SweetSpot: Jhonny Peralta

Notes on D: Peralta's good numbers

June, 25, 2014
Jhonny PeraltaJeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsJhonny Peralta has been very steady at shortstop in 2014.

The current major league leader in Defensive Runs Saved among shortstops is not Andrelton Simmons or Troy Tulowitzki. It's not Brandon Crawford or Zack Cozart or Elvis Andrus.

It's St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta.

Peralta is an interesting one to analyze in that the two primary advanced defensive metrics -- Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) have disagreed on Peralta's value relative to his peers. Peralta has never ranked in the top 15 among shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved, but has ranked in the top three in UZR in 2011 and 2012 before dropping to 14th in 2013.

This year, both metrics agree that he rates very well. He's first among shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved with 14 and a hair behind Simmons for the top spot in UZR.

This struck me as odd, so I took a closer look, with the help of a few of our tools.

It's not about flash
Peralta ranks 10th among shortstops in innings played but just 29th in what the video-tracking service we use refers to as "Good Fielding Plays" (think plays that are Web Gem-like in nature).

He has only 10 in 641 2/3 innings (including a nice one last night versus Justin Morneau), or one more than Mets shortstop Omar Quintanilla had ... in 71 innings.

There are 20 shortstops who have at least 20 Good Fielding Plays (Alcides Escobar has the most, with 44).

Converting the “tough” outs
Though Peralta doesn't nececessary make the flashy play, he's rating well in one regard. Baseball Info Solutions (which devised the Defensive Runs Saved stat) provided us with some noteworthy data on Peralta.

Peralta enters Wednesday with 14 successful plays (in other words, gotten an out) on 53 batted balls hit to areas on the field in which outs are converted less than half the time (his 26 percent conversion ranks sixth in the majors).

Last season, he had a total of 16 such plays on 78 opportunities (20.5 percent).

Minimizing miscues
To his credit, Peralta has minimized mistakes. He's been charged with eight errors, but has only two plays that BIS graded as "Defensive Misplays" (one for an errant throw and one for a bobble, both resulting in a negative consequence without an error being charged).

That’s a low total given how much Peralta has played. There are 14 shortstops with 20 or more Misplays and Errors.

Peralta is averaging one misplay and error every 64 innings. In 2013, he averaged one every 43 innings.

So what's the secret to his success?
We went to two people whom we felt would be knowledgeable on this subject -- "Baseball Tonight" analysts Alex Cora and Manny Acta. They both came up with the answer that would totally make sense.

"They don't shift as often as other teams, but they put him in the right spot," Cora said. "Jose Oquendo is one of the best infield coaches in the majors. That pitching staff helps too. They don't miss their spots."

And this is an important thing to keep in mind with the advanced defensive metrics. Just because someone rates really well or really poorly, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the blame fully lies with them.

In this case, the Cardinals seem to have found the best way to maximize Peralta's skill-set. And they're reaping the benefits of it in a big way. They lead the majors by a wide margin with 60 Defensive Runs Saved.

This is what the players should have done back in 1995 or 1998 or 2001: Police themselves.

The new agreement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association creates even harsher penalties for those players who violate the Joint Drug Program: A first suspension increases from 50 games to 80 and a second one from 100 to 162. A third positive still results in permanent suspension. Further, if you're suspended during the season you're ineligible to play in the postseason, even if your suspension has elapsed.

By agreeing to the rules and these expanded penalties, the players have made it even more clear that they want the game cleaned up and kept clean. No more Ryan Brauns, no more Jhonny Peraltas and definitely no more Alex Rodriguezes (one A-Rod is undoubtedly enough). In theory, tougher penalties will curb PED usage, although that's purely speculative; we don't really know how many players are using now and how many are getting away with it. In a recent ESPN The Magazine survey of major leaguers, one player suggested PED use is next to zero while another estimated 20 percent of players are still using. So even the players aren't exactly sure what's going on, let alone how many players are currently skirting the drug tests.
[+] EnlargeRyan Braun
Courtesy is Jerry CrasnickExpanded PED penalties for all players might be Ryan Braun's less happy legacy.

