MLB Handicapping: What to Make of the Detroit Tigers?
by Alan Matthews - 6/7/2012
Do the books know something that you and I don’t?
Entering Thursday’s Major League Baseball action, the Detroit Tigers are 25-31 (first time six-games under .500 since the end of the 2008 season) after starting 9-3 and they are now six games out of first place in the American League Central, meaning they are closer to last-place Minnesota -- with Kansas City just a half-game behind Detroit -- than the division-leading Chicago White Sox.
Yet the books refuse to drop Detroit as the AL Central favorite. Bovada, for example, still has Detroit at -110 to win the division. The White Sox are +160.
So what has been the problem in Motown thus far? Well, even with the addition of Prince Fielder to form the best 1-2 hitting punch in baseball with Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers are just ninth in the American League in runs and 10th in homers.
The pitching hasn’t been much better. Justin Verlander has been very mortal this season and the Tigers rank 11th in team ERA and are tied for last in the AL in shutouts with two. Closer Jose Valverde, after going 49-for-49 in save opportunities last year, has three blown saves this season and an ERA of 4.43. His fastball is down to 93.6 mph, which is the third straight season it has been in decline. Batters are making contact on 80.1 percent of Valverde's pitches, which is a career-worst, and swinging and missing just 8.4 percent of the time, also a career-low. He also has a career-worst 6.3 walks-per-nine-innings rate this season.
But ESPN’s Buster Olney came up with the main reason why Detroit is struggling: defense.
The Tigers knew their defense would suffer in moving Cabrera to third base to make room for Fielder. But Detroit is weak every on defense almost everywhere other than at center field with Austin Jackson, and he hasn’t played since May 16 with an abdominal strain.
According to Olney and FanGraphs, Cabrera ranks last among third basemen in defensive metrics. Fielder ranks second-to-last among first basemen. Outfielder Brennan Boesch ranks third-from-last among outfielders. The Tigers’ group of second basemen combined ranks last in baseball. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta ranks among the bottom half of all players at his position. So do outfielders Delmon Young and Andy Dirks.
Bats and pitchers can get hot, but defense rarely sees a spike in improvement. There is some good news in that Jackson will begin a rehab assignment at Triple-A Toledo on Thursday and could be back in the majors by the end of the weekend. Jackson not only is a plus-outfielder, he was batting .331 with 10 doubles, five home runs and 17 RBI in 36 games.
But for every step forward, it seems the Tigers take one back. Catcher Alex Avila, among the best in baseball at his position, went on the 15-day DL on Wednesday with a hamstring injury. He joins Jackson, starting left fielder Dirks, No. 2 pitcher Doug Fister and relievers Al Albuquerque and Daniel Schlereth on the DL.
The books continue to make the Tigers pretty sizable favorites at home and any time Verlander pitches. He goes again Saturday at Cincinnati, but Verlander has lost three straight as a favorite of -170, -149 and -160. Against good teams, however, the Tigers are starting to become home dogs. They were in two of three in the last series with the Yankees; the one game they weren’t was Verlander’s start. And in a recent four-game series in Boston, Detroit was a solid dog in every game but Verlander’s.
On the bright side, Detroit might be able to beat up on the National League for a few weeks starting Friday in Cincinnati. Yes, the Tigers will be dogs in two of three games there: +130 on Friday; they won’t be Saturday with Verlander on the mound, but you might see him as low as a -140 favorite with his recent struggles. But then Detroit gets three at the lousy Cubs, three at home against a pretty bad Rockies team, three at home against a Cardinals team that is 9-17 (entering Thursday) since starting 20-11, and three at Pittsburgh, which, while improved, is still Pittsburgh.
In fact, other than that Reds series and three at Texas and four games at Tampa Bay at the end of this month, when Avila and Fister should be back, the Tigers are playing all patsies before the all-star break. By then we should know whether this team is a contender– down to 15/1 to win the World Series – or pretender.
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