The Detroit Tigers' Biggest Early-Season Surprises and Disappointments

James Duncan@@jdunc79Contributor IIIApril 20, 2015

Simon pitched eight innings of two-hit ball in his second start with Detroit
Simon pitched eight innings of two-hit ball in his second start with DetroitGene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The Detroit Tigers are on a major roll right now.

Their 10-2 record ranks first in all of Major League Baseball. Detroit’s familiar position at the summit of the American League Central Division is laying the foundation for a fifth consecutive division title.  

After quickly jumping out of the gates, disappointments have been few and far between so far.

Former AL MVP Justin Verlander has yet to throw a pitch this year. His absence makes their bright start seem all the more impressive. But, the Tigers will need their former ace back on the hill quick if they hope to maintain their hold on the Central.

Surprises? There has been a few; but mostly of the pleasant kind.

Some may begin with Detroit’s record. Being eight games over .500 after only two weeks has caught many people by surprise.

So, what’s enabled such a hot start?

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First off, the pitching has been absolutely outstanding. Newcomers Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon are 5-0 combined to begin the season. There have been no bullpen botches yet, either. Fill-in closer Joakim Soria is a perfect four-for-four in saves.

The defense has also raised several notches from last year. The duel presence of Jose Iglesias and Yoenis Cespedes has made a noticeable difference to the team’s standards.

Read on for more analysis on the Tigers as the season races into week 3.

Surprise No. 1: Best starting rotation in the AL

Shane Greene
Shane GreeneRick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Subtract a former Cy Young winner and a 15-game victor from any pitching staff and things will surely go south, right? Maybe not.

Even without the departed Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello the Tigers have not missed a beat.

Through 11 games, Detroit’s rotation ranks first in the AL in wins (7), ERA (2.59) and innings (73).

Newcomers Simon and Greene—both acquired in offseason trades—have slotted in like ricotta to cannoli. And, it has not just been Miguel Cabrera et al blasting them to 10-8 victories.

As the table below shows, their unbeaten starts have been well deserved:

Detroit pitching stats
ERAAvg.WHIP
Greene0.39.1600.74
Simon2.03.1960.83
Fangraphs

Leaving this pair to one side, things have been pretty dandy for the others, too.

David Price has been, well…David Price. The veteran lefty looks like a genuine Cy Young candidate posting a 1-0, 0.40 ERA, 0.81 WHIP through three starts.

Even more encouraging for the Tigers is the fact that Verlander is still yet to lace up his cleats this year. The return of the 2011 AL Most Valuable Player will only bolster this group.

 

Surprise No. 2: Defensive Metamorphosis

Saying that Detroit was a bad defensive team a year ago is no exaggeration.

In terms of errors committed (101), they were about middle of the pack. However, it was the metrics that exposed them.

The Tigers ranked third-bottom in the AL in both defensive runs saved and plays made out of zone according to FanGraphs.

As for this year…

Yep, it's really them.

What a remarkable turnaround after only a couple of changes. The porous left side of the infield twelve months ago now seems watertight with Iglesias’ return.

Price sure seems impressed with the Tiger’s shortstop per Shawn Windsor of Detroit Free Press: “Wow. He's the best shortstop I've ever played with, and probably ever seen. It's crazy. He's so smooth. He's a thrill to watch."

The presence of Cespedes has also been palpable. He robbed Twins’ catcher Kurt Suzuki of a home run on Opening day, and his cannon arm looms as a constant threat to any baserunner who dares stretch a hit into extra bases.

Just how much of a difference has this pair made? Again, I go back to the metrics. After two weeks of play, Detroit ranks second in the league with 13 defensive runs saved. For those not inclined to sabermetrics, Detroit’s three errors rank equal-fewest in the AL.

Whichever way you look at it, this is a much-improved defensive unit.

Disappointment: Justin Verlander remains on the Disabled List

The earth seemed to spin off its axis this Opening Day.

Despite frequent changes being the norm these days, Detroit could seemingly always rely on Verlander throwing out the season’s first pitch.

From 2008 to 2014 it was always No. 35 toeing the rubber on Day 1 for the Tigers. So far in 2015 they have gotten nought.

Verlander began the season on the DL—the first time in his career— and is still yet to be activated.

He is no longer the team’s ace; that tag now belongs to Price. But, make no mistake; Detroit needs Verlander back and firing as soon as possible.

Verlander has produced some of his best pitching in the postseason
Verlander has produced some of his best pitching in the postseasonCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

The 32-year-old is still one of the premier pitchers in the game. His 152 career victories rank sixth among active players and he also possesses a wealth of postseason experience.

Verlander’s presence will be vital for the Tigers if they wish to diffuse the threat from Kansas City (9-3) and others in the division this season.

Alltats in this article are courtesy of FanGraphs and mlb.com

Hit me up on Twitter: @jdunc1979