MLB: Dissecting the Detroit Tigers' Early-Season Slump

Vince WlochContributor IIMay 9, 2012

SEATTLE, WA - MAY 08:  Miguel Cabrera #24 and Prince Fielder #28 of the Detroit Tigers exchange words with home plate umpire Brian Knight after he ejected manager Jim Leyland during the game against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on May 8, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Tigers started this season with a bang, winning nine of their first 12 games. Miguel Cabrera was an animal, hitting at a torrid pace. Prince Fielder was chipping in with a couple of home runs, and everything was fantastic as the Tigers tore through two supposed AL East contenders in the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Fast forward to today. The Tigers are 15-14, and finally got their first win over the Seattle Mariners yesterday. No, that is not a misprint. The lowly Mariners have dominated the mighty Tigers this season. What happened?

Let's start with the obvious. Perhaps the excitement over the sweep of Boston and the series victory over the Rays was a bit premature. The Red Sox have since proven this season that they were pretenders. Sporting a record of 12-17, the Sox are the worst team in the division behind the surprising Orioles and the Blue Jays. The Rays are tied with Baltimore for the division lead, which makes that a nice win. But this seems to be a favorable matchup for Detroit, since the Tigers have owned the Rays over the past season and a half.

Moving along, Doug Fister left his first start with a strained left side, and only yesterday returned to action, where he was spectacular. This injury left the Tigers with only one reliable starter: Justin Verlander. Sure, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are both wildly inconsistent, Fister's replacement, Adam Wilk, had a rough go of it, and while Drew Smyly's start has been impressive, it simply won't last. The Tigers weren't exactly operating at full strength in terms of pitching.

Even with Fister's injury, the Tigers could have gutted out a few victories, but the bullpen has been atrocious. Jose Valverde has yet to hit his groove, and the Tigers lack a reliable closer outside of him. Daniel Schlereth might be the most hittable reliever in the league, and Octavio Dotel is pitching on borrowed time as evidenced by his absolute meltdown in the ninth inning in Seattle on Monday. The youngsters who have been forced into action in the starting ranks haven't helped the bullpen. Both Smyly and Wilk were under very strict pitch limits, which put some added strain on the pen. They can't be blamed for the slump completely, but they certainly haven't helped the situation.

Finally, the Tigers just aren't hitting all that well. I should rephrase that. They are hitting, but not when it counts. Prince Fielder is batting over .300, but only has 14 RBIs. Miguel Cabrera is currently in the midst of an 0-9 slump, and has cooled off significantly since his hot start. Jhonny Peralta has one measly home run and only nine RBIs. This would be forgivable except for the fact that he is hitting .258, a stunning drop from his .299 season last year. Brennan Boesch can't lay off of the breaking balls low and inside, and is currently hitting .212, and Alex Avila, winner of last year's Silver Slugger Award, is hitting .250 with nine RBIs. Just about the only hitters who aren't in a funk are Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks.

When an entire team is slumping the way the Tigers are at the plate, it puts an enormous amount of pressure on any pitching staff, let alone the Tigers' depleted version. Couple that with the idea that the Tigers' early-season victories weren't actually that impressive, and you have the recipe for going from 9-3 to 15-14.