Can Jim Leyland skipper the Tigers back to the ALCS?
Tonight, the Tigers (15-14) play their 30th game in a rubber-match against the Seattle Mariners (14-18). It is safe to say the Tigers were a prohibitive favorite to win the AL Central, leading into Opening Day. It is also safe to say the Mariners weren't expected to do much in the AL West, but they aren't doing too bad given their young, unbalanced lineup and shaky starting rotation (sans Felix Hernandez).
But here we are, thirty games into the season, and both teams are separated by only a few games.
Something is keeping the Tigers from roaring. That much is clear. Here's a look at departmental grades for the Tigers' first month of the 2012 season
Ryan Raburn has struggled as the Tigers' everyday second baseman.
Leading into the 30th game of the season, the Tigers are 14th in the MLB, batting a dismal .251. The word dismal is only appropriate given their 2011 average of .277 (third overall).
In 2011 the Tigers were fourth in the MLB with 4.79 runs per game. This year they near the middle of the pack, managing 4.24.
Some of the Tigers' struggles of late have been blamed on their weak bullpen presence, but the lineup should take some of the heat. In 15 of their first 29 games, the Tigers have managed to score only three runs or less. This is inadequate, given their formidable lineup.
Again, a little perspective is in order: if one were to combine the 2011 stats of the current Tigers lineup, it would produce a projected slash-line of .283/.350/.821. Unfortunately, up to this point, the Tigers have only managed the following numbers: .251/.312/.711.
Some forgettable first-month performances include Ryan Raburn (.135), Delmon Young (.222) and Brennan Boesch (.212). Utility-man Ramon Santiago has only managed a .159 BA in 44 at bats.
Drew Smyly has quickly made a name for himself in the big leagues after to the team in April.
Justin Verlander is not slumping after his Cy Young/MVP year, as might be expected. In fact, his April has been better than most of his past Aprils. After last night's win, Verlander is 3-1 with a 2.63 ERA and 48 strikeouts in seven starts.
Doug Fister only made it through an inning in his first start of the season against the Red Sox. He left the game with an oblique strain and has taken just over a month to rehab it.
But if his return against the Mariners is any indication of where he's at, things are looking good for the Detroit staff which was forced to trot Adam Wilk out to the mound to fill Fister's spot. In his first game back, Fister threw seven innings of scoreless ball, allowing only four hits and striking out three.
Drew Smyly may be Jim Leyland's lightning in a bottle. He made the opening day rotation and has been nothing but stellar. In each of his first five starts Smyly has given up two runs or less. In the first four starts, he only gave up one run.
His cumulative totals in five starts are 1.61 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 29 strikeouts and eight walks in 28 innings pitched. The rookie has provided a boost for the Tigers rotation when they've needed it.
What would otherwise be an "A" grade is knocked to a "B" by the slow starts of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. Both of their last two starts have shown that they're back on track, but April featured some ugly outings by the third and fourth pitchers in the Detroit rotation.
An otherwise solid Octavio Dotel fell apart in his first save opportunity of the season.
Last year, Jose Valverde went 49 for 49 in save opportunities. In 72-and one-third innings, his ERA was 2.24, and his WHIP was 1.18. He walked 4.2 batters per nine innings. He was a rock. Occasionally, he contributed to Jim Leyland's grey hair by getting into jams in the ninth, but in the end he was as good as it gets for a closer.
This year, in eight save opportunities, he's already blown two, and he's walking 7.2 batters per nine innings. His ERA is a shocking 5.27 and to top it all off, he hasn't toned down his theatrics on the mound.
Valverde can't shoulder the late inning burdens all by himself; it's not fair to blame the Tigers' blown leads on squarely on him. So, let's put it in perspective:
Last year the Tigers were 77-0 when leading games in the eighth inning. This year is a different story: The Tigers have six losses when leading after the seventh. With Valverde's two blown saves, that's four games that have been dropped by other members of Detroit's bullpen.
These types of struggles are not indicative of a winning team.
Here's a category where the Tigers are a bit surprising. They're tenth in the MLB with a fielding percentage of .985, having committed 16 errors.
With all of the spring training speculation that Miguel Cabrera wouldn't be able to man the hot-corner, he has done remarkably well. In 28 games at third base, Cabrera has committed three errors. Regardless of how many errors he has committed, Cabrera has had trouble getting to balls hit between third and short, and his UZR (ultimate zone rating) is likely to be quite low by the end of the season.
Aside from Cabrera's deficiency at third base, the Tigers have below-average defenders at left field (Young), second base (Raburn), and it could be argued that Fielder is a below average first-basemen with a career UZR of -4.62.
Defensively, the Tigers have yet to show their weakness, but as the law of averages suggest, it's only a matter of time before their sub-par fielding costs them.