Most teams that struggle with starting pitching, advancing baserunners, and hitting home runs have “cellar” written all over them. Inexplicably, the Tigers are not in the cellar. In fact, they’re 13-10 and just 1.5 games behind the Twins despite playing 14 of 23 games on the road to start the season. How is this possible? Well, it’s crazy-complicated. As poor as the starting pitching has been, the bullpen has been equally brilliant. The bullpen sports a stellar 2.22 ERA over 81 innings. Jose Valverde, Joel Zumaya, Eddie Bonine, Phil Coke, and Fu-Te Ni all have ERAs under 2.00. The bullpen is the only reason the Tigers stand at 8th in team ERA in the AL despite such terrible production from the rotation. Detroit is dead last in the league in quality starts. That has translated into the bullpen pitching more innings than any other bullpen in the American League by a long shot. Fortunately for the Tigers, that hasn’t been a problem, yet.
The only other thing keeping this team afloat right now is its ability to get on base. As poor as Tigers hitters have been at advancing baserunners (and as poor as the baserunners have been at advancing themselves) they’ve been equally superb at getting on base. Unlike the boom or bust Tigers of recent years, this team can draw a walk. The Tigers are 2nd in the American League in walks and hits. The “hits” have always been there but the newfound proficiency in drawing walks has helped give the Tigers the highest OBP in the American League. That was not a misprint! The barrage of free passes has been led by Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and Johnny Damon who all have at least 12 walks and a better than 1:1 BB:SO ratio. So, while the Tigers are abysmal at advancing and scoring runners, they are the best at putting runners on base. That dichotomy has not surprisingly resulted in a ho-hum 4.78 runs per game. One reason why such a high OBP has resulted in such a correspondingly low number of runs is that the players drawing all the walks are the players who are supposed to be driving in the runs. They can’t drive in runs if they’re standing on first. Drawing walks is a great quality even from power-hitters but Detroit’s 6-9 hitters have been so wretched that a walk from Cabrera, Ordonez, and Damon has been as good as an out for the opposition.
What we’re left with is a team that is hedging its bets in virtually every capacity. The relievers have bailed out the starters in a way that nobody could’ve predicted. The sheer number of baserunners the offense has generated has offset the dreadful rate at which the Tigers have both advanced and scored runners. Yet, somehow, the Tigers are three games over .500 and very much alive in the AL Central. As great of a development as that is, I don’t think it foreshadows anything moving forward. None of what the Tigers are doing right now is likely to last. The starting pitching will improve. Bullpen production will drop off. The offense will advance and score baserunners at a higher percentage. And, you can expect a sharp decline in OBP. The Tigers are producing at the extreme of virtually every measure. Extremes don’t last. Unfortunately, that leaves us in the dark in terms of what can be expected when these numbers normalize. It just all depends on whether the forthcoming improvements in starting pitching and driving in baserunners offset the inevitable return to reality in terms of the bullpen and OBP. In other words, I have no idea what’s going to happen. If there’s one thing I can say, it’s that this team is either good, bad, or average and I’d put money on that.