Are the Tigers an all-time great team?

June, 17, 2013
6/17/13
6:59
PM ET
Detroit Tigers starter Max Scherzer looks to go 10-0 tonight and become just the second starter of the wild-card era to win his first 10 decisions. Roger Clemens started 11-0 for the '97 Toronto Blue Jays (Clay Buchholz and Patrick Corbin are also 9-0) on his way to the Cy Young Award that season.

Scherzer ranks third in the majors behind Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez in strikeouts, first in lowest batting average allowed (.179), sixth in the AL strikeout-to-walk ratio, and eighth in the AL in fewest home runs allowed per nine innings. He is, however, only 13th in the AL in ERA -- more on that in a bit.

[+] EnlargeDetroit's Max Scherzer
AP Photo/Tony DejakDetroit's Max Scherzer goes for his 10th win of the season tonight.
Led by Scherzer, the Tigers' rotation has been outstanding, although it took a hit on Monday when Anibal Sanchez was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder strain, an injury the Tigers are saying will cost Sanchez a couple starts -- though any shoulder issue should always make you a little nervous.

Anyway, last Thursday Jeff Sullivan pointed out something interesting on FanGraphs. At the time, in large degree because of the numbers the starting pitchers have put up, the Tigers' team Wins Above Replacement was 26.3, which put them on a 162-game pace of 66.6, which would be the third-best WAR of all time, behind only the 1927 Yankees and 1939 Yankees, regarded by many as the two greatest teams ever.

As Jeff wrote,
The Tigers are on pace to win a perfectly reasonable 91 games. That should be enough to get them into the playoffs as Central division champions. But by WAR, they’re on pace to be one of the very greatest teams in baseball history, right up there with the best of the Yankees and eclipsing the 116-win 2001 Mariners with ease. When you watch these Tigers, you might not get the vibe that you’re watching all-time greatness. But by the numbers, that’s what they feature, eschewing the stars-and-scrubs approach in favor of stars-and-more-stars.

Since Jeff wrote that, the Tigers' team WAR has climbed to 28.8 through 67 games, which puts them on pace for 69.6 WAR, a total that would move them into second place (although the '39 Yankees did it in a 154-game season). Meanwhile, the Tigers are still on pace for just 91 or 92 wins, and, no, all the blame for the discrepancy doesn't belong to Jose Valverde.

Eric Karabell and I were talking about this during lunch today and my gut reaction was, "Well, maybe there's something wrong with WAR that's overvaluing all the strikeouts." Eric's reaction was a little different: "Why are the numbers so great but the results not as great?"

Back to the pitching staff. Here are the five main starters and their ERAs and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which approximates what their ERA should be given their strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed.

Anibal Sanchez: 2.76 ERA, 2.07 FIP, 3.1 WAR
Justin Verlander: 3.41 ERA, 2.49 FIP, 3.0 WAR
Max Scherzer: 3.19 ERA, 2.48 FIP, 2.9 WAR
Doug Fister: 3.21 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 2.8 WAR
Rick Porcello: 4.37 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 1.3 WAR

Total WAR: 13.1

Since FanGraphs bases its WAR calculation on FIP rather than actual runs allowed, you can guess that a large portion of the discrepancy between the Tigers' WAR total and their actual win total comes from the difference between the ERA and FIP numbers above. Baseball-Reference.com, which calculates its pitcher WAR differently, estimates a total of 9.3 WAR for those five.

Now, Verlander (sixth), Sanchez (ninth) and Fister (20th) rank in the top 20 among qualified starters in highest batting average allowed on balls in play, and overall the Tigers have the fourth-highest BABIP in the majors at .304, "better" only than the Twins, Astros and Mets. So it could be the Tigers are a historically terrible defensive team, but the defensive metrics don't say that. FanGraphs' defensive metric, UZR, has the Tigers at minus-5 runs, which is bad, but not as bad as the Twins, Astros or Mets, all at minus-16 runs or worse. Baseball-Reference uses DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), which has the Tigers at minus-11 runs, which is bad, but there are eight teams rated worse.

So this suggests that maybe Verlander, Sanchez and Fister have simply faced some bad luck on balls in play, although nothing is ever as simple as suggesting it's just bad luck. One more thing. I thought I'd check pitcher's numbers with the bases empty and with runners on base. A pitcher's ERA can climb if the hits he does allow are simply bunched together.

Sanchez: .227/.281/.341, .246/.290/.331
Verlander: .257/.317/.346, .248/.302/.386
Scherzer: .153/.195/.288, .259/.330/.376
Fister: .245/.294/.324, .272/.319/.340
Porcello: .217/.254/.328, .318/.375/.489

As you can see, Scherzer and Porcello have been much worse with runners on base. There could be a real issue here -- they lose stuff from the stretch, Alex Avila calls for too many fastballs, etc. -- or just randomness in the numbers.

Anyway, the Tigers have a comfortable lead in the AL Central, and even if Sanchez's injury requires a longer DL stint than 15 days, I see them pulling away to a sizable lead in the division in the second half. But all-time great team? That probably won't happen, although 100 wins isn't out of the question; the Tigers would have to go 62-33 over their final 95 games to reach the century mark. And that probably means Jose Valverde better start locking down every save situation, for starters.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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