Why the urgency for players to want changes? There was a lot of negative reaction from players when Peralta, coming off a PED suspension with the Tigers, signed a four-year, $53 million contract with the Cardinals this offseason. What penalty did Peralta pay? He missed 50 games, but he still played in the postseason with Detroit and then got a fat contract from the Cardinals.

Of course, these new rules won't necessarily change that potential outcome, although there is now greater risk for those teams who sign a player who has previously been suspended.

Aside from the lengths of the suspensions, modifications include more in-season random urine collections (from 1,400 to 3,200) in addition to the 1,200 mandatory collections from players on the 40-man major league roster during spring training and 1,200 more during the season. In theory, this will make it more difficult to beat the drug testers. More testing means that, during the season, anybody using will be rolling the dice because they're at that much more risk of being caught. There will also be more blood tests for human growth hormone. The two sides also agreed to add DHEA -- an endogenous steroid hormone found in supplements and widely available -- to the list of banned substances, although with less stringent penalties (follow-up testing for a first violation, 25-game suspension for a second violation, 80 games for a third and permanent suspension for a fourth).

Some will argue the new rules still aren't tough enough; some will argue they're too harsh, especially if a player tests positive for inadvertently using a product with a banned substance (there are allowances for that if a player can prove it was accidental). Some will argue this all just a big waste of time since PEDs don't really help all that much anyway.

The one thing the new modifications don't account for is the high percentage of MLB players allowed to use ADHD medication. Last season, 119 players were granted therapeutic use exemptions (or TUE) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and allowed to use medication that basically acts as a stimulant. Stimulants are banned in the JDE if you're not granted a TUE. That 119 total was approximately 14 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters or disabled lists. The percentage of adults ages 18 to 44 with ADHD is estimated at 4.4 percent, so it seems fairly clear that MLB players are abusing this loophole.

In the end, the players wanted a cleaner game and they're the ones who have made this happen. Bud Selig will surely claim this as another check mark on his legacy list but we know he slept on this issue for at least a decade.

If you want to credit anyone, give credit to Tony Clark, the new head of the MLBPA, for his being willing to modify the current agreement. You can call this another win for the owners but I call it a win for the players.

NL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we would take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our National League look:

NL East
Braves: The big change for Atlanta will be dealing with the departure of Brian McCann, whose strike-stealing skills will be hard to replace. Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird will try. Gattis may be better than you think (3 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013). By our tally (and that of StatCorner’s publicly available data), he ranked among the best in the majors at getting pitches in the strike zone to be called strikes.

Marlins: The Miami infield rated as average last season, but it has a new -- and potentially worse -- look in 2014, with shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria as the lone holdover. The Marlins will try Garrett Jones (and his negative-22 career Runs Saved) at first base, Rafael Furcal at second base (last played there for two innings in 2004) and Casey McGehee at third (bad numbers there in 2009 and 2010, but average in 2011). They’ll also have Jarrod Saltalamacchia catching; he typically rates bottom of the pack when it comes to defensive metrics.

Mets: The big story for the Mets will likely be how three center fielders coalesce in the outfield. If it works, the Mets could have the best ground-covering combo in the league. The likely alignment will be Curtis Granderson in left, Juan Lagares in center and Chris Young in right, though Young could shift to center (with Granderson moving to right and Eric Young to left) if Lagares’ offense isn’t to the Mets liking.

Nationals: Washington hasn't done anything to tinker with its primary starting unit. Arguably the biggest worry will be making sure Bryce Harper doesn’t overhustle his way into any walls as he did last season. The other thing that will be intriguing will be how new acquisition Doug Fister fares with a better infield defense behind him than he had in Detroit the past couple of seasons. Some think that could bode really well.

