Sunday, September 23, 2007

AL Central Wrap: Tigers

The Tigers may have defeated the Royals today and taken the season series 11-7, but it's scant consolation for a team that entered the season with World Series hopes. Thus is the price of success: expectation, heavy and merciless.

The dream's over, Tigers fans. According to Baseball Prospectus, if you played out the rest of the season 500 times, the Tigers would win the Wild Card once. It's been a shocking about-face: On July 20, if you played the season 500 times, the Tigers would have made the postseason 465 times. "Each event is revealed to us only at the surrender of every alternate course," Cormac McCarthy wrote, and so it is for the Tigers, whose destiny converges at this place and soon the hour at the surrender of those 465 happier outcomes.
Team            ---- High Water ----  ----- Today ----
Tigers 92.9% July 20 0.2% -92.7%
Dodgers 75.7% July 24 0.00018% -75.7%
Brewers 82.2% July 18 12.1% -70.1%
Mariners 53.4% August 25 0.4% -53.0%
Braves 48.6% August 16 0.3% -48.3%
The Tigers wrap is written by Brendon Desrochers -- or Cranston, after his hometown -- who is 25, an Aquarius, engaged, and knows more sports than you. He's currently an editorial producer for Sports on Earth at Major League Baseball Advanced Media, writes a college basketball blog for Sports New York and is the lead producer at -- which means he's about three times more employed than anyone here at IDWT.


By Brendon Desrochers

It hardly seemed possible. Surely if the Tigers failed to duplicate their success of 2006, it wouldn’t be because of the starting pitching. This was the deepest part of their team when they left Lakeland, Fla., in April for the Michigan chill, warmed by the hopes of another run at the World Series. With Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, Nate Robertson, Zach Miner, Mike Maroth and Andrew Miller, there appeared to be an abundance of riches for Jim Leyland.

The 2006 American League champion Detroit Tigers were built around starting pitching and defense and were buoyed by the end-of-bullpen combination of Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya and Todd Jones. The same core returned for 2007, but with different results.

The defense merely regressed a bit to the mean, but it’s the starting pitching that has fallen from the top of the AL to the bottom third. Here’s a look at the four aspects of a baseball team using Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing statistics:

Starting pitching: Detroit is 11th in the AL in SNLVAR (1st in 2006).
Relief pitching: Detroit is 10th in the AL in WXRL (5th in 2006).
Defense: Detroit is 4th in the AL in defensive efficiency (1st in 2006).
Offense: Detroit is 2nd in the AL in EqA (10th in 2006).

The first reason for the decline is injury. Last season, four pitchers -- Bonderman, Rogers, Robertson and Verlander -- made 129 of the 162 starts for Detroit. This year, those same four have combined to start just 97 games, with six left to play. Instead of squeezing just 33 starts out of some combination of Miner, Maroth, Wil Ledezma and Roman Colon like they did in 2006, the Tigers have had to coax 59 starts out of pitchers ranging from the young and famous (Miller) to the old and obscure (Chad Durbin).
But besides having to use 12 different starters this season and seeing Rogers (blood clot in left shoulder; left elbow inflammation) and Bonderman (elbow) shut down for significant stretches, even the 97 starts the top four have made in ‘07 haven’t been of the same quality. Verlander (18-6, 3.68 ERA, 176/65 K/BB) has been the pitcher he was as a rookie, but Bonderman and Robertson haven’t been nearly as good. Their struggles not only go a long way toward explaining why Detroit will miss the playoffs this season, but also toward determining whether the Tigers can bounce back in 2008.

For Bonderman, there’s a clear dichotomy between his first 15 starts and his last 10:

First 15: 106 IP, 3.48 ER, 0.85 HR/9, 2.04 BB/9, 8.32 K/9, 10 quality starts
First 10: 68.1 IP, 7.38 ER, 1.71 HR/9, 3.16 BB/9, 6.19 K/9, 5 quality starts

On July 19, after Bonderman guided the Tigers to a 4-3 win over the Twins, the right-hander was 10-1 with a 3.53 ERA and Detroit had the best record in baseball. Now, two months later, he’s 11-9 with a 5.01 ERA, and was shut down for the season after a Sept. 9 start against Seattle in which he couldn’t get out of the second inning. (Ed’s note: Tigers reported today that he'll actually make one more start on Sept. 25.) Meanwhile, the Tigers went 26-35 (.426) in that span -- including getting swept in Cleveland this past week -- with only math keeping their slight playoff dreams alive (magic number for elimination: 2). It would be unfair to pin all the Tigers’ problems on Bonderman, but few teams can survive their No. 2 pitcher going into the tank like Bonderman has. The 24-year-old’s peripherals in his last 10 starts -- especially those home run and strikeout figures -- indicate there was a steep decline in his stuff somewhere along the way. Tigers management and their fans have to hope that it’s the minor sprain or inflammation in his elbow that caused his awful second half and that his poor performance is not evidence damning his bid to become an elite starter.

Nate Robertson is the other of the supposed “Big Four” to see his performance decline in the year after Detroit’s World Series run. But can you tell me which of these four seasons was Robertson’s best?

2004: 3.02 BB/9, 7.09 K/9, 1.37 HR/9
2005: 2.97 BB/9, 5.58 K/9, 1.28 HR/9
2006: 2.89 BB/9, 5.91 K/9, 1.25 HR/9
2007: 3.24 BB/9, 6.09 K/9, 1.15 HR/9

None of them are very good. In reality, Robertson has been approximately the same pitcher over the last four years, with a slight uptick in 2006. His home run rate has improved each year, while his walk and strikeout rates have fluctuated. The statistic that has gone furthest towards determining Robertson’s ERA each season is BABIP -- the percentage of opponent balls put in play that fall for hits.

