The Tigers’ Royal Choke Job

The Tigers’ projected domination of the 2012 American League Central never quite came off. However, after a disappointing first couple of months that saw them below .500, the Tigers have been winning ever since. They were looking forward to this weekend’s showdown at home in Detroit with the division-leading White Sox. Detroit was only two games back.. All they had to do was get through the three-game series with the Royals in Kansas City in order to set themselves up. Sure, Anibel Sanchez had been mostly terrible since coming to the Tigers, and Rick Porcello was having yet another disappointing season (at least in terms of ERA), but they were matched up against Bruce Chen and Jeremy Guthrie, respectively. No way the Tigers offense doesn’t light those guys up, right? If that wasn’t enough, Justin Verlander was matched up against Luis Mendoza.

According to Cool Standings’ “Smart” standings, going into the series in KC the Tigers had a 32 percent chance of winning the division and 61.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. A series win in KC would set them up nicely going into the weekend and for a shot at the playoffs generally. Things didn’t exactly work out that way. The Tigers got swept. As of today, the “smart” standings have Detroit down to a 40 percent chance of making the playoffs. What?

One could point out that the Royals are only one “spot” behind the Tigers in the division and that Kansas City has the second-best August record in the American League as of today. Those are poor “excuses,” though. Even after the sweep, the Royals are ten games behind the Tigers, and are in third mostly by default due to the horrible-ness of the Twins and Cleveland’s epic collapse. As for the Royals’ August record, I only mention it because if I don’t, someone will. One good month does not demonstrate anything special about a team’s true talent level that one should take as predictive over the full season.

The Royals being a bad team and the Tigers being a good team does not mean that Detroit should win every game or series, or that they were “looking past” the Royals. This is not meant as some sort of moralizing “dressing down.” It simply was an ugly way to get to this weekend’s big series, and was somewhat punctuated by the way the Tigers lost in close games one would have expected them to have won.

Tuesday’s game was probably the strangest of the three relative to expectations. Verlander versus Mendoza was not a promising matchup for the Royals, with Verlander looking every bit as dominant in 2012 as he did last year and Royals’ starter Luis Mendoza having a much better year than might have been expected — almost mediocre (4.51 ERA after the game). Mendoza started the game about like one would expect — by getting knocked around by the Tigers for three runs, capped by a two-run shot from Delmon Young.

It looked like things would get ugly quickly for the Royals, but after striking out the first two batters he faced, Verlander have up a double, a single, a double, and a single and the Royals tied the game. Things got even weirder when Verlander took the mound again the bottom of the second, and the Royals strung together a series of hits that scored four more runs, and suddently it was a 7-3 game with Verlander on the hook for seven runs. Verlander ended up going over five innings and giving up eight runs.

Despite a mess of a start from Verlander, it was still Luis Mendoza the Tigers were facing, and they managed to knock him out after five innings and six runs, and added two more off of the Royals’ (usually tough) bullpen to tie the game. However, lefty Phil Coke gave up a double to Mike Moustakas (who has a career 68 wRC+ versus southpaws).

The Tigers still had a chance to win it, and almost did in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs and runners on the corners, Delmon Young had a monster WPA play with a home run… almost. It was hard to tell, but it was foul. A wild end to a bizarre game, and the Tigers’ playoff probability dropped to 56 percent.

The next two games did not the same back-and-forth run scoring, but held their own intrigues. Wednesday’s game featured Anibel Sanchez coming off of his first good start for the Tigers, having shut down the Blue Jays just the week before. Sanchez only struck out one Royal in seven innings, but did not walk any, either. He only have up one run on an eric Hosmer single.

The problem was that the Tigers got shut out by eight innings of Bruce Chen and one innings of Greg Holland. Holland is a good reliever, but legends aside, Bruce Chen is back to his ol’ gopher-balling self in 2012 — mostly. Not Wednesday night. Given that the Tigers are tilt to the right side and are a power hitting team, one would have given them a good chance of hitting one out against the left-handed, soft-tossing fly ball pitcher. Nope. The Tigers playoff odds dropped under 46 percent.

Last night’s game was a chance for the Tigers to at least get one back, as the White Sox lost to the Orioles. Rick Porcello was taking the mound, and while his ERA is nothing special this year, his FIP and xFIP indicated improvement. Moreover, Detroit was going up against Jeremy Guthrie, who, despite pitching pretty well since coming over to the Royals in the Jonathan Sanchez trade, is basically a right-handed Bruce Chen.