Phillies: Many scoffed at the Marlon Byrd contract, but he represents a huge defensive upgrade for the Phillies in right field. The transition from John Mayberry Jr., Delmon Young, Darin Ruf and Laynce Nix to Byrd represents a swing of 31 Runs Saved (the four combined for negative-19 Runs Saved; Byrd rated among the best with 12).

The Phillies still have a lot of defensive issues, though. First baseman Ryan Howard has minimal range. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins may still pass the eye test but has rated poorly three years running (negative-30 Runs Saved in that span). Their third-base combo rated almost as badly as right field. And primary center fielder Ben Revere had all sorts of issues with balls hit over his head last season. There is a lot of potential trouble brewing for 2014.

NL Central
Brewers: Ryan Braun will not just be returning from a performance-enhancing drug suspension. He’ll also be playing a new position, right field, as the Brewers announced their intention to shift him from left field. Braun has 23 Runs Saved over the past four seasons, but the deterrent value of his throwing arm, which is minimal to below average, will now be a bigger factor. He’ll have to be pretty good all-around to match what the team got from Norichika Aoki & Co. (combined 13 Defensive Runs Saved).

Cardinals: St. Louis ranked second to last in the NL in Defensive Runs Saved last season and had only one position that rated above the major league average. That shouldn’t happen again.

The Cardinals have moved Matt Carpenter from second to his natural spot at third, where he should be an upgrade over David Freese. Freese was traded to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, who, if his hamstrings are healthy, could be a 20-plus run improvement over Jon Jay in center field. Another great glove in Mark Ellis signed to share second base with Kolten Wong, which will be an improvement over Carpenter. And Jhonny Peralta probably is no worse than on par defensively with the man he’ll replace at short, Pete Kozma. In sum, the Cardinals could be the most-improved defensive team from last season to this season.

Cubs: The Cubs aren’t vastly different from what they were at the end of last season, at least not yet. Their outfield defense needed an upgrade, and the one thing they’ve done to that end is obtain Justin Ruggiano. He has fared both well and poorly in center field in the past. Ruggiano may get a full-time shot to see what he can do in 2014.

Pirates: Pittsburgh liked Russell Martin so much it brought in a defensive standout to back him up in Chris Stewart. Stewart excels in all areas and could invert what the team got in 2013 from its backup catchers (negative-6 Runs Saved). The Pirates were also smart about keeping Clint Barmes around on a low-salary deal. He’s no Andrelton Simmons, but he rates among the best defensive shortstops in the league.

Reds: Cincinnati will give Billy Hamilton every chance to be the every-day center fielder in 2014. He rates as “fine,” which will be a major upgrade from the struggles of Shin-Soo Choo, who was forced to play out of position last season. The Reds will also fully take the training wheels off Devin Mesoraco with outstanding defender Ryan Hanigan having been traded to the Rays. Keep an eye on that one. The security of having Hanigan could be a big loss on the defensive side.

NL West
Diamondbacks: Mark Trumbo shifted back and forth between first base and the outfield with the Angels, but he should be the full-time left fielder in 2014 for a team that had four players with 25 or more starts at the position last season. Trumbo showed he could handle left in a stint there with the Halos two seasons ago (a better fit there than in right). My guess is the Diamondbacks will play him deep and concede some singles to limit the number of times he’ll have to retreat to chase a potential extra-base hit.

Dodgers: Yasiel Puig posted a terrific defensive rating in his initial stint in the big leagues (10 Runs Saved), but one concern the Dodgers will have was visible in the NL Championship Series -- how Puig does at limiting his mistakes.

Puig ranked 20th in innings played in right field last season but had the seventh-most Defensive Misplays & Errors (22) based on Baseball Info Solutions’ video review. Over 162 games, that might not affect his overall rating, but that sort of thing could play a large role in swinging a couple of important games one way or the other.

