Monday, June 05, 2006

The Best Team in Baseball
John Williams

They were 71-91 last year, so what in the world has gotten into the Tigers? I'm going to break it down to see what's going on here, first the hitting, and then the pitching.

The 2005 team wasn’t bad in this regard, especially taking into account the cavernous ballpark in which they play. They were 17th in mlb in runs scored and 14th in OPS. More impressively, these ranks were achieved with Carlos Guillen on the DL for 75 games and Magglio Ordonez on the DL for 80 games. Without Magglio in the outfield, on most nights there wasn’t much offensive power out there. Rondell White and Craig Monroe supplied merely serviceable production while Nook Logan was a disaster offensively in 129 games. Pretty much anyone in place of his .305 OBP and .335 SLG would be a boon for the hitting. At short stop, a host of replacements did little in Guillen’s absence. This led them to finish 24th in SS OPS, and that’s including Guillen’s .802 number in the games he played. Right off the bat the Tigers could help their offense very much by just keeping Guillen and Magglio healthy for 2006.

As for the rest of the lineup, here’s a look at the main position players and their production from last year compared to this year (through 57 games).


2005 Player


2006 Player















































With considerable lineup stability from 2005 to 2006, the improvements from last year to this year really are mostly due to the health of the key players. Nook Logan may or may not have been bumped out of the outfield picture had Ordonez been healthy all last year, but with Granderson now replacing him center field production has gone way up. Also the over-the-hill Dmitri Young/his injury replacements are out of the DH spot, and in their place is Marcus Thames, who has been somewhat of a revelation so far this year. Though at his age a suddent breakout season isn’t likely, the Tigers probably won’t lose anything at DH this year. Elsewhere, Polanco has been somewhat of a disappointment, which slightly offsets some of the other lineup improvements.

Speaking generally, the 2005 Tigers were a team expected to be competitive, i.e. play at least .500 ball. The final W-L was a little misleading since they were a little unlucky, as their expected W-L was 75-87. Having Ordonez and Guillen healthy no doubt would have brought them very close to .500. So given a healthier roster, a replacement for the abysmal production of Nook Logan, and a little luck, it’s not surprising that this team is competitive this year. Since their roster does have some older and injury-prone position players, there was no real reason to expect everyone to be healthy and productive this year. That makes it all the more surprising that as of today, June 4th, they have the best record and best run differential in all of baseball. Looking at the gains in hitting from last year to this year, they have solid but relatively minor. The improvement in runs prevented is the real key to success here.

This is more or less the Tigers 5 man rotation of 2005, along with their ERA, WHIP, and PERA numbers:

2005 Pitcher




Jeremy Bonderman




Mike Maroth




Jason Johnson




Nate Robertson




Sean Douglass




Besides Bonderman and his limitless potential, mostly what you see here is what you get: mediocrity. Bonderman was both a little unlucky in 2005 and very likely to improve in 2006. Going into 2006 you couldn’t really have expected any of the other guys to have significantly improved. Mike Maroth is painfully average and somehow also overrated despite his infamous 2003 season in which he had 21 losses. Jason Johnson meanwhile is both average and not on the team any longer. Nate Robertson (like Johnson) seems to not have the stamina for a full baseball season and thus tends to average very few innings per start as the year goes on. Last year that led to a bunch of games where his baserunners scored due to the bullpen failing him, which is probably partly his fault for running out of gas. Also he's not all that great while he is in there. Sean Douglass is both bad and no longer with the club.

Here is the Tigers 5 man rotation for 2006, along with their ERA and WHIP numbers:




Jeremy Bonderman



Mike Maroth



Kenny Rogers



Nate Robertson



Justin Verlander



Look at those sparkling 3.x ERAs from the rotation. And the best pitcher of them all isn’t even included in that. Bonderman is still pitching better than his ERA for some reason, eventually he’ll get it into the 3s though. So what’s the problem? Well Mike Maroth is one of them. His whip is actually up from last year so far, and worse he’s still allowing a lot of home runs. His ERA means that he has been completely lucky so far this year, and especially given his career of 2nd half fades, it isn’t likely he’ll keep having success. Kenny Rogers so far looks to be a solid middle of the rotation acquisition enjoying a late career resurgence in a pitcher’s park. Congrats to the Tigers for picking him up to replace Johnson, whose numbers he’ll easily best. For Nate Robertson, see above for Mike Maroth. He’s deemed solid mainly because he doesn’t go on the DL, but his pitching is nothing special. Justin Verlander has great stuff, poor strikeout rates, a good WHIP, and an excellent ERA. Since he’s been lucking on balls hit in play, he won’t continue his present success, which means he will be good for now as opposed to excellent. His presence certainly bodes well for the future of the rotation.

The rotation is better than last year with swapping Rogers for Johnson, and also putting Verlander at the back end, but it’s not this much better. It shouldn’t be a rotation that leads MLB in ERA, that’s for sure. The 11 rank in K/BB for the rotation or 21 rank in K/9 are better indicators of it’s strength. I would guess their rotation is going to finish somewhere around 10th in collective ERA, and only that high because of the park they play in. That’s going to mean a lot of tough starts for Maroth and Robertson coming up.

The bullpen for this team has (on the surface at least) been outstanding as well. The era ranks 2 in baseball at 3.19, while the K/9 only ranks 26th, to keep with the same theme as above. The 2005 bullpen was actually pretty good, so in theory they just need to hold steady coming into this year. They have done that, not by signing the overrated Todd Jones, but from the emergence of Joel Zumaya, who is dominating with a K/9 number over 10 so far. The sooner he moves into the closer role the better. Fernando Rodney has also made improvements on his very good 2005 and currently posts a 0.91 WHIP. Losing Farnsworth certainly didn’t help the crew, but the young guys they have throwing bullets out there ensure that the bullpen will again be solid for 2006.

This looks like a good team to me with a superb record. They’ve already made it through a third of the season so it’s too late to say that their success will be fleeting. They will stay in the playoff race until the end of the year just by playing .500 from here on out, so it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t be able to stay in the running for the wildcard at least. It seems my preseason prediction of fourth place for them was too low, especially with the failures of the Indians’ and Twins’ pitching staffs. Look for them to slowdown their breakneck pace as their starter pitchers’ peripheral stats catch up to them, but also look for them to stay in contention in the increasingly underwhelming AL Central.

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