Well, hey, the Tigers couldn’t hit the left-handed version, why should we expect them to hit the right-handed clone? They did hit against Guthrie, actually: 10 hits and only three strikeouts over seven innings. Yet they produced only one run against Guthrie before getting shut down by the Royals bullpen. This should not be put at Porcello’s feet: yes, he did give up two runs, including Alex Gordon‘s decisive solo homer (Sonic Slam!) in the sixth. But the Tigers offense simply could not capitalize on their opportunities, and fittingly ended the game on a Miguel Cabrera double play (thought it must be said that Alcides Escobar made an crazy play to finish the Tigers off). That brought the Tigers’ playoff probability to its current 40 percent chance.

Using a word like “Choke” in the title is admittedly attention-grabbing, but probably unfair. Good teams lose, and get swept by, bad teams in a regular basis. Moreover, the Tigers lost three one-run games in a row. There is not reason to think that Justin Verlander is a bad pitcher because of one bad start. Detroit fans should not worry about the offense because it got shut town by Bruce Chen and Jeremy Guthrie. These things happen.

This is not a moralizing post about how the Tigers were “distracted” by their big series against the White Sox this weekend or anything like that. However, their goal for the season is the playoffs. If they sweep the White Sox, they can tie the division. Moreover, there are still games after that, and, of course, there are two wildcard spots. However, Detroit is currently not in line for one of them — the As, Orioles, and Rays are all ahead of them. That makes this series even bigger, as a division title may well offer the Tigers the best way into the post-season.

Playoff probability depends on projections, with all of the uncertainty that implies. But even on a more optimistic projection, the Tigers’ chances for the playoffs are much worse today then they were Tuesday morning, making the Chicago series that much “bigger.” However, if the Tigers fail to make the playoffs, it may be these three one-run losses to the Royals, rather than this weekend’s series with the White Sox, that the team looks back on with regret.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

37 Responses to “The Tigers’ Royal Choke Job”

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  1. detroit4lyfe says:

    I agree that this might be the series that the Tigers look back on with regret. Verlander was horrendous unlike Verlander has ever been before in what was another big game let down for him. I think he still has to prove he can be a big-game pitcher and he’ll get an even bigger opportunity on Sunday night.

    As for this: “One good month does not demonstrate anything special about a team’s true talent level that one should take as predictive over the full season”

    Sure, but it can tell you why the Royals were able to scrape out three 1-run games against a potential playoff team in that good month. They’re playing good baseball right now and, while I don’t always think tipping your cap to the other team is the right response to losses like these, the Royals do deserve a heap of credit.

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    • Roberto says:


      It may be worthy of noting that in August the Royals had Salvador Perez back and an effective Jeremy Guthrie instead of an ineffective Johnathan Sanchez. If you wish to argue that these two changes did not alter the “true talent” of the team, you’ll need a more compelling argument than this.

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    • Lukehart80 says:

      Verlander still has to “prove himself?”

      Send him to Cleveland, I’d be thrilled to have him on the Indians, without needing any further proof.

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      • detroit4lyfe says:

        No, you misquoted and misunderstood.

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      • chuckb says:

        You said “I think he still has to prove he can be a big-game pitcher.” I think that’s an absurd statement based on how well he’s pitched nearly every time out over the last several years. If you want to walk it back now or say that you misspoke, that’s one thing. But those were your words. You own them. Now that you’ve been called on them, you can’t accuse others of misquoting you.

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      • detroit4lyfe says:

        There’s a pretty big difference between “he has to prove he can be a big-game pitcher” and “he has to prove himself”. Overall, in aggregate, he’s obviously one of the best in baseball. As a fan of him and the Tigers, he’s an absolute pleasure to watch every 5th day – my favorite all time. But he has a 5.57 ERA in the playoffs and seems to pitch poorest when it matters most. If he has anything left to prove as a pitcher, it’s pitching at his highest level in August-October-November. I look forward to him showing up Sunday night with 1st place on the line.

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      • detroit4lyfe says:

        + September, too. Left that out

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      • detroit4lyfe says:

        “you can’t accuse others of misquoting you.”

        Yes, I can, because I was misquoted.

