Can an unbalanced and undermanned team take Detroit to the playoffs?

In a one-game playoff, could max Scherzer pitch the Tigers to a victory?

In a one-game playoff, could max Scherzer pitch the Tigers to a victory?

The Detroit Tigers’ alarming tailspin has put them in a tough position: instead of a division title and a spot in the ALDS, Detroit now has to battle not only Kansas City, but if they fail to surpass the Royals, finish better than Seattle (and also the Yankees and Toronto) to make the one-game wild-card playoff, otherwise known as the World’s Biggest Crapshoot. In that game, they’ll be facing one of the two best teams in the American League—either Oakland or Los Angeles. Even if they prevail, they’ll probably have to beat the other one to get to the World Series.

Unless they get hot, that second wild-card spot might be the best the Tigers can do. In that game, they absolutely must avoid the horror of their bullpen—and their best chance to do that would be to send David Price to the mound. He has nine complete games the last three years and eleven since 2010—as opposed to Max Scherzer’s one in his whole career.

How do the Tigers stack up against the rest of the potential playoff teams? Let’s look at Baseball on the morning of August 25 for a position-by-position breakdown of “Wins Above League Average.” Let’s drop the long-shot Yankees and Blue Jays (and even longer-shot Indians) from the discussion. If you look at the cumulative team rankings, four of the six legitimate playoff contenders are right at the top. Oakland leads with 11.8 wins, and the Tigers are tied with the Royals for sixth with 4.7, just behind non-contender Tampa Bay.

Also, as you might expect, all of the Tigers’ positives in this WAR-like analysis are concentrated in a few spots—starting pitching (where they are first in the league at 8.7), second base (2.1, fifth in the league and second among the playoff contenders), first base (1.4, second in the league and first among the playoff teams), and designated hitter (1.5, first in the league). They also get an 0.5 in left field, all because of the ten weeks or so when J.D. Martinez was doing his unlikely imitation of Babe Ruth. That miracle is over.
Everywhere else, the Tigers are below league average—most notably on the rookie side of the infield, where they are -2.7 at third base and -1.9 at shortstop, last in the league at both positions. They’re -1.4 in right field and -2.4 in the bullpen—last among the playoff contenders at both those spots (and next-to-last in the league for relief pitching). At catcher and center field, they are just below league average at -0.2.

Quibble with the WAR-like numbers if you want, but the picture this paints of the team seems accurate. These figures purport to measure both hitting and fielding.

The 2014 Tigers have not been a decent defensive team, but with the departure of Austin Jackson they are awful. They’ve made 25 errors since the All-Star break, many of them quite costly. Baseball Reference has a calculation of “defensive efficiency,” which measures what percentage of balls put into play are turned into outs. The league average is .688, and the Tigers are at .675—which is tied for 13th in the league (out of 15 teams) and way below every other one of the playoff contenders. In fact, the other five potential playoff teams log in at .695 or higher. The Tigers’ defense does not turn hit balls into outs nearly enough, and it’s hurting the pitching staff.

After 2013, Dave Dombrowski revamped the Tigers to be less dependent on power hitting and more of a threat on the base paths—and those changes are apparent. Besides Kansas City (the best running team in the league with 113 steals and only 24 times caught), Detroit is the next-best base running team among the six playoff contenders, with 86 steals. But because the Tigers have been caught 37 times, they are far less efficient on the bases than Oakland, which has a total of 70 swipes in 84 attempts. Detroit is giving away too many runners on the basepaths, negating too much of the benefit they have gotten from their increased stolen base total. It’s not good enough to just steal more bases, you have to steal bases smarter.

Detroit is an unusual kind of team. They’re no longer a power-hitting behemoth and certainly not an offensive juggernaut. But they’re also not a pitching, running, and defense team—because their defense is terrible and their bullpen very leaky. If you’re going to depend on your starting rotation rather than your slugging, you’re going to have to win a lot of close low-scoring games, the kind of games you need speed, defense, and a good bullpen to nail down. The Tigers do have some speed but not the other two essentials to fit this profile. How far can their three very good healthy starters (Price, Scherzer, and the emerging Rick Porcello) and their only three reliable hitters—Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez—take them? At this point, the other 19 players on the Tigers are below league average and way below playoff caliber.