The loss of Mark Ellis could also be big, though the jury is out until we see how Alexander Guerrero handles second base.

Giants: San Francisco cast its lot with a pair of outfielders who will look a bit awkward in the corners, with Mike Morse in left and Hunter Pence in right. This could be a problem if the pitching staff is fly ball inclined. Pence is at negative-16 Runs Saved over the past two seasons. Morse fits best as a DH, and his value will be in whether he can drive in more runs than he lets in. Whoever the Giants' center fielder is this season will have his work cut out for him.

Padres: San Diego will look to run Seth Smith, whom it got from the Athletics for Luke Gregerson, in right field. This could be a little dicey. Smith has negative-13 Runs Saved in the equivalent of about a season’s worth of games there. Expect Chris Denorfia (21 career Runs Saved in right) to remain as a valuable fourth outfielder, late-game replacement.

Rockies: The big defensive-themed news for the Rockies this offseason was their decision to commit to Gold Glove left fielder Carlos Gonzalez as a full-timer in center after trading Dexter Fowler. So long as he’s not the Gonzalez of 2012, who looked a little heavy and finished with negative-13 Runs Saved, that should work out all right.

Colorado does have a lot of flexibility in its outfield with Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs coming off the bench for now. Either could come in as a late-game replacement for Michael Cuddyer if needed, and we wouldn’t be surprised if either got some significant playing time in left field too.

SweetSpot TV: Offseason rapid fire!

November, 26, 2013

It's another edition of Offseason Rapid Fire with Eric Karabell. We discuss the latest news and also ask: Which is the team to beat right now?

Cardinals' options at shortstop

November, 16, 2013
Defending a pennant and with money to spend, the Cardinals, you'd think, have it made. They're the model organization, a reliable contender, well-stocked with young talent -- and they really need to come up with an alternative to Pete Kozma at shortstop. Between his .548 OPS and defense that isn't game-alteringly excellent, he's hard to warm up to as anything better than an injury replacement to your regular. And after doing just that last season, filling in for oft-injured Rafael Furcal, it's time to find a better answer.

So let's say the slate is clean. What are the Cardinals' options at shortstop?

Sign me up!: The free-agent market isn't replete with great choices. Jhonny Peralta is the class of the field after putting up an .815 OPS for the Tigers around his PED suspension, but after a year afield which Baseball Info Solutions' Plus-Minus graded him at zero and UZR rated him just slightly positive, we're talking about a guy who might not be a perfect fit over the length of the three-year deal he's looking for. Add in the expectation that he'll run you eight figures per annum.

[+] EnlargeJhonny Peralta
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsSuspended 50 games for PEDs last season, Jhonny Peralta batted .303 in 107 games for Detroit and was named an All-Star.
Is Peralta in reach? Absolutely, if the Cardinals decide he's to their taste, yes. Between Chris Carpenter's retirement and having multiple free agents, GM John Mozeliak has almost $28 million back in the till relative to the Cards' 2013 payroll, with just David Freese likely to take a noteworthy bite out of that via arbitration. So spending money with a talented young pitching staff already in place seems doable. The opportunity cost of signing Peralta is that it would probably preclude re-signing or replacing Carlos Beltran. Even that seems doable -- Allen Craig moves over to right field full time (at least until top prospect Oscar Taveras arrives), leaving Matt Adams alone at first base for the time being. But is that really where Mozeliak wants to go?

More cheaply, if Kozma's Game 1 fielding snafu in the World Series is still on your mind, defensive upgrades are out there: Clint Barmes in particular, and arguably Brendan Ryan (if he doesn't simply re-sign with the Yankees). But they're even less likely to contribute an OPS above .600 than Kozma is, and barely merit the investment beyond providing a spring training alternative.

Which really leaves only two noteworthy potential market solutions: Stephen Drew, returning to free agency after his one-year, $9.5 million deal with the Red Sox, and old friend Rafael Furcal, back on the market after missing the second season of his two-year, $14 million deal with the Cardinals with an elbow injury.

