Earlier this week, Rob Rogacki at the SB Nation Tigers blog Bless You Boys e-mailed us and asked if we would be interested in doing an e-mail interview for the site, and I obliged--you can read my answers to his questions here. In response, I also sent him some questions to answer about the Tigers, as they have had a very odd season. They're obviously still an elite team, and they are ahead of the Yankees in the playoff race, though half a game behind the Mariners for a playoff spot at the moment.
Still, it's weird that this team that seemed so stacked with elite talent is not currently running away with the division. The Royals have shocked baseball and they currently lead the Tigers by a game and a half in the AL Central despite the Tigers acquiring David Price at the trade deadline. So what does Rob think about these Tigers?
AM: What on Earth has happened to the Tigers over the past couple months? I understand that the Royals are red hot, but I never expected them to be in front of Detroit. The Tigers have been basically a .500 team since the beginning of June. What have been the biggest problems?
RR: This has to be one of the streakiest Tigers teams I have ever watched. They started off the season with a scalding 27-12 record, then fell back to earth with a brutal 9-20 stretch. Just as the Royals passed them (the first time), they bounced back with a 17-6 stretch to close out the first half. The second half has been another prolonged slump, though they seem to be treading water with a 7-5 record in their last 12 games.
There are several reasons why the team has been this up and down, but in my eyes, the offense is the main culprit. You saw this first-hand during the last series between these two teams when the Tigers scored a total of six runs in four games. They have scored 4.38 runs per game in the second half, down from the 4.8 they averaged during the first half. At one point, only five players had a wRC+ above 100 in the second half, and one of them plays for the Mariners now. Ian Kinsler had a .515 OPS at the top of the lineup before bouncing back during last week's road trip, and the new center field platoon of Rajai Davis and Ezequiel Carrera hasn't been much better.
The other main problem has been the team's health. While the Tigers' injury problems are nowhere near to the extent of many other clubs (your Yankees included), they have started to pile up recently. Both Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander have missed time in August, resulting in guys like Robbie Ray and Buck Farmer seeing big league innings that they are not ready for. Case in point: the Tigers gave up 32 runs in the two games that those two started last weekend. Once the team gets healthy -- Verlander is back already, though probably won't start again until Friday -- the "super rotation" should start to shine again.
AM: Rick Porcello has been terrific this year after a couple up-and-down seasons even though he's posted a lower strikeout rate than in years past. What's the difference? What has helped him turn the corner?
RR: Like Max Scherzer last season, Porcello has finally found a way to get left-handed hitters out. Porcello has allowed a .796 OPS and .348 wOBA to lefties in his career while holding righties in check. This year, lefties have a .673 OPS and .298 wOBA despite the lower strikeout rate. It's tough to say exactly why Porcello has been so successful because his batted ball profile this year is nearly identical to his career numbers, save for one area: home runs. Porcello has only given up five home runs to left-handed hitters this year, down from 11 last season.
The team's slightly improved infield defense has also helped out, as Porcello's overall BABIP has dipped from .315 last season to .276 this season. His .215 BABIP on ground balls is well below the league average of .250, and I imagine that a good number of those outs have gone to the right side of the infield. Nick Castellanos and Eugenio Suarez have not provided any measurable improvement on the left side, but Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera have been far more effective (combined 15.0 UZR) than Omar Infante and Prince Fielder were in 2013 (-3.2).
AM: Miggy is still an elite hitter, but his .308/.375/.501 triple slash with a 139 wRC+ pales in comparison to his otherworldly numbers from the previous four campaigns. Obviously he remains a very dangerous threat in the lineup, but are you concerned at all about Miggy declining? Has he been going through some injury problems this year, or is it just age and no player being unable to sustain that pace forever? Are we just spoiled as baseball fans to have witnessed Miggy do what he did with the bat from 2010-13?
RR: Injury problems and age-related decline are not mutually exclusive theories on why Cabrera's numbers are down, but I would wager that a great deal of his drop in production is due to the core muscle repair surgery he had last offseason. His HR/FB rate is just 11.4% this year, down from 25.4% last season. It has not been below 18% in any season since he arrived in Detroit either. That's a long way to drop off in one year based on age alone, and Cabrera himself has admitted to not being 100% since having the surgery last October. Other than the power, Cabrera has basically been the same hitter he usually is, and his league-leading 40 doubles (on pace for a career high) have partially offset the drop-off in home runs. I don't know if we're ever going to see another 191 wRC+ season from him, but I would be very surprised if he doesn't bounce back with another season in the 150-160 range in 2015.
