Thursday, May 10, 2012

Week 5 Report: Starters Give Tigers Hope

The Tigers had an other uninspiring week going 3-3 versus the White Sox at home and the Mariners in Seattle.  As a result. they are now two games behind the Indians who are off to a good start again this year.

The Tigers continued to slump offensively scoring just 19 runs in six games and are now 8th in the American League with 4.1 runs per game on the season.  They are also just 9th in the AL in OPS (.702) and wOBA (.308).  On a positive note, Austin Jackson kept up his stellar all around play and is second in the league to slugging Josh Hamilton with 2.1 WAR. 

The other good batting story is outfielder Andy Dirks who has emerged as the team leader in batting average (.339), slugging average (.607) and OPS (.969).  In an effortt to jump start the offense, manager Jim Leyland moved Dirks to the second spot in the order replacing the sputtering Brennan Boesch versus right handers.  Unfortunately, the upbeat news ends with Jackson and Dirks as the rest of the line-up has been a disappointment.   

Defensively, the Tigers have allowed 4.2 runs per game, the ninth lowest total in the league.  Much of the blame goes to the fielders who have cost the team an estimated 15 runs more than would be expected from an average group of fielders (taking the average or Total Zone, Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating).

Any fan who is paying attention at all has also noticed that the Tigers bullpen is blowing games left and right.  In fact, they are just 11-5 when they have the lead after seventh innings.  That's a far cry from 2011 when they were 77-0 when leading after seven innings. 

Despite the inferior fielding and the leaky bullpen, there is reason for optimism.  Starting pitcher Doug Fister has returned from his side injury and the Tigers now have one of the most formidable starting rotations in the league.  In fact, they had been doing quite well without Fister.

If you strip away the contributions (or lack thereof) of the the fielders and the bullpen and just focus on things that pitchers do on their own., the rotation is at or near the top of the league in most categories (and that includes games in which Adam Wilk started).  For example, The Tigers starters lead the league in fewest walks per nine innings (2.3) and strikeout/walk ratio (3.4).

If we look at all the things that pitchers can control essentially on their own - walks, strikeouts, hit batsmen, home runs and batted ball types (ground ball percentage, line drive percentage, etc), we can get component ERAs.  Component ERAs (found on FanGraphs) estimate what the starters ERA should be based on those events.  The Tigers starters rank quite high on all of them:

FIP 3.48 (1st)
xFIP 3.51 (1st)
tERA 3.73 (3rd)
SIERA 3.50 (1st)

Taking the average of the four above measures, the Tigers estimated ERA based on things they can control should be 3.56.

Table 1 below shows how the Tigers individual starters are doing on the above measures.  The first column is their actual ERA, columns two through five are component ERAs and the final column is the average of the four component ERAs. 

Table 1: Component ERAs of Tigers starters as of May 9, 2012

Pitcher
 ERA
FIP
xFIP
tERA
SIERA
Composite
Verlander
2.63
2.34
3.23
2.59
3.15
2.83
Fister
0.00
2.10
2.87
3.59
3.21
2.94
Smyly
1.59
3.07
3.23
3.06
3.18
3.13
Scherzer
6.32
3.84
3.84
3.99
3.48
3.79
Porcello
4.91
4.37
3.70
4.73
3.68
4.12

The composite of the components (or any one component for that matter) is a better predictor of future ERA than actual ERA. So, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello should do a lot better from here on out. I think most fans would be pretty happy if their five starters ended up posting actual ERAs similar to the current composite ERAs by season's end.

The outlook for the starting staff is very encouraging indeed and it's the main reason I'm not too concerned about the team's early struggles.  I'm confident the Tigers will hit better soon and the bullpen is usually the easiest element to upgrade with in-season trades.  Once a starting staff goes bad due to ill health or poor performance. it is generally the hardest thing to repair. Thankfully, the Tigers rotation looks to be in great shape.

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