Posted June 07, 2012

How the Tigers lost their bite

Dave Dombrowski, Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder

Even Justin Verlander hasn’t been able to carry the Tigers as they struggle to defend last year’s AL Central crown. (Reuters)

After running away with the AL Central flag last year with the division’s only winning record at 95-67, the Tigers entered 2012 as the consensus favorite to repeat. On paper, it appeared that nobody in the division could topple a team that was adding full seasons of Prince Fielder and Doug Fister to a foundation that included Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, and when they rolled out to a 9-3 start through April 18, the prognosticators looked pretty smart. Champions aren’t crowned in mid-April, however, and after losing on Tuesday and Wednesday to the Indians — against whom they’re now 0-5 — the Tigers have dropped six of eight to fall to 25-31, a season-worst six games below .500, and six games out of first place, matching their biggest deficit of the season. More alarmingly, since that hot start, they’re an AL-worst 16-28.

The Tigers have been outscored by 19 runs (241 to 260), a run differential equal to the 30-25 Indians, who sit in second, but 51 runs worse than the first place White Sox. They’ve been subpar on both sides of the ball, though the offense, which is scoring 4.30 runs per game (0.10 below league average), may rate as the bigger disappointment given the admittedly farfetched fantasies that they could score 1,000 runs. The team’s .263/.325/.414 slash line is above league average in all three categories, but the lion’s share of the production has come from Cabrera (.325/.375/.557) and Fielder (.318/.382/.509) while the rest of the team has hit a combined .246/.309/.378.

What’s gone wrong? Just about everything, but the primary reasons are the regression of supporting cast members who gave the offense a big boost last year, terrible defense and a starting rotation that has not displayed enough of the quality depth many thought it had when the season began.

Considering the first factor, Alex Avila (.250/.338/.429, and as of Wednesday, on the disabled list due to a hamstring injury), Jhonny Peralta (.259/.335/.402) and Brennan Boesch (.222/.254/.335) have slipped noticeably from 2011. An abdominal strain that knocked red-hot Austin Jackson (.331/.414/.544 after retooling his swing) out of the lineup three weeks ago hasn’t helped, though that’s been offset to some degree by hot performances from 27-year-old rookie Quintin Berry (.310/.375/.448), who has filled in admirably, while callup Andy Dirks (.328/.379/.515) has taken over leftfield.

Meanwhile, a couple of problem areas that general manager Dave Dombrowski neglected to shore up this past winter, namely designated hitter and second base, have come back to bite them. The Tigers’ initial plans were for Victor Martinez to fill the DH slot, but he tore his ACL in mid-January, knocking him out for the season (though a September return may be possible) and precipitating the surprise Fielder signing. When the team declared that Cabrera would shift to third base to accommodate Fielder rather than move one of his two hulking first baseman to DH, Dombrowski was left with an opening. If nothing else, he could have signed any one of a number of aging sluggers who didn’t land jobs before the end of spring training, such as Johnny Damon (who spent 2010 with the club), Vladimir Guerrero or Hideki Matsui. Instead, he retained Delmon Young, who had gone on a tear after being acquired from the Twins last August but who has yet to fulfill the potential that made him the first pick of the 2003 draft. Young’s meager .261/.301/.386 is a ringer for last year’s overall mark; at 26 years old, this is who he is, and he’s not good enough to justify everyday duty at a spot where offensive production matters.

As for second base, Dombrowski chose to mix and match with the options at hand, namely good hit/no field Ryan Raburn, good field/no hit Ramon Santiago, minor leaguer Danny Worth and displaced third baseman Brandon Inge. That motley crew has combined to hit .174/.252/.245, with Raburn so lost (.146/.209/.211 split between second base, the outfield and DH) that he was farmed out last week. Meanwhile, Inge was released in late April and caught on with the A’s, for whom he has hit five home runs — including two against the Tigers, one of them a grand slam, during a May 10-12 series.

The second base situation has affected the Tigers on the other side of the ball as well, as they’re dead last in the AL in Defensive Efficiency at .672. Nobody thought their heavyweight infield was going to be a plus, but nobody expected them to be 27 points below league average, either. The pitching staff has minimized the impact of that shortcoming by striking out a league-best 8.4 per nine, with Max Scherzer (11.2), Verlander (8.8) and rookie Drew Smyly (8.2) leading the way from the rotation, with setup men Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel both whiffing over 13 per nine out of the bullpen.

Even so, the rotation has felt the loss of Fister, now on his second DL stint for an abdominal strain after making just six starts; rookie fill-ins Andy Wilk and Casey Crosby have been torched in four starts in his absence. Scherzer is carrying a 5.55 ERA despite the high strikeout rate, because he’s been scorched for a .395 BABIP and 1.8 homers per nine, while Rick Porcello is at 4.86, his 5.4 strikeouts per nine leaving him at the mercy of the team’s defense, netting him a .327 batting average on balls in play. Meanwhile Verlander has looked human after allowing five runs in each of his last two outings, something he hadn’t done since September 2009. Where that unit’s 4.47 Fair Run Average (runs per nine, adjusted for defense and bullpen support) ranks third in the league, the bullpen’s 4.21 mark is sixth. Jose Valverde, who didn’t blow a save last year, has blown three out of 12 opportunities this year while walking 6.3 per nine; he, Dotel and Phil Coke — three of the team’s four high-leverage relievers — are all carrying ERAs well above 4.00, though lousy defensive support hasn’t helped.

The Tigers have three of the league’s biggest stars in Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder, but they can’t win the division alone. They’ll need help from their supporting cast to climb back above .500 and into the AL Central race and from their front office to finish the winter’s to-do list and shore up their trouble spots.

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