What happened to derail the Detroit Tigers’ juggernaut? After going 12-4 in early May, the team collapsed and went 4-13. Compared to the surge, starters’ ERA in the slump more than doubled, opponents’ batting average jumped 100 points, and Tiger hitters’ batting average fell off 40 or 50 points collectively.
Baseball slumps are mysterious. Individual batters and pitchers can hit the skids simply because some key part of their mechanics goes awry. But a team-wide funk is like an unknown contagion: it’s not always clear what’s the cause and what’s the possible cure. Commentators start talking about “chemistry,” but that’s clearly not the issue in Detroit — the manager, the players, and the coaches all seem to get along, and there’s a reliably positive attitude.
In their surprising turnaround from champs to chumps, not every player on the squad was infected. The top half of the batting order kept hitting, for the most part, with Miggy getting stronger after his early season slump and VMart humming along. Anibal Sanchez returned from the DL to pitch better than ever. Joba Chamberlain was consistent in the bullpen — at least until he had to close a game and face Big Papi on Sunday.
But legions of fans are wondering what the hell happened to:
1. Justin Verlander
The ace is in a hole, and it keeps getting deeper. Theories abounded early last season before JV righted the ship, and now they’re flying again. Too much or too little of Kate Upton? Too much fiddling with his mechanics? Do his pants fit anymore? What’s he eating the night before games? Amid the endless speculation, the facts are undeniable: He’s lost velocity and command. His strikeouts are way down: 6.4 per nine innings this year, after five seasons of averaging one per inning. He’s walking more batters. He’s yielding a lot more hits, and his WHIP of over 1.4 this season is his worst ever. He’s had quite a few innings where the wheels came off. Perhaps throwing 16,600 pitches since 2010 — 1,000 more than any other pitcher in the majors, as Peter Gammons has recently reported — has taken its toll. Things are getting worse, not better: he gave up eight earned runs in his first five starts. He gave up 32 runs in his next eight starts. Verlander is the Tigers’ No. 1 concern.
2. Joe Nathan
But their $20 million closer is a close second. He’s 39 years old, and at his age a pitcher lives on the edge when he loses even a little command. As Dan Holmes pointed out yesterday, few closers have success after the age of 38. It appears Nathan’s lost more than a little. He looks mystified on the mound. Nathan hasn’t had anywhere near this bad a year since he became a closer with the Twins in 2004. He’s been horrible for Detroit. The closer problem, as we’ve seen in recent years, is something the team simply has to fix, and they can’t afford to wait to see if Nathan is going to be OK. This may be something he can work his way out of — but it may also be the end of his career.
3. Austin Jackson
This spring and into April, he was on fire, driving balls in the gaps and even stealing bases. In April he hit .310. In May and the first week of June, he hit .200. His OPS (on-base plus slugging) was over .900 until the calendar turned to May; after that, it’s been barely over .500. Right now, he’s one of the least productive center fielders in baseball. Others at the bottom of the order — Castellanos and Avila, to name two — aren’t doing a whole lot either, but Nick is a rookie still learning big-league pitchers and has had some big hits, and Alex is a banged-up backstop whose best contributions are on the defensive side. The Tigers can live without them racking up big numbers. AJ is the biggest concern. In his fifth season in the bigs, despite racking up hits, perhaps his ceiling isn’t as high as was once thought. He is definitely Culprit No. 3 in the Slump.
AKA the Black Hole all season long: Jose Iglesias out for the year. Alex Gonzalez? Andrew Romine? Danny Worth? Can you say “desperation measures?” They can each hit .200 — maybe. Romine at first looked like he could field well — but no, not consistently. The Tigers are getting less offensive production out of their shortstop position than at any time since 1968 with Ray Oyler and Tommy Matchick. They waited too long to snare Stephen Drew. Finally, they’ve brought up Eugenio Suarez. And first impressions indicate that they may have had what they were looking for under their noses the whole time. Cross your fingers and hope.
5. Brad Ausmus
Maybe he’s not as much a breath of fresh air as it first appeared. He’s still playing Don Kelly way too often — just like Jim Leyland. He’s still summoning Phil Coke from the bullpen way too often (which is to say, in any situation other than a blowout) — just like Leyland. And he is disappointingly settling into standard thinking about each reliever having a role confined to certain innings when, with this bullpen, he needs to start using his mixed bag of personnel more creatively. The coming weeks will be the first tough test for the new Tigers manager — because he’s got to find a cure for what’s ailing this team.