3 Ways the Detroit Tigers Have Already Improved This Season

James Duncan@@jdunc79Contributor IIIMay 12, 2015

3 Ways the Detroit Tigers Have Already Improved This Season

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    Rajai Davis is sixth in the American League with eight steals
    Rajai Davis is sixth in the American League with eight stealsRick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Five weeks into the 2015 MLB season, the Detroit Tigers (19-13) are looking up at the Kansas City Royals (20-12) in the American League Central Division standings.

    A one-game deficit in no way constitutes “languishing,” but the Tigers are a team accustomed to being front-runners. Winning four straight division titles is testament to that.

    Despite currently playing chaser, their .594 winning percentage is nothing to be sneezed at. In fact, if you extrapolate this figure over a full season, the Tigers are on pace for 96 wins—six more than 2014. Ergo, you can make a good argument for progress in the early going.

    There have been some noticeable causes. With a stronger bench, manager Brad Ausmus has been able to tinker with his lineup and manipulate matchups to the team’s favor. Defensively, the team is also night-and-day compared to last year. Meanwhile, the bullpen is still a major concern (sigh), but one pitcher is shining brightly in a murky sea of mediocrity.

    Click “next” for extended analysis on what’s getting the thumbs-up right now in Motown.

Games Are Being Closed Out

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    Soria has had a smooth transition to Tigers closer
    Soria has had a smooth transition to Tigers closerDuane Burleson/Getty Images

    Few leads felt safe last year for the Tigers. Former closer Joe Nathan (4.81 ERA, seven blown saves) got the yips far too often for comfort.

    The ninth inning has been a lock so far in 2015. Joakim Soria’s perfect conversion rate (11-for-11 in saves) is making any Detroit lead an eight-inning game.

    The 30-year-old veteran’s numbers are outstanding: 2-0, 1.20 ERA, 15 IP, 0.60 WHIP (16 games). His dismal stint with the Tigers last summer now seems a distant memory.

    Soria has completely turned the corner, according to Ausmus, per Chris McCosky of The Detroit News: "He looks really good on the mound now…He's got the action back on his fastball and he's all downhill attacking hitters. He seems very confident and I think as a result, the players behind him are confident."

    The problem now for the Tigers is navigating the way to their stopper. Soria projected to be the primary setup man before Nathan wound up on the shelf, and the void still remains. Keep your ears pricked; the trade rumor mill should begin rumbling soon.

The Squad Is Deeper

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    James McCann celebrates after hitting his first career home run
    James McCann celebrates after hitting his first career home runBrad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

    Two positional platoons have strengthened the Tigers this year, especially offensively.

    The righty-lefty combinations of Rajai Davis and Anthony Gose (center field), and James McCann and Alex Avila (catcher), have created favorable matchups versus opposition starting pitchers. Their splits tell the story:

     

    v. Lefties

    v. Righties

    Rajai Davis

    .310

    .235

    James McCann

    .316

    .273

    Anthony Gose

    .200

    .343

    Alex Avila

    .067

    .244

    Also, keeping Davis (eight steals) or Gose (six) on the bench each day provides Detroit with a prepacked and ready-for-order speed threat in a pinch.

    Theoretically, these platoons were meant to keep the players fresh as well. However, Avila will be absent until possibly midseason after recently suffering a knee injury. McCann will have to shoulder the load in the interim.

    Andrew Romine has also made solid contributions off the bench. He has subbed Jose Iglesias at shortstop on occasion and been a solid defensive replacement for Nick Castellanos at third base. He has waved a hot stick, too—.360 average (25 at-bats).

The Defense

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    Jose Iglesias is a Gold Glove candidate at the shortstop position
    Jose Iglesias is a Gold Glove candidate at the shortstop positionRick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Flashing leather has never been a signature of Tigers teams during their contending years. This 2015 unit, however, is proving to be a different kettle of fish.

    Solid defense begins with a strong backbone. Center fielder Davis believes Detroit now possesses one, per Anthony Fenech of Detroit Free Press: "I think we're a lot stronger, especially up the middle, and that's key."

    Shortstop Iglesias seems to be making the biggest difference there. His brilliant play recently caught the eye of legendary Tigers infielder Lou Whitaker. He told Jared Purcell of MLive: "Their shortstop (Iglesias), he's always going to do something dazzling. ... He's steady. He's just good, period. You can see it and he knows it too. The boy can do anything with a glove. That's what it's all about, that glove."

    Last year, without the services of an injured Iglesias, the Tigers were third from the bottom in the majors with -65 defensive runs saved (DRS), according to FanGraphs.

    What a difference a year makes. Detroit has risen 24 places to fourth with 13 DRS. Their standards compared with last year, according to Davis: "It's like night and day."

    Stats in this article are courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs

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