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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Grading the Tigers' first half: All in all, right about average

There’s a distinct problem with expectations: You’re expected to meet them.

The higher they are, the harder it is.

And whether or not you’re able to do so colors the perception everyone has of nearly everything you do.

That’s why, in some corners, the Tigers’ first-half performance is seen as so underwhelming, so disappointing, so ... dare we say ‘catastrophic’?

That’s why, for every comparison to last year’s second-half ascension, there’s a snide reminder of 2008 ... the last time the franchise tried to live by the New York Yankees’ model, and spend their way to a title. The last time the fan base printed playoff T-shirts in April, only to get increasingly frustrated as they remained moldering in the boxes in which they came. The last time the Tigers had exaggeratedly high expectations, and failed to meet them, falling flat on their faces, and finishing dead last in the division.

And that’s why the Tigers’ modest five-game win streak — their longest of the season to date — in the run up to the All-Star break was such a breath of fresh air, such a welcome respite from the predictions of recurring DOOOOOOOOOOMMMM.

It was a realization that while the first half of the season might have been bad, or at least worse than anticipated, it’s not THAT bad.

“Obviously, we had some ups and downs. If you grade out our first half, there’s some good things and some bad things. Sometimes in baseball that happens,” pitcher Max Scherzer admitted. “But at the end of the day, if you look at the talent in this room, you know that we can get it all together and be a very good team, and be very competitive here in the AL. It’s something we’re going to have to do for the rest of the second half, is just be consistent. I think with the talent here, we’re going to be able to play at that type of level.”

Sure, the Tigers were inconsistent in the first half.

Sure, there was a non-stop shuttle between Comerica Park and Fifth/Third Field in Toledo, given all the injuries.

Sure, it took them slightly more than 30 games to win back-to-back games, and almost 50 to get back to .500.

But they’re over .500 and just 3 1/2 games off the lead with 76 games — 41 of them against division rivals — left to play. And there’s plenty of time to improve on both of those, just like there’s plenty of time to improve on the grade for the season.

So far, you’d have to give the Tigers a ‘C’ for the first half, but there’s no reason to think that won’t change, and drastically, between now and the end of September.

Here’s how that grade breaks down by position and by offense, defense and pitching:

DEFENSE — This was not supposed to be the Tigers’ strong suit, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that it’s not. The corner infielders and outfielders are there for their power potential, not their leather, so it’s not a shock that they have the second-most errors in left field, and the third most at first base. But the transition of Miguel Cabrera to third hasn’t been as bad as people thought it might: Even with him starting 83 of 86 games there, the Tigers have the third-best fielding percentage in the AL at the position.

It’s been up the middle where the Tigers have been shockingly poor, as normally sure-handed Jhonny Peralta hasn’t been, and no one’s made enough plays defensively among the revolving door of candidates at second base. The Tigers have turned 10 fewer double plays than anyone else in the American League, and have the third-fewest in all of baseball, ranking only ahead of San Diego and Houston.

The catchers haven’t been immune, either, as the 10 passed balls are second-worst in the AL, and have combined with the pitching staff to allow 72 stolen bases, the third-most in the league.

Only in center field have the Tigers been better than par, defensively speaking, as Austin Jackson and Quintin Berry have been flawless in the middle of the spacious Comerica Park outfield.


STARTING PITCHING — This was supposed to be the second-biggest strength of the team, behind the offense, but considering the fact that rookie fifth starter Drew Smyly might have held down the Tigers’ second-most consistent slot in the rotation, it just shows how inconsistent the product has been.

Oh, sure, defending AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander has been spectacular at times — coming within two outs of his third career no-hitter — but he’s had his own ups-and-downs, too, despite what could be labeled the best April of his career. He took the loss in three straight starts for the first time since 2008, as the calendar changed from May to June, but he’s won four of five since. Despite ranking dead last in run support in the AL, he holds or is tied for the league lead in innings pitched, quality starts, complete games, strikeouts.

Smyly has been everything he was advertised to be: Calm, composed, effective ... and young. The 22-year-old made the jump from Double-A, and has done exactly what the Tigers need from a fifth starter — give the team a chance to win, more often that not. Despite occassional struggles with allowing extra-base hits, he’s done that.

Doug Fister spent two stints on the DL with a strain in his side, and has pitched like a guy who hasn’t had enough work to stay sharp.

Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have both shown glimpses of what they can provide in the middle of the rotation — Scherzer striking out 15 vs. the Pirates, and leading the AL in strikeouts-per-nine innings; Porcello was the team’s Pitcher of the Month for June, going 3-1 with a 3.00 ERA — but both have ERAs at or above 4.50, and have had a number of early exits.

That’s part of the reason the Tigers are tied for fourth in the AL in quality starts, and second in complete games, but have logged the third-fewest innings pitched of any starting staff in the league.

(Individual grades: Justin Verlander A-; Max Scherzer B-; Rick Porcello B-; Drew Smyly B-; Doug Fister, Casey Crosby, Adam Wilk and Jacob Turner all inc.)

BULLPEN — The unit that ranked among the worst in the league in the first quarter of the season has become a strength, posting a 2.15 ERA and limiting opponents to a .228 batting average over the past 49 games.

While closer Jose Valverde has been less than spectacular in trying to reprise his role as the Fire Man of the Year — blowing three saves in his first 13 chances — he’s at least settled down of late (as long as you don’t count non-save situations), converting his last seven save chances before the break.

Joaquin Benoit has been spectacular in the setup role, recording 20 holds (2nd-best in the AL), and appearing in nearly half the Tigers’ games so far. Minus one implosion as a fill-in closer, Octavio Dotel has been steady, while rookie Brayan Villarreal has been a find, limiting opposing batters to a .178 batting average, and posting an ERA of 1.55 — this year’s version of last year’s rookie sensation Al Alburquerque.

Lefty Phil Coke is the bullpen’s workhorse, taking the ball whenever needed, while Duane Below’s been the best of a steadily changing cast behind them, carving out a niche in long relief after finishing runner-up in the fifth-starter contest to Smyly.

There’s been a good deal of turnover because of non-production, but — aside from a few instances where they’ve been strapped by circumstance — the unit seems to have stabilized.

(Individual grades: Joaquin Benoit A; Brayan Villarreal A-; Phil Coke B+; Octavio Dotel B-; Duane Below C+; Jose Valverde C-; Collin Balester, Luis Marte, Daniel Schlereth, Luke Putkonen, Thad Weber, Jose Ortega, Darin Downs all inc.)

OFFENSE — This unit is where the team’s main shortcomings have been, as a unit that was projected to score 900 runs will likely fall more than a run per game shy of that lofty estimate. Right now, the Tigers have scored 387 runs (6th most in the AL), despite the second-most hits, the second-best batting average and the fourth-best on-base percentage.

That’s been the problem: The Tigers get hits and baserunners, but don’t convert those into runs.

A team with station-to-station speed (the Tigers have grounded into 78 double plays, fourth worst in MLB), but is in the lower third of baseball in HRs (82, 19th most) is a large factor in that failing.

You can’t blame that entirely on the big guys, though, as Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera rank in the top four in the league in RBI, both on pace for 120 or more runs driven in.

No, the production has been lacking from lower in the order, where there’s been more underperforming than anything else.

Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta were both coming off All-Star seasons, but neither is going to come anywhere near their career numbers from 2011. Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch were both handed starting jobs at the beginning of the season — on the strength of the potential in their bats — and neither has hit well enough to stay in the lineup.

And until his recent home run binge, Delmon Young had been about half as productive as he’d been down the stretch last season, when he helped spark the Tigers to a 30-10 record in his 40 games after the trade.

While Raburn has been just part of the problem in the second-base carousel, the lack of production from the corner outfield positions has been glaring, as has the shortfall in numbers from the designated hitter spot, as well as the No. 5 spot in the order — both of which were so ably handled last year by Victor Martinez.

Austin Jackson has been perhaps the lone player performing far above expectations on offense (Fielder and Cabrera have hit well, but everyone knows they’re going to), as he ranks second in the AL in batting average (.332) and on-base percentage (.408), eighth in slugging (.545) and fifth in OPS (on-base, plus slugging, .953). He’s even hanging on to the end of the top 10 in runs scored (54), despite missing 21 games with a strained abdominal muscle.

(Individual grades: Austin Jackson A+; Miguel Cabrera A; Prince Fielder B+; Quintin Berry B+; Andy Dirks B; Gerald Laird B; Alex Avila C+; Jhonny Peralta C-; Ramon Santiago C-; Brennan Boesch D+; Delmon Young D+; Ryan Raburn D; Don Kelly, Danny Worth inc.)


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