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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 6½ 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 6½ 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.

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mafrth77
9/18
losing a bad defensive first baseman with an .850 ops shouldn't be the deathnell for any team. Morneau is overrated, and his absence is also
lucasjthompson
9/18
Morneau's an above-average defensive 1st baseman by my estimation. I'm looking both at FRAA and just having watched him play. Do you know something I don't here? And Morneau isn't overrated, he was playing injured. He was the best overall 1st baseman in the league at the all-star break, and would have hung out near the top if he'd stayed healthy. His current OPS comes after having nosedived from around 1050 at midseason. And even if his true value were around 850 (he's hit about 880 since his breakout season in 2006), that's not really anything to sneeze at, is it? I'm not sure what team you root for, but when it comes to the Twins, you don't get anything close to 850 when you replace him (see discussion re: Young, Delmon above). And since I'm bothering to post, let me just add that Joe Mauer is awesome.
mafrth77
9/19
Morneau isn't a bad player, he's just average. His UZR/150 averages out at +1.5 since he started playing since he started playing everyday in '06(I went overboard when I said he was "bad") and he is 6 out of 13 AL qualifiers at 1B in OPS this year. You' re right about the drop=off between him and any potential replacements, but that says more about the Twins roster construction than Morneau.
mhmosher
9/19
Holy shit....Morneau is average my ass. What MLB do you watch anyway?
mafrth77
9/19
The one where Morneau is an average player.
sbnirish77
9/19
Save your breath ... don't you know that all those RBIs don't count for anything Morneau might just be the most hated player after Jeter by statheads ... and he'll probably end up with 4000 hits ... but hey its a counting stat
Gugilymugily
9/19
He's not being a stathead, he's just being a contrarian dummy. It can be hard to tell the two apart sometimes (I say that as an avowed stathead and serial contrarian) Justin Morneau 2006-2009 Park Adjusted Runs Above Average(wOBA): 97 Fielding Runs Above Average(UZR): 4 Prince Fielder 2006-2009 Park Adjusted Runs Above Average(wOBA): 132 Fielding Runs Above Average(UZR): -28 Prince is probably about average too, the only people who should come out as above average are guys like Pujols. That's what average means, right?
DrDave
9/19
Morneau is 13th out of the 60 MLB first basemen in VORP, essentially tied with Kendry "MVP Candidate!?" Morales. Calling that 'average' isn't even hyperbole for rhetorical effect; it's just wrong. As you note, though, defense counts too. The WARP leaderboards don't filter by position, so it's more work to see how the BP measures rank them, but it looks like Morneau is currently 11th in WARP1, at 4.3. He has enough of a lead over his closest competition (Joey Votto, Paul Konerko) that this isn't likely to change by the end of the season. There's also a knee in the curve here -- four places ahead of Morneau is only a 4.6 WARP1 (Morales), but 4 places behind him drops you to 3.0 (Carlos Pena). Is it reasonable to call the 11th-most-valuable first baseman in a 30 team league 'average'? Probably not, but it's not as outrageous as it sounded at first. On the other hand, he's clearly an above-average AL 1B this season -- only Teixeira, Youkilis, Cabrera, and Kendry Morales have clearly been better, and he's well ahead of the rest of the pack. If you suspect that WARP1 doesn't do a perfect job of normalizing across the leagues, that might help Morneau's case. (FWIW, WARP1 has Prince stomping Morneau in WARP, 5.8 to 4.3, mostly because FRAA2 only has Fielder at -12. But of the other 1Bs ahead of Morneau on the WARP list, Ryan Howard is the only other one who might drop a bit relative to Morneau if you use UZR instead of FRAA.)
mafrth77
9/19
Take away 2006 when Prince was a 22 year old rookie who performed at a replacement level. And the difference in the two players value appears. Prince Runs above average 119.5, -18 uzr Morneau- Runs above average 58.6 + 2.2 uzr or about 40 runs worth of value in a three year period.
mafrth77
9/19
what is this chart supposed to show? That Fielder and Mornaeu are equally valuable? In 2006 Fielder was a 22 year old rookie and had the value of a replacent player, and Morneau was an MVP. Since then he blows Morneau away by about 40 runs of value. Are you sure your not a dummy?
Gugilymugily
9/19
It's meant to show that Justin Morneau is closer to Prince Fielder than to "average player"
mafrth77
9/20
Then you failed.
mafrth77
9/19
Is this Steve Phillips?
mhmosher
9/19
Yeah exactly. The sheer stupidity of some "statheads" just amazes me. You'd think they would be the enlightened ones.
mafrth77
9/19
Fine!! I submit!! Justin Morneau is a slightly above average player.
sbnirish77
9/19
and that after being handicapped by an injured bat for most of the last 2 months
sbnirish77
9/19
back
Vyse0wnz
9/19
What the hell happened to the comments? These comments are the ones that should be shown inappropriate -- name-calling and nonsensical vindictive -- yet it's gone on far longer than I ever expected.
mhmosher
9/19
Nothing is moderated and the ratings system is ridiculous.