June 23, 2006
The Detroit Tigers have surprised many with a torrid start to the season that has led them to a perch atop the American League Central. In retrospect, the Tigers were certainly a team to be feared. PECOTA was very friendly to the lineup, and expected a pretty balanced and powerful unit to form. The starting pitching included highly touted rookie Justin Verlander, as well as the seemingly ageless Kenny Rogers, the promising Jeremy Bonderman, and the improving Nate Robertson. The bullpen would be aided by another rookie, Joel Zumaya. They were expected to do well very defensively, with players like Brandon Inge and Carlos Guillen, as well as Ivan Rodriguez.
So far this year they have exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic by building on the strengths originally found in their Opening Day roster. Not only have the Tigers played well defensively, but they lead the league in Defensive Efficiency, coming in at .734; .011 ahead of the Padres. Only one of their positions comes in below average defensively, and that one is handled by Magglio Ordonez, one of the most potent offensive performers on the club.
This has helped to make the rotation that much more effective. There is enough depth in the starting pitching that losing Mike Maroth until September was shrugged off, and Maroth had a 3.56 ERA at the time. With Verlander showing the league why he was the #15 prospect on Baseball Prospectus' Top 50 list, as well as Rogers proving he still has something left in the tank, the club has been able to stay ahead of the White Sox.
The lineup has lived up to expectations, too. Chris Shelton's ridiculously hot start propelled the Tigers to early success, but valuable seasons from a pair of healthy bats have kept the Tigers in the win column more often than not. Guillen has hit .293/.371/.492 at shortstop, while also contributing above average defense. Ordonez has hit .307/.355/.528 for the season and hit .320/.360/.573 in May when Shelton was cooling. Throw in the excellent performance of new DH Marcus Thames--.303/.378/.658 in 152 at-bats--as well as rookie Curtis Granderson's .285/.379/.485 line, and it is no wonder the Tigers are averaging more than five runs scored per game. Considering PECOTA pegged them for roughly 5.2 runs per game--and they are just over 5.1--it shouldn't be a surprise that they have performed as well as they have.
What the Tigers needed to do in order to succeed was to beat up on their divisional opponents. They have done this, as they are 23-10 against Central teams, a slightly better record than the second place White Sox. They have only gone 8-8 against the powerful American League East, but the AL West and interleague opponents have not been able to slow their progress. If the rookies continue to play up to expectations as they have, and injuries do not hinder the team any further--they have already lost designated hitter Dmitri Young, as well as Maroth--the Tigers should still be in the race in October. None of the players outside of Marcus Thames really appears to be playing above his head; in fact, Craig Monroe and Placido Polanco are well below their expected level of performance. Regression may not be a serious factor for a team racing to the postseason for the first time in years, and that is a wonderful thing to hear if you're a long suffering fan.