What’s Eating the Tigers?

A few weeks ago, it all looked so simple. The Tigers were steamrolling foes, and the rest of the division members languished. Detroit held a seven-game lead in the American League Central, and in fact had the best record in baseball. Fast forward three weeks and they have been the worst team in the AL since, with only the Colorado Rockies performing worse in the National League. It’s been an unexpected turn of events for sure, and it has flattened the AL Central standings. The Tigers still stand as the overwhelming favorite to win the division, but there is definitely more doubt now than there was in mid-May.

So, how did this all happen? Let’s break it down.

Torii Hunter‘s defense: It’s been a couple of years since the Tigers were even a neutral defensive team. The hope was this season that with the team adding Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos to the everyday lineup and moving Miguel Cabrera back to first base that the team’s defensive performance would improve. So, far it hasn’t. Here are the team’s UZR/150 marks:

  • 2012: -4.9, 27th of 30
  • 2013: -3.1, 21st of 30
  • 2014: -7.7, 26th of 30

Small sample caveats apply, but so far things have been worse than ever. On a player level though, things focus on a single player — Hunter. Both his UZR and UZR/150 are the worst in the Majors among qualified players, and only Yunel Escobar has a worse DRS. Once upon a time, the man affectionately called Spider-Man was a pretty good fielder, and has eight Gold Gloves to his credit. But even in his best days, his defensive impact was likely overstated, and now it is pretty bad. His range simply isn’t what it once was, even in the corner. And yet, Hunter has been treated like an All-Star by his new manager, Brad Ausmus.

In his game logs, we can see that he has been removed from seven games that he started this season, but in six of them the Tigers had at least a five-run lead and in the seventh he came out for a knee injury he suffered during the game. In other words, the Tigers don’t see his defense as an issue. It is, and it is most likely costing the team games. To add insult to injury, he isn’t hitting much lately either — over the last 14 days, his 12 wRC+ is the worst on the team. Don Kelly is rarely the solution to problems, but in this case, he needs to play a little more, be it in full games or caddying for Hunter after the seventh inning.

Justin Verlander. Somehow, the team’s best pitcher has been its worst. Even in the early going, when he was good, he wasn’t that good. Let’s break his season into two fairly distinct blocks.

  • March 31 – May 9: 8 GS, 54.0 IP, 43 K, 21 BB, 1 HR, 2.67 ERA / 2.88 FIP / 4.27 xFIP, 93.1 MPH fastball
  • May 14 – June 5: 5 GS, 32.0 IP, 18 K, 14 BB, 5 HR, 6.75 ERA / 5.38 FIP / 5.48 xFIP, 93.5 MPH fastball

Well, at least velocity isn’t the problem. Essentially, the problem is that Verlander is working out of the zone more frequently, but batters are swinging at said out of the zone pitches less frequently. He’s throwing fewer fastballs and more curveballs, and with good reason. According to Brooks Baseball, his whiff percentage on four-seamers is just 6.62% this year, down from 10.29% in 2013 and 10.13% in 2012. The same is true of his slider, as batters have been swinging at it and missing at lower percentages than they have in the past. In short, Verlander is not fooling people right now.

Joe Nathan and Phil Coke. Who could have seen this coming? Well, OK, Coke was pretty foreseeable. He really wasn’t any good last season. And perhaps another velocity drop from Nathan should have been easy to forecast, but then, he had an even bigger velocity drop last season, and was just as lights out as ever then. But perhaps he has simply passed the velocity point of no return. He is getting strike one easily enough, but at his reduced velocity, batters are swinging less and making more contact, and that is a recipe for exactly what he has been — a disaster. It may be Joba Chamberlain or Al Alburquerque time very shortly if this continues.

Things are not localized to just these four players. Neither Austin Jackson nor Alex Avila have hit well lately, and both Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello have been cuffed around on the mound. But if there is a real concern, it’s that this run of bad play has been really bad. Two of the first three losses in this string were walk-off losses, and there was another walk-off loss and one other run loss mixed in, but in the other nine games the team has simply had its hat handed to them. They have lost those other nine games by four, seven, 10, eight, 10, four, two, six and four runs. Overall, since May 19, they have been outscored by 50 runs, and they have somewhat cancelled out the four walk-off/one-run losses with two one-run wins of their own.

This isn’t to say that the Tigers are suddenly a bad team. Far from it. They still have Cabrera, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, and Victor Martinez has been hitting everything. But with Scherzer and Martinez (and Hunter) set for free agency at season’s end, there may be suddenly be some pressure on a team with an already-poor farm system to make a big splash at the trade deadline in order to finally get that elusive title for their owner, and that is certainly not the position that most thought the Tigers would find themselves in this season.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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Bruce
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Bruce
2 years 3 months ago

I’m sure the Phillies would be open to trading Revere and Papelbon

Wobatus
Guest
Wobatus
2 years 3 months ago

Small sample, but even Scherzer’s xFIP over the last 30 days is 4.66. he hasn’t been quite right either recently.

everdiso
Member
everdiso
2 years 3 months ago

Meh, they just ran into the canadan buzzsaw. They’ll be fine and sweep the red sox this weekend.

Nope.
Guest
Nope.
2 years 3 months ago

And what were the other losses over the past two and half weeks?

