AL Central Report: What’s Wrong With Detroit?

If there was anything we could count on when the baseball season opened it’s that the Detroit Tigers were a mortal lock to win the AL Central. There might have been debate over whether they could win a pennant and a World Series—no one said they were better than the Rangers, Angels, Yankees or Phillies. But all of those teams had real-life competition in their divisions. Detroit did not. So the story went. But now we sit here with the games of June 7 about to start in the next few minutes and the Tigers are staring at a 26-31 record and are 5.5 games off the lead. It’s not that the deficit is insurmountable—heck, they could be in first by the All-Star break. But it’s that Detroit has dug themselves this hole without anyone else having to be great. What’s gone wrong?

The Tigers get a little bit of a pass for injuries. Austin Jackson had been playing excellent baseball in centerfield and solidifying the leadoff role, with a .414/.544 line for his on-base percentage/slugging percentage. He’s been out and will just start a rehab assignment this week. Andy Dirks has been out with an Achilles after posting a .379/.515 stat line in left field. He’ll be back by the middle of the month. Both players gave support to Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, the power tandem who have come as advertised. Detroit’s also got an offense that ranks 5th in the American League in on-base percentage and seventh in slugging, yet is only ninth in runs scored. Is that a sign of just some bad luck that will even out or a deeper structural flaw. I’ll say the former and again give them benefit of the doubt.

But ultimately the offense isn’t the reason the Tigers are losing games. The pitching is the problem. Now we can indict a lot of subordinates on this staff, but let’s start at the top, with a focus on the ace of the staff and the closer, each indicted for a  different reason. With closer Jose Valverde, he’s simply been mediocre. While no one could expect him to have another perfect year on save chances, Jim Leyland certainly could expect better than 10-for-13, and a closer with a 4.24 ERA is not one you can feel good about bringing into a tie game. With Justin Verlander, the indictment is different. It’s not about him—you can’t argue with a 2.67 ERA in 11 starts. But it’s not the Verlander of last year and anyone who was thinking that any pitcher could go back-to-back on seasons like the one he enjoyed in 2011 was kidding themselves. Verlander is a good solid #1 starter, but he’s not otherworldly. Because he’s performing below expectations he’s a reason the Tigers are below expectations.

Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are starting pitchers below expectations and in their case we can pin it on the pitchers themselves, not the media. Scherzer’s ERA is an appalling 5.88, while Porcello’s is a poor 4.86. Given Detroit is a pitcher’s park and the AL Central lineups they disproportionately face are less than imposing, these numbers look even worse. 21-year-old Drew Smyly got off to a nice start, but he’s going through growing pains right now, with mediocre outings his last five starts. Doug Fister started the year on the disabled list and just went back on. The #2 starter’s only gone to the post six times this year. As for the bullpen, the crew setting up Valverde is almost as troublesome as he is. Other than Duane Below, Leyland’s options are Phil Coke (4.37) and Octavio Dotel (4.42).

Some of Detroit’s problems will get better, and I would imagine this offense will be in the top six in the American League in runs scored before it’s all over—and rank higher in the park-adjusted data of statheads. Scherzer has to get better. But even that just makes Detroit an 85-88 win team. Unless the back-end pitching and bullpen improves, Detroit will not meet expectations and that means there’s no reason to expect a sudden turnaround.

Around the rest of the AL Central…

ChiSox (31-25): It’s offense that’s carrying the White Sox right now, and if that’s going to continue than young rightfielder Dayan Viciedo has got to be more patient at the plate. The rookie rightfielder has given a tremendous power surge to the lineup, hitting 12 home runs. But his respectable .265 batting average only translates into a .292 on-base percentage. I would have thought it impossible for an everyday player to only walk five times by early June, but that’s what the rookie has done and if unchanged will make him a liability during the inevitable power drought.

Cleveland (30-26): The Tribe could use a Viciedo to pump power into their attack. Cleveland has no problem putting runners aboard, ranking 3rd in the American League, but when Asdrubal Cabrera’s .468 slugging is the best power your team can offer, a lot of runners are going to be left to die. That’s what’s happening in Cleveland and given the problems with starting pitching, they offense doesn’t have runs to give away.

Kansas City (24-31): Eric Hosmer has gotten off the mat at first base, hitting .368 in the past week. Like the Tigers, the Royals have an offense that is underperforming itself in terms of taking their runners and their power and translating them into runs. If Alex Gordon could lift his .377 slugging percentage it would help alleviate some of the problem.

Minnesota (22-34): I’ve mentioned the three young starting pitchers the organization has given shots too, all of whom are pitching well, in previous reports. Now Francisco Liriano has given two straight solid starts. The Twins have won seven of their last ten. What I’d like to see now is Joe Mauer get his power stroke back—he’s churning out on-base percentage (.407) like the Mauer who won MVP, and this offense could use a little bit more muscle.