Hard-hitting Tigers low on offensive luck

May 16th, 2017

The 2017 Detroit Tigers are a bit of a mystery on offense. You look at the names -- , , , -- and you think this team should hit. You watch them hit, and see them crack one liner after another, and you think they should score runs.

But, well, they're not. Not like they would expect to, not like Tigers teams of recent vintages have done.

Entering Monday, they were sixth in the American League in runs. They're eighth in team OPS, eighth in home runs, eighth in slugging. The Tigers have struggled to get outs, especially in relief, but if they were hitting like they hoped, they might be in first place in the AL Central.

And if you're a Detroit fan who swears that your team has hit into some amazing bad luck this year, you're not wrong.

By basically any measure, the Tigers have tattooed the ball this year. They just don't have the results to match. No team has hit into worse luck so far in 2017.

Detroit hitters rank:

• Second in the Majors in average exit velocity (88.7 mph, behind only the Orioles' group of mashers)

• First in the Majors in total number of barrels, and rate of barrels per batted ball

• Fourth in number of balls hit at least 95 mph, and first in percentage of batted balls with an exit velocity of at least 95.

Considering that they match that hard contact with decent control of the strike zone (eighth in the AL in strikeouts, sixth in walks), they should be scoring runs.

The Tigers are making the kind of contact that should lead to an elite offense. xwOBA is a Statcast™ metric that determines what a player or team's wOBA (weighted on-base average, a good one-stop shopping metric for contributions at the plate) should be, based on the quality of contact. No team in baseball has a better xwOBA than the Tigers.

Detroit is at .348 -- highest in the Major Leagues by 10 points over second-place Washington. The Tigers' actual wOBA, though, is .320, which ranks 16th. The gap between those two numbers, 28 points, is by far the highest in the Majors. The Giants are a distant second at 17 points.

There's good news and bad news contained in that picture. The good news is at least some of that bad luck should normalize over the course of a season. No team in the Majors had a bigger negative gap than nine points last season, and the biggest in 2015 was just seven points. It would be basically unheard of for that kind of bad luck to continue over the course of a full season.

The bad news? It won't go away entirely, because some of it has to do with Detroit's home ballpark. Comerica Park is, overall, a better place to hit than its reputation suggests. But it doesn't suit the Tigers, as constructed, all that well.

A perfect example of this phenomenon occurred on April 7, when Miguel Cabrera demolished a baseball to deep center field off of of the Red Sox. The ball left the bat with an exit velocity of 111.5 mph and a launch angle of 22 degrees, a combination that has a hit probability of 97 percent. But the ball was devoured by in Comerica's spacious outfield for an out.

Detroit has a 38-point gap at home this year, which is the highest in baseball. The Tigers are at 21 points on the road; that's almost certain to dissipate over the remaining months.

But a year ago, Detroit had a seven-point gap at home that was third highest in baseball. In 2015, the Tigers had a slight advantage hitting at home (wOBA three points higher than xwOBA), but that was one of the smallest advantages of any team -- 21 clubs outperformed expectations by more.

So while the results should begin to mirror the Tigers' contact more, there's no guarantee some gap won't linger. In fact, it seems likely it will.

But it's still very probable that this team, with those familiar names, will start producing more familiar results, and soon.