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Tigers after 40 games: Tricky to assess

More wins than run differential would predict, but fill-in starters are key
@beckjason
May 15, 2019

DETROIT – Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson’s adage that it takes 40 games to evaluate a team still holds weight in these parts. But after 40 games, the 2019 Tigers are presenting a bizarre set of numbers for evaluation. With Tuesday’s 11-4 loss to Houston at Comerica Park, Detroit

DETROIT – Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson’s adage that it takes 40 games to evaluate a team still holds weight in these parts. But after 40 games, the 2019 Tigers are presenting a bizarre set of numbers for evaluation.

With Tuesday’s 11-4 loss to Houston at Comerica Park, Detroit has a run differential of negative-63, their lowest at this point in a season since their 119-loss campaign of 2003, and their sixth-largest run deficit through 40 games in franchise history. Currently, only Baltimore (-75) and Miami (-95) are deeper in the red. Judging by this gap, Detroit should be 12 games under .500, according to the Pythagorean win-loss formula used by various outlets. No Tigers team with a similar gap through 40 games has been better than 12 games under .500 until this one.

The Tigers are fourth in the American League Central at 18-22. The fifth-place Royals stand at 14-27 with a minus-14 run differential.

Box score

That Detroit stands just four games under .500 is a testament to its performance in close games, an MLB-best 17-9 record in games decided by three runs or less. Their lone blowout win was a 10-3 victory over the Angels last week behind Matthew Boyd. Their offense hasn’t yet churned out runs at a rate to produce blowouts; Detroit ranks 11th or worse among AL teams in most major offensive categories. Much of its offense Tuesday came from Ronny Rodriguez, who leads the team with six home runs and 17 RBIs despite spending the first two weeks of the season at Triple-A Toledo.

“El Felino’s a baller,” said Nicholas Castellanos, referencing Rodriguez’s stage name as a musician.

The Tigers are pulling out close games at a better rate than they did during their division-title years from earlier this decade, thanks in no small part to a dominant back-end of the bullpen led by closer Shane Greene. Yet their 5.51 bullpen ERA entering Tuesday, a stat that did not improve in the loss, shows much of the bullpen stinginess rests with Greene, Buck Farmer, Daniel Stumpf and, more recently, Joe Jimenez.

Detroit’s last seven games have featured a pair of two-run wins and five losses by at least five runs. That’s more of a statement about a rotation that is now missing four projected starters and is running out of options to fill the slots. Tuesday was Ryan Carpenter’s second rough outing in six days. Gregory Soto, who made his first Major League start on Saturday at Minnesota, will return to start Wednesday on short rest in essentially a piggyback start with Nick Ramirez because the Tigers are low on options at Triple-A Toledo and aren’t ready to tap into their pool of highly touted starting prospects at Double-A Erie.

“We’d like Soto to come up and get us whatever,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Whatever he can get us, that’s what we’re going to take, and then probably Ramirez after that. We just have to get through the ballgame and hopefully they’ll give us a chance here. That’s a good-hitting team over there. You see it. We’re putting a lot of pressure on some kids.

“There’s not a lot of options. We’re just going game by game.”

The rotation of Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris are keeping the Tigers in games. Only Boyd was expected to open the season as a starter when Spring Training began, but his performance has ranked him among the AL leaders in pitching Wins Above Replacement. Turnbull has some of the best pitching numbers of any AL rookie, while Norris is finding some of the form that made him a coveted young pitcher when the Tigers acquired him in the David Price trade.

With Gardenhire searching for innings elsewhere on his staff, the Tigers risk a regression if they can’t stabilize the other rotation slots. If they can, they could be in for a bounce in run differential if the offense warms with the long-awaited spring weather.

As bizarre as the record and run differential are, history shows how either could bounce. The previous low run differential for a Tigers team that stood four games under .500 or better through 40 games was minus-43 in 1975. That team finished 57-102. By contrast, the 2000 Tigers were 14-26 with a minus-82 run differential and finished 79-83.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.