Drew is apparently already receiving multiyear offers but should still cost less than $10 million per year, which would leave the Cardinals with money to spend on Beltran (or not). Between last year's .777 OPS and adequate defense (his postseason heroics afield aside, Plus-Minus and UZR don't peg him as a significant positive), He'd be a worthwhile and fairly safe solution.

[+] EnlargeStephen Drew
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsStephen Drew's defense was stellar during the Red Sox's championship run.
What about Furcal? He'd have to be a fairly late selection, since he's going to have to prove that his elbow is sound in winter ball in the Caribbean. Until that happens, Mozeliak would be better off exploring alternatives. But between their familiarity with Furcal, his past value on both sides of the ball, and his comeback campaign, he'd cost less than Drew while providing a better index of risk versus reward.

Let's make a deal: Surely there are teams with veteran shortstops nearing the end of their contracts, or with kids on the way up that might make their current placeholders at short expendable. Talking to the Rangers about Jurickson Profar or Elvis Andrus is the obvious fantasy scenario that excites everybody. A Taveras-for-Profar deal in an exchange for top prospects is one of those tantalizing notions that sounds great on the back of an envelope. It's probably also about as likely to happen as your landing a date with whichever half of Brangelina you fancy.

Asdrubal Cabrera of the Indians would be a great fit: He's a free agent after next year, and the Tribe has top shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor on the way up. But Lindor only just had a sniff of Double-A, and it would be an especially bold -- unlikely, actually -- move for GM Chris Antonetti to swap Cabrera after the Indians' 90-win season anticipating Lindor's arrival before the tail end of 2014. Similarly, the Rays might be eventually willing to talk about Yunel Escobar after having picked up his option, but they'd first need to see how prospect Hak-Ju Lee is healing from his season-ending knee injury.

Another cheaper option would be talking to the Diamondbacks about Didi Gregorius. Considering Arizona just received Gregorius in a deal after the 2012 season, that might sound like a surprise, but homegrown Chris Owings could take the job from the former Reds farmhand in the spring. That solution, however, may not exist until after that job fight resolves itself.

More likely, if Mozeliak wanted to go this route, we're talking about someone like Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox, who is locked up for $20.5 million for the next two years, or $29.5 million over the next three with a club option. A lot of his slugging is U.S. Cellular Field-powered and he's already heading into his age-32 season, but he's durable. Yeah, I'm not too excited about this idea either.

Stick with in-house solutions: Nobody should love this choice, but it isn't like the Cardinals lack for alternatives to Kozma. A little more than a year ago, Ryan Jackson was the guy who looked to be the franchise's first call-up if (or when) something happened to the fragile Furcal. He had been graded a better defender than Kozma, and he has a career walk rate of 9 percent after more than 2,400 minor league plate appearances. On the other hand, Jackson's power dipped in 2013; maybe that's a matter of not adjusting well to being shunted into a utility role, and maybe he's just not that big an upgrade from Kozma.

Which leaves me thinking that, barring a fantasy-fulfilling conversation with the Rangers about either of their shortstops, the idea I like best is using this winter's budget surplus to go get Drew for two or three years (or a two-plus-option deal). If that fails, settling for an incentive-laden return engagement for Furcal if Mozeliak gets to mid-January and no other solution has presented itself.

David Schoenfield took your questions in a live video chat to discuss today's Biogenesis suspensions.

For all the consternation over Jose Valverde, part of the Detroit Tigers' late-inning woes has been the failure of the offense to deliver big hits late in close games.

So when Victor Martinez walked leading off the bottom of the ninth Thursday and Jhonny Peralta hit a 1-2 pitch from Boston's Andrew Bailey over the fence in left field for the dramatic two-run, game-winning home run, part of it was that the Tigers were simply due.

