This is why the Tigers are not winning as often as they should

So far this season in innings 7 through 9, Victor Martinez is hitting .202, and Torii Hunter is hitting .181.

So far this season in innings 7 through 9, Victor Martinez is hitting .202, and Torii Hunter is hitting .181.

Where are the fierce breed of Tigers hiding? Every time it seems like the Detroit ball club is finally getting its act together and going on the prowl, they go into a troubling mini-slump. It’s been a strange season: Detroit is always looking like they’re poised to break out but then a few days later, they stumble and lose much of their divisional lead.

Most troubling: this is the second straight season in which the Tigers have failed to meet expectations.

How have the Tigers managed to win just 53 of their first 97 games? On the morning of July 22, their winning percentage, .546, was sixth in the AL and tenth in MLB.

This club is so potent offensively and boasts such a strong starting pitching staff that it should win the division in a leisurely Tiger prance. Why isn’t it doing so?

A close look under the statistical hood provides some clues.

Let’s start with the broad brush strokes. The rudimentary measure invented years ago by Bill James, the Pythagorean won-loss record, shows the Tigers’ expected record, based on runs scored and runs allowed, should be 57-40. That’s a deficit of four wins.

In terms of WAR (Wins Above Replacement) figures, the picture is even more puzzling: The team WAR total for Tigers batters is 14.8 (led by Miguel Cabrera’s 5.6), and for all pitchers it’s 14.9 — (led by Max Scherzer at 3.8, Sanchez at 2.8, and Verlander at 2.6). Does that mean that the Tigers should be 30 wins above a team of replacement-level players (in other words, the Marlins or Astros squads)? That would mean 63-65 wins at this point in the season, which would rank at the top of MLB. But of course, the Tigs have only 53 victories. It’s hard to argue that the Tigers shouldn’t be soaring that high above the pack (just a few games above the Red Sox, which is not that great a team).

Fielding metrics are much harder to analyze, but by most measures Detroit is average to a little below average overall defensively. No huge culprit in that corner.

So where are all those extra losses coming from? Look closer: the club is 3-9 in extra innings, so that alone accounts for much of the underperformance, and it is 9-14 in one-run games. While the Tigers officially have 21 comeback wins, they also have 25 blown leads.
It’s been easy and popular to point the finger at the Tigers’ bullpen this season, and many fault Jim Leyland for mismanagement of it. The numbers do indicate, however, that the Tigers have two fairly reliable relievers: Drew Smyly with a 2.3 WAR and Joaquin Benoit with a 1.8 WAR. Unfortunately, no other Tiger reliever has contributed much at all, and most have proven on balance a detriment with small negative WARs.

But here’s a news flash: It’s not just the bullpen’s fault that the Tigers are failing at winning close games in late innings. They’re losing mainly because they aren’t producing on offense in the late stages of games. The Tigers are outscoring the opposition mightily in the first six innings of games, 387 to 258. But this same potent offense is being outscored 48-34 in the seventh, 40-38 in the eighth, by a whopping 36-20 margin in the ninth, and by an embarrassing 10-2 in the tenth. Yes, with so many strong relievers in baseball these days, you expect a fall-off in offense later in the game. But that kind of falloff isn’t happening in the late innings to the Tigers’ opponents, who are scoring about the same amount of runs throughout the game due to the Tigers less-than-dominant pen. But a bigger problem is that the Tigers’ hitters fall off a cliff after the sixth.

A perfect illustration was the Tigers’ 6-5 loss to the Kansas City Royals last Saturday. The Tigers had great chances in the seventh and eighth innings to get runs but failed to break through.

For whatever reason, the Tigers seem to lack the killer instinct, that intangible something that good clubs in any sport seize on to win a game that’s up for grabs. That’s an old-school, emotional way of looking at it. But the stats show exactly the same thing in stark terms: the Tigers score between 0.55 and 0.75 runs an inning through the sixth — and then less than 0.4 runs in the seventh inning or later.

When the game is on the line, the Tigers’ loud bats go relatively silent. And that, perhaps more than anything, is why the club is underperforming. That sound you’re hearing when the scoreboard strikes seven is not a roar — it’s more like a snore.

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Batting Average in Late Innings of Games (7th thru 9th)

Alex Avila ……… .180
Torii Hunter ……… .181
Victor Martinez ……… .202
Jhonny Peralta ……… .216
Austin Jackson ……… .254
Miguel Cabrera ……… .255
Andy Dirks ……… .256
Prince Fielder ……… .263
Omar Infante ……… .337

TEAM ……… .228 (.304 through the 6th inning)

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.