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September 18, 2009

Prospectus Today

Twins versus Tigers

by Joe Sheehan

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Last week I speculated what a team prepared to go on a late-season push akin to the 2007 Phillies or 2007 Rockies might look like. In writing that, and a few other pieces about the lack of races for us to enjoy this September, I didn't consider the flip side: what would a team about to do a 2007 Mets faceplant look like?

The Tigers may be stepping up to show us. Despite having a seven-game lead a bit more than a week ago while heading into 10 games with the Royals and Blue Jays, seven at home, the Tigers have managed to create intrigue where there should have been none. They lost an unconscionable five of six games to the Royals, and split four games with the Jays at Comerica Park despite missing Roy Halladay. From their peak lead of seven games, it's now down to four, and they spend almost the entire rest of the season playing the two teams chasing them: seven games with the Twins, starting tonight in Minnesota, and six with the White Sox, now 6 games behind, including a season-ending three-game series with the SouthSiders at home.

It never should have gotten to this point. The Tigers have had a least a share of first place since May 16, and they've been alone at the top since July 24. The White Sox' big acquisitions fizzled so badly that they went from buyer to seller in four weeks, dealing away two players at the August 31 deadline. They haven't been above .500 since August 25. The Twins shut down Justin Morneau this week in part because they hadn't been able to clear the gravitational pull of .500: their highwater mark this year is three games over, set on July 18, and they've been under .500 for much of the second half. Simply by dint of not falling apart, the Tigers were set to be the biggest midget. Now, they're headed into what will be a brutal environment needing to take two out of three to keep events from snowballing on them.

The Tigers haven't been unlucky. They've been outscored 63-40 during the stretch and took the only two one-run games they played in that time. Just two starters pitched into the seventh inning, and just two times did the Tigers get quality starts. The starters have allowed 34 runs in 51 2/3 innings, a rate of 5.9 RA/9 that isn't helping. The bullpen, though, is even worse: 29 runs allowed in 36 2/3 innings, a 7.2 RA/9 mark. There are simply no safe havens for Jim Leyland, who has a closer who walks a man every other inning and just one pitcher, Brandon Lyon, with an ERA below 3.50. (Throw in rookie specialist Fu-Te Ni, who is at 2.93 in just 27 2/3 innings.) The defense hasn't been awful, allowing a .330 batting average on balls in play; no, this is on the pitchers, who have walked 40 men against 58 strikeouts in the last 10 games, who've allowed a whopping 15 homers, and who average five innings a start. Washburn has made Carl Pavano and Jake Peavy look like solid deadline pickups since coming to Detroit, with a 7.33 ERA in eight starts thanks to 12 homers allowed in 43 innings. Hard to imagine.

As they have all season long, the Tigers have basically two functioning starting pitchers, though now with Edwin Jackson a mess-his ERA has risen in eight straight starts, during which he has a 5.70 ERA and 10 homers allowed in 47 1/3 innings-it's Rick Porcello answering the bell. Since being ejected from his August 11 game against the Red Sox, Porcello has walked just seven men in six starts, the Tigers winning four of those behind his 3.79 ERA. Even with Porcello getting good results, there are some awful warning signs for him: he's missing fewer bats and getting fewer ground balls in that time, meaning even he's a risk to implode, just as he did in June and July. The 20-year-old will go over 150 major-league innings this weekend, but the Tigers have no choice but to ride him until they're sent home for the season.

Can this team outscore its staff? It's not likely. There's just one really good hitter, Miguel Cabrera, on the team. Curtis Granderson has a .271 EqA and should be platooned. Remember when Magglio Ordonez had to be benched, or released, or shot, rather than be allowed to vest his option? He's second on the team in OBP, and fourth in EqA. He's fifth in runs scored and sixth in RARP despite the loss of playing time. Brandon Inge, All-Star, has proven that designation to be silly with a .183/.259/.289 second half that makes his season line wind up looking just like every other Brandon Inge season. He has 14 walks and nine extra-base hits since the trip to St. Louis, which is roughly two Dontrelle Willis starts. On the whole, it's a team that doesn't hit for average, doesn't walk, and doesn't hit for so much power to make you forget the first two things.

Here's the amazing part, given everything I just wrote: because the Twins and the White Sox haven't exactly torn it up or seem likely to, the Tigers still have an PECOTA-adjusted 82.6 percent chance to win the division, a figure just a bit less than the 87.8 percent chance they had at their peak. A look at the weekend ahead illustrates why. They have the better starting pitcher in two of the games, being behind in only Sunday's Nate Robertson/Scott Baker matchup. The Twins are without their second-best hitter in Justin Morneau, who shut it down earlier this week due to a broken vertebrae. The fall-off to Delmon Young for a team that already doesn't get enough runners on base is significant, their sweep of the Indians notwithstanding. They're just not a very good team without Morneau.

I respect the numbers, but I can't help but think that calling the Tigers a 5-1 favorite over the field as they protect a four-game lead heading into a nine-game road trip seems excessive, given just how poorly they played over the last 10 days. The Twins haven't played well, nor have the White Sox-since the All-Star break, the Twins and Tigers are a single game above .500, and the Sox are 27-32-but we've reached a point where how well you've played doesn't matter nearly as much as how well you're going to play. The Twins are four back with seven against the leaders; the Sox are 6 back with six head-to-head (and for fun, those two will play what may be an elimination series next week in Chicago). The Twins, at least, have a clear shot, and when you're 74-72, that's all you can hope for. Don't look now, but we could still get some drama this month.

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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