AM: Building on the question about Miggy, how concerned are you with the Tigers' future? Owner Mike Ilitch is more focused on winning now while they have a strong core, and I don't fault him for that. However, those hefty contracts to Miggy and Justin Verlander could look very ugly within a couple years. (Verlander's already looks particularly awful.) How long do you think Detroit's window will be open? Are there any young bright spots aside from Nick Castellanos? And why oh why did they trade Doug Fister?
RR: Let's work backwards here. The decision to trade Doug Fister was part of Dave Dombrowski's plan to provide sustainable success for the franchise. They wanted to get Drew Smyly into the starting rotation -- and for good reason, based on his numbers this year -- and Fister was their most tradeable asset at the time. The return was horrid, especially if Ian Krol continues with his new-found love of never getting anyone out. Castellanos is another bright spot who has been better than the numbers indicate, and Eugenio Suarez was a nice little surprise as well.
That said, this team is still highly invested in winning now. Dombrowski coughed up Smyly and center fielder Austin Jackson for David Price at the trade deadline, and gave up a couple of the team's best prospects for Joakim Soria just about two weeks earlier. Plus, Mike Ilitch has built this team based off of the Steinbrenner "fans pay to see stars" business model. It's anyone's guess as to how long the team will sustain this level of payroll, especially if they do get that championship Ilitch so desperately wants.
Basically, all hope rests on Dave Dombrowski's shoulders if the team is to avoid becoming the next incarnation of the Philadelphia Phillies. He was able to wiggle out from under Prince Fielder's contract, but I'm not sure whether he will be able to pull that Houdini act a second time if the team needs to clear more salary.
AM: Rookie manager Brad Ausmus had big shoes to fill in Jim Leyland, who was a potential Hall of Fame manager. It can be hard to determine for fans, but what do you think have been Ausmus's strengths in his first year? How does he compare to Leyland? Is anything he does particularly better or worse, or is it too soon to tell? Most importantly, why do people think Mike Matheny is more attractive than him?
RR: I still think it is too early to determine Ausmus' strengths and weaknesses as a manager, particularly because of how differently he handles the media. We had Chris Iott, a Tigers beat writer, on our podcast last week, and he described how Leyland could be much more comfortable and open with the media while Ausmus has been more reserved during his press conferences.
On the field, the two have been much more similar than many fans were anticipating. Despite his age, Ausmus has not been the saber-friendly savant that many of us were hoping for. However, he has shown the ability to adjust on the fly, particularly with the team's running game. Early in the season, the Tigers were very aggressive on the basepaths. Through the first three months of the season, the Tigers attempted 83 steals in 79 games. Their success rate, a paltry 67 percent, prompted Ausmus to slow things down. Since July 1st, they have attempted 40 steals in 50 games and have been successful 30 times. Sure, some of this is entirely based on opportunity -- their speedsters haven't been getting on base very often lately -- but part of it is Ausmus realizing his teams strengths and weaknesses, and putting them to good use.
While I won't be one to begrudge those who prefer the ruggedness of Mike Matheny, I'm sure our fans are happy with the clean-cut Ivy Leaguer in our dugout. After all, there is only one MLB manager with his own shirtless photoshoot circulating around the internet right now.
AM: Given the Tigers' recent AL Central success has there been an influx of bandwagon fans among the fanbase? How do you feel about them--are you supportive? Indifferent? Annoyed? Do you begrudge them for not staying loyal fans throughout the lean years in Detroit from 1994-2005?
RR: I tend to have a love-hate relationship with the team's bandwagon fans. It comes with the territory when you root for a successful team -- something you know all about, as Yankees fans -- but it can get to be somewhat infuriating at times. This season has been particularly trying, as Tigers fans have been trying to write this team off ever since they went through a 9-20 stretch during the first half. This team has sky-high expectations after making it to the ALCS in three consecutive seasons, and every loss seems to pull more and more Chicken Littles out of the woodwork. While it would be fun to have a full year without bandwagon fans, I'm not ready to return to the 90+ loss seasons yet.