Entering the contest, the Tigers had lost four games they led going into the ninth inning. But they had rallied to win just one game they had been trailing. They were also 2-7 in extra-inning games. The bullpen has been getting the blame, but check out some of the offensive numbers before Thursday's 4-3 victory:

  • In so-called "late and close" situations -- plate appearances in the seventh or later when the batting team is tied, ahead by one run, or the tying run is at least on deck -- the Tigers had been hitting .199 with two home runs in 372 at-bats (by Omar Infante and Alex Avila).
  • Miguel Cabrera was hitting .128 without an extra-base hit in 39 at-bats in late-and-close.
  • Prince Fielder was hitting .214 in 42 at-bats.
  • In extra innings, the Tigers are hitting .198 with no home runs in 86 at-bats.

In other words, when the going gets toughest the Tigers have wilted. Valverde has simply been the easy target, but it's not like Cabrera and Fielder have been doing anything in the late innings of close games.

So Peralta's home run arrives at a time when the offense needed to come through. It was a great piece of hitting. After Peralta took a slider for a strike, fouled off another slider and then took a fastball up for a ball, Red Sox catcher Ryan Lavarnway put his target low and away, and Bailey delivered a slider low and away -- maybe up an inch or two higher than he wanted, but not a terrible pitch -- and Peralta guessed right and pulled it into the bullpen.

Give credit also to Drew Smyly for escaping a two-on, none-out jam in the eighth to keep the game close and to Tigers manager Jim Leyland for keeping his best reliever in the game for two innings. Joaquin Benoit might get the next save opportunity, but Smyly is going to get a lot of big innings late in games.

The Red Sox are now facing a little ninth-inning combustion of their own. It was Bailey's fourth blown save, and he's allowed home runs in four of his past five appearances. Maybe the Tigers won't be the only team looking for late-inning help.
Peralta pitch locationESPNAndrew Bailey's fourth pitch to Jhonny Peralta caught the outside corner -- and Peralta didn't miss it.
It's time for the old columnist staple: Random thoughts!

1. Mike Trout turned 21 years old in August, so the common axiom about young players as applied to Trout: He'll get better. But is that even possible? His 10.7 WAR was one of just 20 such seasons by a position player since 1950. If he repeats this season 10 more times he'd be over 100 career WAR -- a valuation just 19 position players have achieved. Now, unless he's the second coming of Willie Mays, Trout isn't going to be a 10-WAR player every season. His baserunning and fielding ability may have already crested, but is there room for development as a hitter? I think it's possible. He has a walk rate of 10.5 percent -- while above the AL average of 8.0 percent -- could improve, boosting his on-base percentages over .400, even if he's more .300 hitter than .330. Of course, maybe he is more Mays than Rickey Henderson. Mays had a .384 career OBP and walk rate of 11.7 percent that didn't grow much from a 10.9 percent rate as a rookie.

What about power? Trout wasn't projected as more of 20-homer guy coming up, so the 30 home runs was a big surprise, especially in a tough home run park. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, eight of Trout's 30 home runs were "just enough" -- a figure that wasn't near the league-leading figures of Miguel Cabrera (16) and Adrian Beltre (15). Trout's home run percentage on fly balls was 21.6 percent, which ranked 15th in the majors among those hitters with 300 plate appearances. Remember, as fast as is he, Trout isn't a small guy, at 6-1 and over 200 pounds. He's bigger than Mays or Hank Aaron. I believe the power is legit; that doesn't mean he's going to turn into a 40- or 45-homer guy. Eddie Mathews hit 47 as a 21-year-old and that was his career high. A friend of mine who plays in a simulation league owns Trout and was offered Bryce Harper for him. He asked my thoughts, wondering if it's possible Trout will never do this again. I suppose that's possible, but answered: He doesn't have to get better. He's already the best all-around player in the game.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonMike Trout doesn't have to get better to be great.
2. Does anybody sign Delmon Young?

3. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs broke down the Jeremy Guthrie signing here. Buster Olney also wrote about the Royals. I like the move a little more than Dave does. I understand the readers who said the Royals could have spent the money more wisely, but that ignores that in all likelihood none of the really good pitchers want to come to Kansas City. Guthrie has thrown 175-plus innings six straight years; yes, he'll be 34 in April, so that's not a guarantee to continue, but durability is no sure thing with any pitcher. But to a club like the Royals, getting an innings eater is a pretty valuable addition. Over those six seasons, the Royals have had just 11 seasons where a starter reached 175 innings -- and only five with 200 (three by Zack Greinke, two by Gil Meche). For the Royals, half the problem has been not having good starters, but half the problem has been not having durable ones, which leads to the necessity of using even more bad ones, and the deeper you go, the worse they get.

4. Some days I like B.J. Upton and some days I don't. For what it's worth, his Defensive Runs Saved figures the past three years are NOT very good: minus-19, minus-7, minus-4.

5. Are the Rockies really counting on Todd Helton to play first base again?

6. Excellent column from Jeff MacGregor on stats guru Nate Silver and how the quantification of sports impacts some of our enjoyment of the games. Jeff isn't saying the numbers and analysis are bad or evil; this isn't a terrible Mitch Albom column here (you can find it easily enough). Jeff is raising a fair and honest question: "The game exists to produce joy or sadness or distraction or love or hate or a thousand sensations unrelated to common sense or business or efficiency. Not even money. So to what end do we go to WAR over VORP?"

7. Joe Posnanski with a blog entry comparing MVP winners -- which he equates to the best narrative -- to the HOW winners (Heroes of WAR). Fun piece. As Joe points out, there are many seasons where a pitcher could have been in the MVP discussion, but the only one to win in the past two decades was Justin Verlander. If anything, Verlander's MVP stands out as the biggest outlier in recent MVP voting. Not that he wasn't deserving, but there have been many starters just as deserving -- Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux -- but only Pedro came close to winning. This is certainly an inconsistency to the MVP voting, which is really the reason it's so fun to argue over.

8. Rumors out there the Tigers are interested in Stephen Drew and would then trade Jhonny Peralta to Arizona. I agree with the Tigers' desire to upgrade defense at shortstop, but is Drew the answer? He'll be turning 30, an age when many shortstops start to lose range. His Defensive Runs Saved was not good last year -- minus-7 runs. There is some upside here -- Drew was a 4-win player in 2010, but there is the possibility he's not really an improvement over Peralta and more of an injury risk (Peralta has never been on the DL). The Tigers defense wasn't great in 2012, but I don't think Peralta was the main reason why. His DRS the past two seasons has been +2 and minus-1. Sometimes steady and reliable is OK.

9. Anibal Sanchez: $100 million? I can't see it. I mean .. it's Anibal Sanchez. Nice No. 3.

10. Chase Headley's road numbers, doubled: .300, 36 home runs, 128 RBIs. Miguel Cabrera's road numbers, doubled: .327, 32 home runs, 128 RBIs.

11. Joey Matschulat looks at the Rangers' 2013 payroll situation, which he estimates at $110 million and counting. Assuming an estimated $120-$130 million payroll that has been reported in the Dallas media, Joey points out why the team didn't make a qualifying offer to Mike Napoli (he may have accepted it) and writes:
    I think this should also serve to temper some of the expectations being bandied about as far as the Rangers making a serious run at a marquee free agent such as Zack Greinke -- sure, they could backload the hell out of such a deal in anticipation of another $30-plus million in expiring contracts coming off the books next winter (and, for that matter, in anticipation of their coffer-filling TV deal with FOX Sports Southwest that begins in 2015), but they would still end up around $125-130 million for 2013 just by adding Greinke alone, and before addressing any of their other roster holes. To make that work, ownership would need to be prepared to move above and beyond the $140 million mark for next season, or they would need to shed some of their existing payroll obligations.