2004: .310 BABIP, 4.89 ERA, 4.87 DIPS ERA (defense-independent ERA)
2005: .285 BABIP, 4.48 ERA, 5.11 DIPS ERA
2006: .281 BABIP, 3.84 ERA, 4.15 DIPS ERA
2007: .322 BABIP, 4.94 ERA, 4.96 DIPS ERA

Most pitchers -- knuckleballers excepted -- have very little ability to control their BABIP, and Robertson has surely showed none. 2006 was the only season where Robertson showed real improvement. His best walk rate, second best strikeout rate and second best home run rate combined with a low BABIP to give him a career year. In 2007, Robertson’s peripherals went back to resembling the fourth/fifth starter he is, and, to add insult to that, he had his worst BABIP numbers of his career. Detroit’s biggest problem was not that he didn’t perform like a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher but that the Tigers mistakenly expected him to.
The good news for the Tigers is that reinforcements are on the way. Andrew Miller (5.63 ERA, 7.88 K/9, 5.48 BB/9) showed glimpses of pitching competence in his time in the rotation this season. Jair Jurrjens (3.90 ERA, 13/8 K/BB ratio in 27 2/3 innings) may be a dependable pitcher -- if perhaps more useful in relief -- and the Tigers’ selection of Scott Boras-client Rick Porcello in the first round this season shows their commitment to using resources to build the farm system.

The relief corps was not as effective in 2007, partly due to the normal fluctuations of relief pitchers, who tend to be flaky. Of course, Joel Zumaya’s absence for much of the season due to a ruptured tendon in his finger didn’t help Detroit’s short relief, but the Tigers have enough good arms in their system to make sure the bullpen is an asset in 2008.

The most pleasant surprise in 2007 was the emergence of the Tigers offense as one of baseball’s best. While the Tigers were cranking extra-base hits all over Major League parks for the season’s first three months, a lot of their success was also dependent on a team batting average that hovered near an unsustainable .300. As that number has regressed, so has the Tigers offense, which is vexed by an inability to work pitchers and earn walks. Curtis Granderson is an exciting player, yes, but only Detroit’s two big sluggers -- Magglio Ordonez and Gary Sheffield -- and third baseman Brandon Inge can boast a higher-than-league-average gap between their batting average and OBP. In comparison, the other two top offenses in the American League boast six (New York Yankees) and five (Boston Red Sox) regulars above the league mean. An impatient lineup didn’t hurt the Tigers last season, but without the league’s best pitching this year, the Tigers needed more consistent run production. They didn’t get it. As their team batting average dropped, they could no longer produce enough runs to win consistently.
It all seems quite dire, but the Tigers are still likely to finish the season with the American League’s fifth best record. And let’s not forget, they still have some of the best young players in baseball in Verlander, Miller, Zumaya, Granderson and super-prospect Cameron Maybin.

Looking ahead to the offseason, GM Dave Dombrowski has several decisions to make. First, is Maybin ready to play every day in the bigs? And does he play center, moving Granderson to left, or settle in left? I would guess Maybin starts 2008 in center field. Second, do the Tigers pick up Ivan Rodriguez’s option? Pudge is still a superb defensive catcher, but his offense -- and notably his patience (just nine walks and a .293 OBP for the season) -- has declined to an unacceptable level. The option is for $13 million with a $3 million buyout if it is not picked up. I suspect Dombrowski will swallow hard and bring Rodriguez back, even though I’d use the $10 million in savings to improve the club elsewhere.

Like first base. Sean Casey will be a free agent, and Tigers fans can only pray that Detroit says goodbye to their singles-hitting albatross. Rumors have Carlos Guillen moving to first base, where his bat might play for the start of his new four-year deal – which kicks in at $12 million per season in 2008 -- though the Tigers would have to find a helluva defensive shortstop to make up for losing Guillen’s bat at short. Scouts all agree that Guillen will have to be moved from shortstop soon.

Veterans Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers are also free agents. One suspects the Tigers will make an effort to bring Rogers back while bidding adieu to Jones. If Detroit does bring back Pudge and Rogers, that leaves the Tigers with only about $10 million coming off the books. Unless Detroit is willing to go far above its $95 million payroll this season, there won’t be free agent reinforcements on the way -- not that there’s much talent on the market this winter anyhow.

So, while the long-term future of the Tigers is very bright, the near-term looks far bleaker. Cleveland will enter next season as favorites to win the Central, and Minnesota should be much-improved with their young pitching coming of age and Francisco Liriano expected to make his return. Chicago shouldn’t be a problem for another decade or so, but Kansas City is making strides towards competitiveness. Meanwhile, Detroit can’t depend on starting pitching to carry them in 2008. With Rogers a year older, Bonderman an enigma and Robertson a mediocrity, that leaves a still-young Verlander to shoulder a considerable load. On offense, Ordonez and Polanco are bound to regress a bit, and Maybin is sure to experience growing pains. It’s likely that Guillen, Granderson, Ordonez and Sheffield will be the only above-average hitters on the Tigers in 2008. Mediocre pitching plus mediocre offense usually equals a mediocre season.

2007 was certainly a step back for the Tigers, and 2008 may see another step or two in reverse, but the Tigers should begin an extended run of postseason competitiveness starting in 2009.
-- Cranston, Sept. 23, 2007
New York

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