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May 6, 2006

Prospectus Today

Growling Again

by Joe Sheehan

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I've been writing about surprises good and bad this week, and the topic wouldn't be complete without a column devoted to the team with the second-best record in the American League, the Detroit Tigers.

The 20-10 Tigers have been led by the best rotation in baseball, a full win better than the White Sox' fivesome at 6.3 SNLVAR. All five starters have ERAs below 4.00, led by former 20-game loser Mike Maroth at 1.78. The rotation's cumulative ERA in 3.26, and has an strikeout-to-walk ratio of 121-49, just shy of 2.5:1. At each end of the age spectrum, the Tigers are getting good starts: 41-year-old free-agent signee Kenny Rogers has kept the ball in the park (three HR in 46 2/3 innings), while 23-year-old rookie Justin Verlander has impressed with his velocity while being a bit more prone to the longball (six in 36 2/3 innings).

The Tigers' bullpen has been nearly as impressive, third in MLB in WXRL. Fernando Rodney has yet to allow a run in 13 innings, rookie Joel Zumaya has adjusted so well to the pen that he might be there for a while, and the team never really missed the winter's other big investment, Todd Jones, who opened the season on the DL.

The key for the Tigers staff has been eliminating home runs. They've allowed just 22 in 30 games, second only to the Yankees for fewest bombs allowed, a figure that has helped them to the second-lowest slugging allowed in MLB. There are ballpark and scheduling effects contributing to that number, but the fact is the Tigers have done a very good job of reducing their exposure to power, and that's been the key to their run prevention.

Well, from the mound, anyway. The Tigers have been getting good pitching, and absolutely terrific defense. They lead the majors in Defensive Efficiency with a .748 mark, turning nearly three-quarters of the balls in play against them into outs. The combination of a low home-run rate and a great defense is a powerful one. More on that in a minute.

At the plate, the Tigers got off to a fantastic start, led by first baseman Chris Shelton. They're now fifth in the majors (and the AL) in EqA, a mark lower than you might think. Their offense is actually light on OBP and heavy on slugging; their .335 OBP is actually below the AL average of .338, while their .204 ISO and 47 homers lead the majors, and their .483 slugging is third. They don't run; just 12 of 20 on the bases.

Does any of this sound familiar? An AL Central team off to an unexpectedly good start, one driven by good starting pitching, great defense, and a ton of home runs? Ring any bells? How about if I add in the unimpressive team OBP, mostly no-name bullpen and the excellent health record, save for an overweight, past-prime DH?

Setting aside the "smallball" image and the real value of their stealing bases, the above is essentially the formula last year's White Sox rode to a championship. The 2005 Sox were a low-OBP, high-slugging team that scored by hitting home runs with men on base. This Tigers team has a better offense-more OBP and power-but not a lot more, and that shows up when you compare them to the league. The Sox were six points below the AL average OBP and a point above the AL average slugging. The Tigers are three points below the AL OBP and 50 points above slugging.

The defensive comparison is obvious. The White Sox were second in the league in raw DER last year, and first in James Click's park-adjusted figures. The Tigers are first in raw DER, and their edge is big enough that they'd remain in the top three after adjusting for Comerica. That defense, coupled with a low home-run rate (the Sox were below-average after adjusting for The Cell) and a low walk rate (second in MLB to the Twins), are why the Tigers have allowed an AL-low 100 runs. The Tigers are taking away all avenues to scoring right now: no free passes, no longballs, no hits on balls in play. If that continues, they'll play more than 162 games this year.

Can it continue? The Tigers have probably benefitted from an early-season schedule that featured a below-average set of offenses. Their numbers aren't entirely a product of that slate, but they are influenced by it; Clay's Adjusted Standings show a one-win difference based just on the adjustment for opponents. The Tigers will face better teams from here on out.

The Tigers have a stronger roster than the Reds, and probably the Brewers, just to mention one more surprise team. Of the teams having unexpected starts, the Tigers are best-equipped to sustain their success. The power is definitely real, so the offense should be average to above average. The real question is whether they can prevent runs the way they have. The team on the field isn't substantially different from last year's, with the biggest difference that the starters have been on the field the whole time. Injuries and roster changes kept that from happening for most of 2005. If this defense is for real, so are the Tigers.

Can they continue to prevent home runs and walks the way they have? The history of the pitchers on their staff would indicate otherwise, but you would have argued similarly about the 2005 Sox a year ago. Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman are the real thing, but it's not clear whether the reduced home-run rates of Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson are sustainable, or whether guys like Rodney, Zumaya and Bobby Seay can continue shutting down opponents in the late innings.

The Tigers' great start has forced us to think about them arriving a year early. What looked to be the core of a contender in 2007-Granderson, Shelton, Bonderman, Verlander-may not wait that long. Even if they're not a .667 club, they've served notice in the last five weeks that the AL Central is even deeper and more talented than most observers realized. It may not have been the most direct road there, but GM Dave Dombrowski looks to have arrived at another contender.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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