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      • Nathan says:


        Do you read this site often? You are making an argument based on a small sample size ERA that looks bad. That argument doesn’t mean much around here. It would be better suited for the drunks at Scores up in Farmington or Doc’s down in Livonia.

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  2. I know a few guys who loved every second of that. At year’s beginning Detroit was the most popular and enthusiastic “under” bet (on 92 wins) that I have ever seen. (They have to finish 23-9 to push, not out of the question.)

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    • Ed says:

      True, not out of the question. But that .719 baseball! – highly unlikely. This isn’t the 1984 Tigers who went 35-5 in their first 40 games.

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    • Scraps says:

      Vegas lives off “popular and enthusiastic” bets.

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  3. Eddie says:

    Might just be that Detroit isn’t very good.

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  4. Wil says:

    So many errors in this article. I’m not one to comment on stupid crap like that, but lots of “have” that should be “gave” and you forgot to capitalize the “e” in Eric Hosmer.

    But to the substance of the article, good read. I had high hopes for the Tigers this year and this series seems to represent their season in a nutshell.

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    • Jason B says:

      “So many errors in this article. I’m not one to comment on stupid crap like that”

      …except, you know…when you just did in as douchy way as you could muster.

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  5. byron says:

    What was Detroit’s BABIP against in that series, .650? Seriously, in August, they led the league in xFIP, 2nd in FIP, and had ERA towards the middle. They lost one game in this series when Delmon Young hit a ball apparently through the foul pole (the umps made the right call). They lost a game when the umps called it with the winning runs on base. The team they’re chasing won a game when the umps waited to call it til they’d taken the lead. I claim no conspiracies or cheating, but man does it feel like random variance has not been our friend lately.

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    • byron says:

      I forgot that August wasn’t over yet when I looked up those stats, and of course none of them are true anymore. 2nd in FIP, 2nd in xFIP, top ten in ERA, still one game to play.

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  6. MikeS says:

    Considering that from 8/17 to 8/19 the White Sox were getting swept in KC by the Royals (who started Mendoza, Cy Chen and Guthrie) while the Tigers were losing two of three to the Orioles, it seems to me that the angst over missed opportunities could go both ways and probably cancels itself out.

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  7. Travis R. says:

    One item on the Melvin Young almost home run inning: while this probably would have won it for the Tigers, it was not the bottom of the 9th. It was the top. The Royals were at home. The order of who plays in the inning did not suddenly reverse.

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  8. the fume says:

    Baseball is a game of inches. The Young homer was apparently foul by inches, and the Royals got a big out in the 9th inning of both game 2 and game 3 by very nice diving catches on hard liners to CF. And 4 runs in the 2nd off Verlander on balls that all found holes, a pop-up infield single for the only run in game 2 after a hit and run weak ground ball through the vacated 2B position, and Miggy who looks clearly hurt to me striking out twice with a runner on 3rd and 1 out, something I can’t remember him doing at all before this season. That all said, the Royals (mostly) pitched and defended well and got runs when they needed, and these other breaks gave them all 3 toss-up games.

    And how unlucky must Rick Porcello feel? His last 3 starts he’s lost 3-2, 2-1, and 2-1, and the Tigers have scored exactly 0 runs the first 7 innings of each game.

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  9. ecp says:

    Sorry, Jeff, your Royals fandom is tainting your objectivity. Jeremy Guthrie is not a right-handed clone of Bruce Chen. You just think he is because they are both Royals pitchers, ergo, it must be so. Chen might get his fastball up to 90 mph on an extremely good day and averages 86. Guthrie hits 96 and averages 93. Chen throws less than 50% fastballs, throws a lot of sliders, changes arm angles, and basically junkballs you to death. Guthrie pitches primarily off his fastball. About the only thing they have in common is both are fly ball pitchers with a subsequent vulnerability to home runs.

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    • byron says:

      Oh good, even the articles I don’t catch apparently say completely false things.

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    • TheUncool says:

      Oddly, Guthrie *used* to be a groundball pitcher. Not sure what happened to his groundball tendency these days…

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  10. I Am Never Wrong says:

    As bad as the Tigers have been, just look at the amount of good fortune Chicago has needed to stay in front of the Central.

    A whopping three game advantage leads me to believe both these teams stink.