Prince Fielder
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Prince Fielder
2 years 3 months ago

Me

Johnny
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Johnny
2 years 3 months ago

Can you imagine if Tigers didn’t dump Fielder on the Rangers. That trade was huge for them. They have issues now but they are fortunate to be in a terrible division. They’ll win 90 and win the division.

cameron0960
Guest
2 years 3 months ago

Agreed. There’s really no competition for them. They will win the division and as per yuje.

Dan
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Dan
2 years 3 months ago

I’ll take the under on them going 57-46 from here on out.

ALEastbound
Guest
2 years 3 months ago

The bully of the bird world. The Blue Jay.

pft
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pft
2 years 3 months ago

They should have signed Drew.

FeslenR
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FeslenR
2 years 3 months ago

their offense is missing the big eater, Prince Fielder.

Well-Beered Englishman
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Well-Beered Englishman
2 years 3 months ago

So is the Rangers’ offense

Spa City
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Member
Spa City
2 years 3 months ago

I am not sure how adding Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos could improve a team’s defensive performance.

Dan Greer
Member
Dan Greer
2 years 3 months ago

Kinsler’s been a solid defender. Castellanos should be a slight improvement over Miggy at 3B, who is actually fine at 1B (and much better than Prince was). It’s easy to see how one might have expected some defensive improvement from the Tigers. Hunter is killing them, and so is not having Iglesias at SS.

Ruki Motomiya
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Ruki Motomiya
2 years 3 months ago

The problem with this assumption is that according to positional adjustments, though thay is changing this year (Miggy actually has been a plus defender once you remove the negative he gets for playing 1B, so basically he’s been a plus defender).

John C
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John C
2 years 3 months ago

Fixing Verlander is easy. Mike Ilitch needs to hire Kate Upton for a modeling job in Outer Mongolia that will last until Halloween. Pay whatever it takes.

The Party Bird
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The Party Bird
2 years 3 months ago

Seems like there’s a pretty fair chance that Verlander is still recovering his mechanics from the late-offseason core repair surgery he had. It’s pretty frustrating to see an ace pitcher struggle with mechanics for large parts of two seasons in a row, but when he’s right again, he’ll likely be the same dominant cat as ever.

As the writer mentioned, at least it’s not velocity.

AthleteInvictus
Member
AthleteInvictus
2 years 3 months ago

I’m not sure he’ll be returning to form. After watching so many games he just isn’t the same and I don’t think it’s mechanics. His stuff just isn’t the same anymore.

a eskpert
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a eskpert
2 years 3 months ago

I think he can be uberdominant again, but I think he’ll have to follow the same route as Price and Sabathia, and become a strike thrower in order to have success.

DNA+
Guest
DNA+
2 years 3 months ago

Do people that watch them play regularly think that Yunel Escobar and Torii Hunter are the worst defensive players in baseball?

DNA+
Guest
DNA+
2 years 3 months ago

To be more precise, I mean currently performing as the worst.

Stringer Bell
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Stringer Bell
2 years 3 months ago

Torii is, yes.

King Buzzo
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King Buzzo
2 years 3 months ago

Considering how much of a flake Escobar is, I find it really easy to believe

Big Daddy V
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Big Daddy V
2 years 3 months ago

I’ve never seen a guy straight-up drop as many fly balls as Hunter this season. Granted, that’s like 2 balls, but still. Add in the old legs and bad routes, and it’s just sad to watch.

vonstott
Member
vonstott
2 years 3 months ago

I am a regular viewer of the Tigers, and Torii Hunter on defense is an absolute stumble-bum. Huge decline even just compared to last year. Routes, speed, arm, the whole deal.

Elmo
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Elmo
2 years 3 months ago

Hopefully the Tigers don’t have a collapse similar to 2009.

gnomez
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gnomez
2 years 3 months ago

That was painful to watch.

Chance the Rapper's Other Job
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Chance the Rapper's Other Job
2 years 3 months ago

They had a really nice run where they overperformed, then they underpformed for a bit. They’re still a 90-93 win team in a bad division. The Red Sox seem to be the tonic they needed.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 3 months ago

Nope. 90 maybe, but I don’t think that’s even money either. For them to win 93 games they have to go 60-43. They’re very unlikely to play that well from here on out. People keep saying that it’s a weak division, and I agree that it isn’t great, but none of the teams are pushovers this year.

87 wins!

DD
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DD
2 years 3 months ago

Check verlander’s velocity over the last three years and then say it isn’t at least partly due to velocity.

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman
2 years 3 months ago

Why shouldn’t the AL Central be up for grabs? Stuff could still happen. Hang on and don’t take anything for granted.

JS
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JS
2 years 3 months ago

The Tigers are extremely overrated and over-hyped. I agree they are the favorites but any team in the division could get hot and make a run for it, it would not surprise me to see the Tigers losing the division this year, they are just a slightly better mediocre team than the rest of the mediocre teams in their division.

Mr baseball
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Mr baseball
2 years 3 months ago

Bad stretch. They aren’t a 6 month great +100 win team…but they are a good 4 month, 90 win team

Unblocked
Guest
Unblocked
2 years 3 months ago

If they squeak into the playoffs and get matched up with the A’s again it will be interesting to see how that series plays out. Seems like the Tigers might be inside the A’s heads a little bit..

sean
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sean
2 years 2 months ago

All teams go through bad periods. What`s your point? And, as of today the tigers are 6.5 games in first place.

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