit weren’t hitting. Butler is a career 290-300 hitter. Hosmer (now injured) hit 300 last year. Infante hit 315. These guys have talent.

Sure winning 3/4 of their games is ridiculous and they won’t keep that up, but who is to say they arent a talented enough club to to be the favorite. They were in april…

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