The Detroit Tigers are supposed to be one of the best teams in baseball. With Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder anchoring the offense and a starting rotation that is the envy of everyone else in the game, this is a team that was built to crush the American League Central and play deep into October. However, they enter play on Friday at 50-41, just 2 1/2 games ahead of the Indians, and have been beaten in far too many games they should have won.
Part of that is their defense, as they’ve exchanged range at first and third base to maximize offense, and their pitchers pay the price for that trade-off. However, even accounting for the runs that their fielders give away, the Tigers have played better than a 50-41 team would indicate. At 5.1 runs scored per game and 4.2 runs allowed per game, the Tigers run differential suggests that they “should be” 54-37, which would give them the second best record in the AL and a comfortable lead in their division.
So, why are the Tigers winning fewer games than their runs scored and allowed would suggest? Put simply, they’ve been absolutely terrible in clutch situations.
On FanGraphs, we have a Clutch score for every team (and player), which is calculated by measuring the difference in a player’s performance based on the score, inning, and base/out situation for each play. Essentially, this statistic tells us who has performed better or worse with the game on the line than they have in less critical situations.
By this metric, the Tigers have been the worst team in the league, coming in at -4.8 wins; only the Cubs (at -4.4 wins) are also below -4.0, and likewise, they have also dramatically underperformed their expected record based on runs scored and runs allowed. You might think this is just the natural result of not acquiring a better closer over the off-season, but in reality, it’s their starting pitchers that have been the big culprit here; Anibal Sanchez (-1.35 clutch wins), Doug Fister (-1.11 clutch wins), and Rick Porcello (-0.81 clutch wins) account for a vast majority of the team’s rating.
Now, because this metric isn’t separating out credit for pitching from defense, the problem could very well be the poor defenders behind those pitchers, but the point is that the Tigers poor clutch performances have happened with their starters, not their relievers, on the mound. For all the talk about the Tigers bullpen problems, Joaquin Benoit has actually been excellent in relief, and has the highest clutch score of any Tigers pitcher, so he’s been even better than his overall numbers would indicate when the game is on the line.
I’m sure the Tigers would much rather not be singled out as the least clutch team in baseball so far, but I have good news that should give them confidence in their abilities down the stretch: clutch performance in the first half has no predictive value whatsoever.
Every year, there are teams that perform just as poorly in important situations in the first half as the Tigers have this year, and often more than one. Over the last three years, here are the teams that have posted clutch scores of -4.5 or worse in the first half of the season, and then for reference, their clutch performance in the second half of the season.
Year, Team, 1st Half Clutch, 2nd Half Clutch
2011, Astros, -5.5, -0.7
2011, Dodgers, -5.3, +1.2
2012, Phillies, -5.2, +4.3
2010, D’Backs, -4.7, -0.1
2012, Red Sox, -4.5, -1.9
From 2010 to 2012, these five teams combined for a clutch score of -29.2 in the first half, but then went on to post a collective +2.8 clutch score in the second half. Their first half performance in high leverage situations did nothing to tell us what they would do in similar situations in the second half.
And it’s not just the underperforming teams where clutch rating shows wide variance. I took the first half and second half clutch ratings for all 30 teams from each of the last three years, and in each season, there was no correlation to be found. A 1.0 correlation is found when we look at two items with an absolutely perfect relationship to each other, while a correlation of 0.0 would occur when we looked at the relationship between two items that have nothing to do with each other.
From 2010 to 2012, the correlation between a team’s first and second half clutch scores were, in order, -0.01, -0.04, and +0.04. In other words, first half team clutch score had about as much relationship with second half team clutch score as we would find from looking at the rate of ice cream consumption in Wisconsin and the length of an average commute in Istanbul. There’s just no evidence that a team who performs poorly in high leverage situations in the first half will continue to do so in the second half.
The numbers that are predictive, and correlate well from first half to second half, are the core numbers that the Tigers are excelling in, and the ones that rate them among the very best teams in baseball. Those performances are far more likely to carry over, and with a more even distribution of their play across critical situations, the Tigers should be expected to post a better record second half record even if they don’t make any huge upgrades at the trade deadline.
And if they do end up landing a couple more quality players for the stretch drive? Well, then Cleveland and Kansas City better pray for a miracle, but despite the Tigers mediocre record so far, Detroit is going to be very difficult to catch.
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