Detroit Tigers: two areas of major concern

The Detroit Tigers are in first place by 5 full games in what has once again turned out to be a mediocre AL Central. Their 28-19 record and .596 winning percentages are stellar. Only the Oakland A’s have a better winning % in the AL at .608. Yet once again, Tigers fans far and wide are left to wonder and some have resorted to their annual panic regarding their favorite boys of summer.

Why must success hurt so much? Alas, it’s the streakiness that underlies the concern, and justifiably so.

Through April 23rd the Tigers were cruising along with a 10-8 record, winning more than they were losing and showing signs of better things to come. Since then a quick glance at the Tigers’ schedule will show that they ripped off wins in 10 out of 11 games, looking like legitimate World Series favorites. That streak was followed up by losing 3 of 4 to the lowly Twins and Astros only to see them rattle off six straight impressive road wins in Baltimore and Boston. Vibes were good. A 100-win season began to look like a real possibility.

And then suddenly, without notice, the Tigers have dropped seven out of their last eight games in horrifying fashion. During this most recent span of disappointment, the Indians, Rangers, and now the A’s have outscored the Tigers by a stunning mark of 67-31, including being bested 34-6 in their last three games alone. Folks, it just doesn’t get much worse than that.

Yes, the offense has suddenly looked beatable and their pitching mortal, but fear not. As is becoming an annual tradition for me around this time of year, I have to issue my standard guarantee…

The Tigers will make the playoffs this year. Book it. Make your October plans accordingly. And after all, isn’t that the goal? Get to the playoffs and get hot and then who knows, maybe a 30-year drought comes to a merciful close. Yes, the AL Central is about as easy as it gets to conquer, making this far from a bold proclamation, but despite recent horrors, things are going to be just fine.

That being said, there are two primary issues that do concern me about this year’s Tigers that I’d like to see change for the better.

Detroit Tigers

Mr. Consistency: Victor Martinez

Streakiness

The aforementioned bouts of wildly inconsistent play are deeply alarming for one reason above all else: think back to recent playoff appearances by the Tigers and what ultimately derailed them. Streakiness pushed them to where they were able to get and ultimately left them holding an empty bag at the end of the party.

2006 saw the Tigers steamroll into the World Series as heavy favorites against the Cardinals. A long delay as the NLCS was wrapping up sucked the life out of the Tigers’ bats and the fundamentals from their defense. Game. Set. Match.

More recently it has been the Tigers’ inability to generate a consistent offensive attack in the postseason that has cost this team a true chance at winning the ultimate prize. And to this end, give GM Dave Dombrowski credit for trying to recession-proof the offense by adding speedsters like Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler who would in theory give the Tigers more ways to score runs and prevent deep offensive slumps at the worst of times. And until recently it seemed to work.

Cancel out a 10-run effort in a losing cause against Cleveland last week and the Tigers have scored just 21 runs in the other seven games. A stretch like this in October, no matter how good the pitching will probably be, and it will be curtains once again.

I have no doubt that manager Brad Ausmus is preaching consistency and focus and he wouldn’t have to point any further than to Victor Martinez as an ideal role model as he comes up aces in both categories.

Streaks can unfairly build expectations and shatter them around the next corner. Average it out and things will be as they should for the Tigers in 2014’s regular season. But consistency will be the key come October. Watch this closely.

Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander

Hey, let’s not be too quick to etch the tombstone on one of the all-time Tigers, but color me worried. Verlander’s WHIP (walks + hits/innings pitched) in 2011 was an electrifying 0.92. It rose to 1.06 in ’12 and then volcanoed to 1.31 last year and currently sits at 1.51 after three straight brutal starts (16 earned runs in 17.1 innings), which would be far and away the worst mark of his career.

Why the struggles then? To me, it’s quite simple. Central to JV’s dominance as a starting pitcher during his first eight big league years was a strong K/9 rate. For his career, Verlander has struck out 8.4 batters per nine innings pitched. 2009 was his best at 10.09 but he has usually hovered around a strikeout per inning throughout his career, including a K/9 last year of 8.95. Through 11 starts in 2014 it sits at a measly 6.31.

His career walk rate is 2.81 walks/9 innings pitched. To match his reduced K rate he is walking batters more than he ever has before with his current 3.79 walks/9 rate.

The two stats are on a nasty collision course and when that happens you can kiss your ERA, WHIP, FIP, xFIP, wins, and whatever other stats you like to hang your hat on goodbye.

Why do I focus on strikeout to walk ratios so much? Well, if you strike a guy out he’s not going to get on base. Let him hit a grounder or a fly ball and you’re officially playing with fire. Walk hitters more often than you should and eventually the traffic jam on the bases starts congregating at home plate with high fives and chest bumps.

Verlander wasn’t dominant last season but still sported a strong 217:75 K to walk ratio. This year it’s at 50:30, which puts him on pace for essentially 150 K’s and 90 walks. Bad, bad, bad.

Verlander is undergoing a bit of a makeover as a pitcher. He is clearly losing his fastball as evidenced by a career low average fastball velocity of 93.1 so far in ’14. Suddenly he is throwing the most changeups of his career. Consider that he has thrown 431 fastballs this year and 389 changeups. This is not the Verlander we came to know and love.

Remaking your game when you are 31 years old and inked through 2019 or 2020 and have $20M coming your way this year and $28M guaranteed over the next five and it’s a concern. Verlander’s calling card was never hitting the corners and tricking hitters. It was blowing them away with hard heat and a devastating curveball.

I think we were all ok with his model of throwing 90-92 in the early innings and then ramping up to 97-100 in the 7th and 8th. But those days are gone. JV can seemingly dial it up to 95-96 a few times per game but is still living in the low 90’s or even the high 80’s throughout the contest.

Max Scherzer is likely going to be lighting up box scores for another team next year while Verlander remains Tigers property for years to come. The hope is that he figures it out. The logical analysis tends to indicate that his best days are clearly in the rearview mirror.

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  • ScottPeceny

    JV has lost velocity, which has affected every part of his pitching. Slower arm speed means slower speed and less bit on the curve. I smell trouble.

  • James Rohlman

    would appear that JV may be losing his FB or is trying to reinvent himself as more of a finesse pitcher in order to get deeper into games but this seems to be backfiring as he has become hitable to say the least…Shelve the BP fastballs and start tossing heat again..

  • Vince in MN

    Verlander was awful for the first half last year too, and then he seemed to find his way in the second half. For whatever reason(s) he is floundering again this year so far. He has definitely changed his approach this season, but it isn’t working. And he can’t go back. Keep your fingers crossed that he figures out how to make the necessary adjustments.

    The offense is going to be doing more scrambling for runs this year (so far very successful on the small ball front), and the black hole at the bottom of the order is troubling despite the better D. This lineup doesn’t have the muscle to blow other teams away and 6-7 run late inning comebacks are pretty much a fantasy at this point. Success will ultimately depend on superior pitching, so the sooner we get beyond this spell of horrific starts the better.

    • http://isportsweb.com/ Joe White

      agreed

  • burrwick

    Joe, your ability to analyze and get straight to the root of the problem is only exceeded by your ability to communicate the information to your readers. Well done and couldn’t agree more. Thanks.

    • http://isportsweb.com/ Joe White

      Wow. Thanks man. Mighty kind of you.