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Tigers Are Roaring Back
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The Tigers Are Roaring Back
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
June 2, 2008

For some of us, this day seemed like it would never come. Others wonder what took so long. But one thing is clear: for the AL Central, the season starts today.

Why, you might ask? Simple. As of today, June 29th, the Detroit Tigers are a .500 ballclub for the first time this season.

You know what that means, of course. Since starting the season 0-7, the Tigers are 7 games over .500. This also means that since April 8th, the Tigers have played at the same level as the division-leading White Sox (who are also 7 games over since that day), and obviously better than the Indians (7 games under .500 since that day) and the Royals (10 games under). Only the Twins (9 over) have played better ball since the Tigers started 0-7.

But wait, it gets better. On June 6th, the Tigers were 12 games under .500. Since that date, the Tigers have easily outpaced the division, playing 12 games over .500, compared with the White Sox (2 games over), Twins (6 games over), Royals (6 games over), and Indians (2 games under).

Obviously, the Tigers' performance this month has come against weak teams the Indians, Dodgers, Giants, Padres, and Rockies, with three game sets against the Cardinals and White Sox thrown in for good measure (and a 5-1 record against those two teams). But sometimes a good run against mediocre opponents is what teams need to get back on the right track.

After 80 games, the Tigers have finally gotten back to where they were when the season started the break-even point. The good news for Detroit fans is that the Tigers woke up today only 5.0 games out of the division race; in the AL's two other divisions, a 40-40 record would have the Tigers 8.5 games back. For that matter, the Tigers would currently be in fourth place in the AL West and fifth place in the AL East, but find themselves in third place in the AL Central.

It is not difficult to suppose that going forward, the Detroit Tigers will finally be the team we expected them to be after their big off-season acquisitions the evidence is all around. June appears to be the month that the offense has finally gotten it going, as the Tigers have hit .293 with a .359 OBP in June after hitting .267/.355 in April and .260/.310 in May. It also appears as though many Tigers hitters finally seem to be coming around. In the five games since Gary Sheffield returned from injury, he has finally looked like the Gary Sheffield we all know. After suffering through one of the worst months of his career in May (.585 OPS), Curtis Granderson has looked like the sparkplug of 2007 all over again. Get this: after a slow start to the season brought on by a broken hand, Granderson's June numbers, if extrapolated out to a full year's worth of games, would put him on pace for 120 runs, 24 doubles, 18 triples, 18 homeruns, and 18 stolen bases. That's the Curtis Granderson the Tigers were expecting this season, along with his June .341 average and .937 OPS. While Edgar Renteria may never be an offensive star in the American League (for reasons which boggle the mind), June seems to be the month that he too remembered that he can hit a baseball at a professional level, while Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco seem to have remembered that they are both among the best pure hitters in baseball.

As wonderful as it is to see Detroit's offense come alive, Tigers fans were probably never as worried about their hitters as much as they were about their pitchers. For this reason, then, it comes as a great relief that the Tigers' staff has finally started to get opposing hitters out. In the month of June, for the first month all season, the Tigers' pitching staff has posted an ERA under 4.00, with the starting rotation dropping their monthly ERA from a high of 5.46 in April to June's 3.38. The Tigers starters have finally started to look like the semi-elite staff we have been expecting for the last calendar year. And after struggling with both hits and walks in the first two months of the season, their starters' K/BB ratio is nearly 2:1 (101:51), after an embarrassing ratio near 1:1 (88:82) in April. The Tigers have also allowed fewer than one hit per inning this month. I'm sure the Tigers' coaching staff is patting itself on the back for sticking to the old adage that the fewer guys you allow on base, the fewer guys you allow to score.

Obviously, this rotation improvement is a result of individual improvements amongst the talented-yet-underachieving Tigers starters. After looking horrendous for much of the season, Justin Verlander's June ERA is 2.73 and his K:BB ratio is 34:14 after not even sniffing 2:1 for much of 2008. Nate Roberston has also cut his ERA nearly in half (3.77 compared to 6.91), while Armando Galarraga recovered from a rough May with a solid June.

It is also not hard, however, to find problems that indicate that the Tigers are simply on a hot streak. June has been the worst month yet for Miguel Cabrera.  His OPS for the month has been under .800 for the first time this season, and despite maintaining his batting average (.283 in both May and June), his on-base percentage for June is down 21 points over May. Jeremy Bonderman has been rocky for over year and is now out for the season with "thoracic outlet syndrome". And as tempting as it would be to assume that the Tigers' improvement has been fueled by the defense finally starting come together, more batters have reach on an error in June than in either April or May, and Tigers pitchers have allowed more hits in June than they did in April.

Indeed, it appears that the Tigers' pitching improvement has had less to do with improved defense than with the pitchers simply walking fewer batters. Consider: In April, opponents hit .249 against the Tigers, but with a .346 on-base percentage. In June, their opponents' average had improved almost 20 points to .268, but their on-base percentage has dropped to .340.

Another trouble spot for the Tigers is the bullpen.  For all the progress the starting rotation has made, the bullpen has gone in the opposite direction, watching its ERA balloon from 3.94 in April to 4.86 in May and 5.30 in June. Since April, when his ERA was 2.45, Todd Jones has posted an ERA of 6.75 in May and 6.00 in June. These are not closer numbers.  In fact, I wouldn't even want Todd Jones working the eighth inning for my team, and the absence of a true closer could keep the Tigers out of the playoff race (though, ironically, Jones just blew his first save of the season yesterday in the Tigers 7-6 win over the Rockies).

In my preview of the Tigers before this season, I chastised the team for not addressing its need in the off-season.  After a season in which the Tigers finished near the top in offense and near the bottom in pitching, GM Dave Dombrowski went out and acquired more offense while actually making the overall team defense worse in the process and trading away pitching talent to do it. It is not surprising then that the Tigers currently rank third in the league in runs scored but third to last in runs allowed. The Tigers didn't get to the playoffs last season, and didn't address the reasons why. Now that their offensive is ticking and their starting staff is showing signs of life, the Tigers still have the same issues this season that they had last season. It is great to see the Tigers rebound after a terrible start, but the expectations heaped upon them this season were still shortsighted, and while this team will likely finish with a winning record, they still need to be even better on offense, and they will need bullpen help if they want to contend.


Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at asher@baseballevolution.com.