After being touted as the run-away favorite in the AL Central going into the season,the Tigers find themselves five games under .500 and six games out of first place in the second week of June. Fans have given lots of explanations why they have not met expectations - sub-par seasons from many regulars such as Brennan Boesch, Ryan Raburn and Delmon Young, inconsistent pitching from Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, a leaky bullpen, lack of clutch hitting, poor managing and injuries to Doug Fister, Austin Jackson and others. All of these could be valid reasons to some extent. However, I believe the disappointing record can be pared down to two primary problems: terrible fielding and lack of home run power.
Defensively, the Tigers have allowed 4.6 runs per game which ranks 11th out of 14 AL teams. The first instinct is to blame the pitching, but they rank well on parts of the game that pitchers most control:
K/BB: 2.75 (3rd)
HR/9: 1.05 (6th)
FIP 3.82 (1st)
SIERA 3.52 (2nd)
The problem is that about 31% of balls in play have landed safely for hits (.313 BABIP) which is the highest in the AL. The average team allows hits on about 28% of balls in play. Some of that could be due to pitchers getting hit hard, but much of it appears to be due to poor fielding support.
The Runs Above Replacement (RAR) statistic at Baseball-Reference tries to measure how many runs pitchers have allowed after subtracting runs due to fielders not making plays. According to RAR, the Detroit pitching staff is 6th in the league in limiting runs with 74 RAR. This means their pitchers are 74 runs better than a replacement level pitching staff (AL average = 63 RAR).
Thus, much of the blame must go to the fielders. It has been difficult to watch the Tigers play defense this year and the fielding numbers reflect that. They are last in the AL in just about every fielding metric including:
Total Zone: -43 runs worse than average
If we take the average of these three numbers, we can estimate that the Tigers fielders have cost them 31 runs so far this year or about one run every two games. That's worth about three games lost already. If we extrapolate to 162 games, that would be 85 runs cost by the defense which translates to roughly 8 or 9 games lost. That's a lot of games and I don't think they can keep up that pace if they want to win the division.
Offensively, the Tigers are ninth in the AL with with 4.3 runs scored per game. They are below the league average of 4.4 which is pretty disappointing for a team that is built around hitting. They are doing reasonably well at hitting for average (4th in the AL at .263) and getting on base (6th at .324). So, what's the problem?
Many insist that the lack of offense is due to not hitting in the clutch. At first glance, the numbers do not show that. Despite the often cited problem producing with the bases loaded, they are second in the league with a .289 batting batting average with runners in scoring position. They actually lead the junior circuit with a .286 batting average in high leverage situations. So, timely hitting does not appear to be the issue it has been made out to be.
The failure to score runs is explained largely by their low home run total, which was the last thing most of us worried about before the season. Their 59 home runs is only 8th the league. Moreover, what home runs they have hit have not produced a lot of runs. Only 20 of their round trippers have come with runners on base which is second lowest in the AL.
The lack of homers with runners on base is probably a fluke. After all, they are hitting for good average with runners on base and hitters can't just decide to save their homers for times when runners are on. This anomaly should fix itself. The bigger problem is the total number of homers hit whether men are on base or not. They are going to need more of them if they are going to make a run at the division title.