Anybody else remember that 2003 season when the Detroit Tigers went an atrocious 43-116? Seems like a distant memory now.
Fresh off Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown and a trip to the World Series in 2012, this 2013 iteration of the Tigers is the best team in Major League Baseball. For those who say "What about the Cardinals, the Braves, the Rangers?", I say read on. You might just think twice about this team from the Motor City.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise noted, come from espn.com/mlb/statistics.
It’s hard to under-appreciate Miguel Cabrera, but he’s not getting the praise he deserves this year. While the names in the news are Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Yasiel Puig, the 2012 MVP has been chugging along at an astounding pace.
To go along with his ridiculous .363 batting average, Cabrera has hit 18 home runs and collected 69 RBIs. And for those who crave more advanced statistics, his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is 3.8, which is good for third in the majors.
But enough about one player, the Tigers offense as a whole is tearing the cover off the ball. They rank in the top five in the majors in runs, hits, total bases, batting average, RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. That’s almost every relevant offensive statistic.
Still a bit skeptical? The Tigers aren’t doing this with smoke and mirrors. Prince Fielder has 18 homers and 51 RBIs to his name, while Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante and Torii Hunter are all hitting at least .300.
Don’t forget about Austin Jackson, who has been out almost four weeks with a strained hamstring. He’s a huge part of the offense as a dynamic leadoff man who was having a great year before getting hurt.
Bottom line, the Tigers are scoring 5.1 runs per game at the moment and show no signs of slowing down.
Let’s start with some simple numbers. Max Scherzer is 9-0 with 106 strikeouts. Justin Verlander has 8 wins and 98 Ks. Anibal Sanchez is the staff’s low man with a 2.65 ERA, but he still has 98 punch-outs. Doug Fister leads the staff in quality starts with 10, which is good for top 10 in baseball. That’s a ridiculous first four.
Even No. 5 Rick Porcello has been pitching, well, unlike Rick Porcello. In his last five starts, he has a 2.93 ERA in addition to 33 strikeouts in 30.2 innings pitched.
Essentially, this staff is dominant, and FanGraphs shows just how dominant. The starters are second in wins and first in K/9, they allow the second fewest home runs and walks per nine and have only lost 16 games all year.
And for all the sabermetricians out there, their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is third highest in the league, an unlucky trend that should right itself over time. They also lead the majors in WAR at 12.9, a whole 3.3 wins more than the second place Cardinals.
Finally, even though the starters’ 3.46 ERA is good for fourth in the majors, they should be even better. According to FanGraphs, fielding independent pitching (FIP) is a statistic that "measures what a player’s ERA should have looked like over a given time period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average."
FIP attempts to measure only what a pitcher can control, thus ruling out luck and any fielding problems a team might have. And the Tigers starters’ FIP? 2.58, or .25 lower than any other team in the majors.
Best staff in baseball, hands down.
A question mark heading into this season, the pen has been sneakily solid for Detroit. It has performed above original projections, as this was supposed to be a weak spot for the Tigers.
Re-signing Jose Valverde after the season started proved to be a prudent move even though he seems incapable of anything but nail-biting saves. He’s been there before and has gone 9/11 in save opportunities so far in this young season.
But it’s not just Valverde—the entire pen has had its act together. As a unit, it is second in the majors in K/9, have a respectable 3.78 ERA and allow only .83 HR/9. Not spectacular, but not the dead zone many feared.
Additionally, they’re also getting a tad unlucky. Just like the starters, the bullpen’s FIP on FanGraphs is lower than its ERA. And that FIP is fifth lowest in the majors.
The bullpen may not be as spectacular as the offense or the starting pitching, but it can hold its own. Don’t expect this unit to hold the team back.
Now what is holding the Tigers back? Why aren’t they running roughshod over baseball? It’s that pesky old defense thing.
There aren’t perfect statistics for fielding (that’ll come later). But it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to look at the Tigers lineup and figure out why they aren’t defensive maestros.
Cabrera’s third-base skills leave a lot to be desired; and though his arm strength makes up for subpar footwork, he still can only be optimistically described as an average fielder. He’s made strides in Detroit in the field, but this is the same guy who took a grounder to the face in spring training just one short year ago.
Here's the video. Viewer discretion advised, as it looks painful. The hit to the face and the fielding.
Prince Fielder isn’t the nimblest, but isn’t awful for a 275-pounder. Jhonny Peralta was nominated for a Gold Glove in 2011 and stood a good chance of winning, but he and double-play partner Omar Infante are 31 years old and not getting younger. Torii Hunter was once a defensive whiz, but he turns 38 years old in July.
Now for some numbers, and thanks again to FanGraphs for their advanced stats in this arena.
Defensive runs saved (DRS) measures a player’s effectiveness in fielding when compared to an average of zero runs saved. So positive is good, negative is bad. And Detroit’s team DRS is -19, sixth worst. Ouch.
Ultimate zone rating (UZR) is similar to DRS in that it measures how many runs a player saved or gave up thanks to their fielding. And it tells a very similar story to DRS. Detroit’s UZR is -5, good for 22nd in baseball. Double ouch.
Basically, there’s a reason both the relievers and starters have a lower FIP than ERA: The defense has some holes and the pitchers pay the price.
The Tigers have arguably the best combination of lineup and rotation, and their pen is secretly solid. On the other hand, the defense is bad—there’s no way around that.
But with a blistering offense and a stellar staff, they’re more than good enough to make up for a poor defense. And as poor as that defense is, there are bright spots.
Austin Jackson can cover ground in center, Infante and Peralta still have decent UZRs and Andy Dirks has a great UZR.
The Tigers went to the World Series in 2012 on the backs of their rotation and lineup, and both show no signs of slowing down. Just don’t say you weren’t warned when they’re playing deep into October again this fall.