Why the Tigers Are (Almost) On Top of the World

Being a Tigers fan has been tough. This is my fourth season blogging the happenings of the Tigers at my site, Tigerblog, and it hasn’t been pleasant. Over the past five years the Tigers have lost 502 games, so an “average” season has meant 100 losses. Alan Trammell was at the helm of the team for three of those five seasons, including 2003, which was one of the worst seasons a team in baseball history has ever had.

This year, with Jim Leyland as their new manager, the Tigers seem to have caught lightening in a bottle. They only added two free agents, and neither Kenny Rogers nor Todd Jones were what you’d consider elite signings. They also have two rookies, Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, playing major roles with the team. Outside of two starters and two relievers, this is pretty much the same team that went 71-91 last season.

Except this team is winning.

Prior to last night’s game, the Tigers were 24-13, one game back of the White Sox, who have the best record in all of baseball. Even if they lose two of three to the Twins in their current series, that will put them at 25-15. The last time they had at least 25 wins at the 40-game mark was 1993, which also happened to be the last time the Tigers finished with a winning record. The 2003 Tigers didn’t win their 25th game until July 13, the game before the All-Star break.

What’s the difference between this Tigers team and teams past? Let’s take a look and see what they’re doing right (all statistics and references are through Monday).

Pitching Wins Championships

So far this season, the Tigers’ rotation has exceeded most everyone’s expectations. A look at The Hardball Times’ team statistics page shows that the Tigers lead the league in runs allowed per game (3.43) and ERA (3.25). That’s nearly a run and a half better than the league average and almost an entire run less then the next-best pitching staff, the Yankees (4.25 runs per game).

Tigers pitchers have a slightly above-average strikeout rate (6.2 strikeouts per nine innings) and a below-average walk rate (2.9 walks per nine innings). When you combine all of that with a league-leading homerun rate (0.8 homers allowed per nine innings), you get a lot of balls being put into play.

Defense Helps Pitching

When you have an inordinate amount of balls put in play, the only way your pitching staff can survive is with a solid defense behind them. In this respect, the Tigers have a “perfect storm.” They have a league-best ground-ball percentage (47 percent) and the best and Defensive Efficiency Ratio (.728) in the AL. The pitching staff avoids the Three True Outcomes, a bunch of balls get put into play, close to half of them are on the ground, and a lot of them are being converted into outs. Sounds like a pretty good combination.

Hitting Wins Ballgames

Even the best pitching and defensive performance requires that the offense score some runs to win games. The easiest way to do that is with homers and the Tigers have 56 so far this year. That’s a an AL-best total and they trail only the Brewers, who have hit 59 to lead MLB. The Tigers also have 135 total extra-base hits, and that’s second in the league to the Blue Jays, who have 137.

If the Tigers’ offense has a problem it’s that they’re not drawing many walks, which is also why they’re in the middle of the pack in runs scored. They’re the only team that has a batting average of at least .275 that also has an on base percentage below .330. So far, that hasn’t hurt them though.

Staying Healthy

Last year’s mega-signing, Magglio Ordonez, was on the shelf with a hernia injury and didn’t play until the beginning of July, and shortstop Carlos Guillen only played in 87 games all year. This year they’ve both been in the lineup on a consistent basis and they’ve both been playing well.

In fact, the only two players of consequence who have hit the disabled list are Todd Jones and Dmitri Young. Jones’ injury was hardly noticed because the bullpen is a strength of the team, and Young is sort of outgrowing his usefullness and is an odd man out as he continues to struggle at the plate.

What About the Coach

One of my biggest gripes when Trammell got fired was that he was never given the tools to win. I’m now rethinking that because the 2005 Tigers aren’t that much different from the 2006 Tigers and somehow Leyland has this team winning. At times though, Leyland’s decision-making is mind-boggling. Chris Shelton, one of the team’s best hitters, has consistently hit sixth in the batting order. And when Young was placed on the disabled list, Alexis Gomez was called up and not only was he getting playing time, he was hitting fifth in the order.

On Tigerblog, I’ve created a special category for this stuff. I call it “Jim Leyland’s WTF of the Week.” Last week’s award went to Leyland hitting Ramon Santiago, who has a sub-.300 OBP, in the leadoff spot. To show what I know, Santiago actually had a really good game.

What Happens the Rest of the Season

This is obviously the big question mark. The last two seasons the Tigers were right around the .500 at the All-Star break, only to fall apart in the second half. What’s different is that they’ve never been this far above .500 in recent memory. I still see them tapering off and finishing right around .500, but I’d never bat Santiago at the top of the lineup either, so what do I know.

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