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  11. Dwight S. says:

    It’s amazing that the Tigers are in this position considering the amount of top end talent they have, I guess it just goes to show you the importance of depth and defense in baseball. They got arguably the best 1-2 punch in terms of hitting in baseball(not factoring defense or position just pure hitting), arguably the best starting pitcher, one of if not thee best 1-3 SP in baseball(Scherzer was leading all of baseball in SIERRA and Fister’s WAR has been among the leagues best the past 2+ seasons), a great back end of the bullpen and one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball. Despite all of this they’re currently not in the playoffs despite playing in a mediocre division, that’s kinda crazy imo.

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    • ThePartyBird says:

      Tigers’ back end of the bullpen isn’t really that great. The best pitchers this year have been middle relievers Dotel and Villareal. Benoit has been a gopherball machine and Valverde has been somewhere between ok and awful depending on the stat.

      But yeah, it is really all about depth. Delmon, Boesch, and Raburn (the latter was demoted a month ago or so) are all contenders for worst player of the year. The defense at the corners is pukey no matter who is being played out there (Dirks is probably at least slightly better than the stats show, but everyone else is “as advertised”).

      Still, though. Dat rotation. If the Tigers rally to make the playoffs, that front four is going to make them formidable.

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  12. Adam says:

    As a Tigers fan, it feels like over the past several years they have tended to struggle against the soft tossing pitchers who throw a lot of junk. This is obviously just anecdotal, but I’ve come to dread the games against these types of pitchers.

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    • Andrew says:

      It seems so true. I think a lot of it is being unable to judge the command of these mediocre pitchers, and being such a free-swinging team without a ton of plate discipline will get them in trouble.

      Anyone have some studies of the teams who perform the worst against crappy pitchers?

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  13. Shaun Catron says:

    Wasn’t too enamored with the Tigers this season.

    However, if Victor Martinez returns to anything near pre-injury form the Tigers could be pretty scary next season.

    Also if they get a full season of Max Scherzer without his schizo outings where his eyes are different colors and he gives up 6 runs.

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  14. Dave K says:

    “Rick Porcello was having yet another disappointing season (at least in terms of ERA)”

    Even with with the qualifier, “disappointing season” and “Rick Porcello” shouldn’t be in the same sentence. For all the stats available on this site, why would you just cherry pick ERA to make that statement? He’s top 15 in WAR and FIP in the AL. The shoddy defense behind him has resulted in a career high BABIP of .350.

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    • B N says:

      (shrug) Do we expect the defense to suddenly get a lot better? His career ERA is about 0.5 worse than his xFIP and 0.25 worse than his FIP. Exclude his first season’s improbable 75% LOB (every other season has been under 70%) and you get a picture of him having an ERA 0.5 or more worse than his FIP, consistently.

      Is it his fault? Probably not entirely. He’s a contact pitcher with a brutal defense behind him. The Tiger’s cummulative -30 UZR is unlikely to do him many favors. On the other hand, is the Tiger’s defense likely to get better suddenly? Are they unlucky? Not really. Porcello isn’t unlucky, unless you mean that he’s unlucky to be playing with a bad defense behind him.

      On the other hand, FIP is a bad measure of performance in this context. Just because he can’t change his pitching style doesn’t mean that his pitching style doesn’t suck for the team he plays for (even if it’s due to his team). His season is disappointing compared to his peripherals, plus if you’re projecting just on the peripherals, it’s time to be prepared for continued disappointment.

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    • B N says:

      Or, for the short comment, Porcello is a bad fit for the current Tigers and will put up disappointing seasons until traded, striking out more guys, or until the Tiger get better defense.

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      • Dave K says:

        I never said he was unlucky. I implied that the defense behind him is garbage based on the .350 babip. He’s a GB pitcher. His defense sucks.

        To say a pitcher is having a disappointing season, implies it is primarily the fault of the pitcher. In this case, as you and I both outlined, Detroit’s defense falls well short of spectacular which impacts Porcello’s numbers. One could argue that he’s having the best season of his short career. If I was a GM or Manager, I wouldn’t call that a disappointing season. The media and people that only look at ERA and Wins would probably think it is.

        If I author an article and I state that a pitcher is having a disappointing season, the reader will likely think that pitcher sucks and would not want him on their team. As you pointed out, Porcello would likely be more valuable on another team with even an average defense. It’s not so much Porcello that is disappointing.

        Finally, the author failed to provide a reference point to his statement (disappointing compared to what?) which further muddles the statement (and this argument for that matter).

        (shrug) Did my comment really require this much explanation?

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