Based on this analysis and assuming the Rangers aren't going to break that $130 payroll mark, it does seem unlikely the team will sign Greinke and one of the big free agent outfielders (whether Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton or somebody else). A Craig Gentry/Leonys Martin platoon would probably be adequate for center field and David Murphy can hold down left field or Ian Kinsler could move to the outfield. Remember, the team still has a big hole at catcher, especially if Geovany Soto is non-tendered.

12. Jason Linden looks at Jay Bruce, who said he'd like to play his whole career with the Reds. Of course he would. Bruce is a career .280 hitter at home with 82 home runs versus .231 on the road with 52 home runs (same number of PAs). Bruce is already signed through 2016 with a 2017 club option. There's no reason to extend him for seasons beginning with his age-31 season. My personal take is that Bruce is one of the more overrated players in the majors (which isn't the same thing as saying as he's a bad player; he's not). But it does seem that Bruce benefits from the cozy confines at GAB more than most hitters (certainly more than Joey Votto, whose splits are pretty even). Look at how Ryan Ludwick fared in 2012. Anyway, Jason looks at some comparable to players to Bruce to see how they fared from ages 31 to 35. Check it out.

13. I think the Dodgers end up with Greinke.

14. Finally, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Thanks for reading and enjoy the long weekend.

Don't count out Tigers just yet

October, 27, 2012
On Wednesday we looked at five reasons the Tigers would win the World Series. Now, the boys from Detroit are down two games to none and spent Friday preparing for three straight games at home that, given their road struggles, have now become three must-win scenarios. So let’s take a look back at those original five reasons and evaluate what happened.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDetroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander might not get to take the mound again this season.
1. Justin Verlander. Game 1 certainly goes to Pablo Sandoval and his three home runs, but Verlander was the author on the mound who was supposed to dominate. The narrative all night was how shocking it was to see the 2011 Cy Young and MVP winner struggle so much. It was his shortest non-rain-effected start since June 2009 and when the dust settled and all the reactions had been made, one truth stood tall: He simple didn’t deliver, and his team lost a game they were favored to win. Now with Max Scherzer officially starting Game4, the ace might not even see the mound again this season. That would surely leave a putrid taste in his mouth and in the mouths of Detroit Nation.

2. Prince Fielder. While Miguel Cabrera hasn’t done any real damage in the two games, Fielder hasn't made anyone pay either. He is 1-for-6 at the plate and has left five runners stranded. His lack of defense is mostly ignored when he’s hitting, but when he’s not, like now, the fact that he’s a one-dimensional player stands out like a caveman in a modern bank. I’ll leave with this: two games are a minute sample size, but at this point in the season every at-bat counts and Fielder is simply running out of time to stand out (in a good way).

3. Bullpen. The Tigers don’t necessarily have a great bullpen, we all know that, but they have solid arms that can shut down an offense, and for the Tigers to have any hope of putting a dent in the Giants’ plans of running away with this thing, they need to produce. So far, the collective efforts of Al Alburquerque, Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, Octavio Dotel, and Phil Coke have resulted in six innings, six hits, four runs, four walks and an inherited runner allowed to score. That’s not what anyone in Detroit is looking for. Especially since the offense has scored three runs in 18 innings.

4. Starting pitching. Verlander struggled mightily, but Doug Fister sure didn’t, and he has nothing to show for it other than a nasty lump on the right side of his head. The Tigers will have Anibal Sanchez and Scherzer going, and I don’t expect either one to struggle, but as the offense has shown thus far, the margin of error is zero. Good pitching beats good hitting, but is a non-factor if horrible hitting fits into the equation.

5. Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta and Delmont Young. In Game 1, these three were the only reason the Tigers found themselves on the scoreboard as they collectively went 5-for-12 and each scored a run. Peralta launched a two-run home run in the ninth inning to make an 8-1 game look a little bit less lopsided, and Young had a pair of hits. However, in the second game, Young’s potential RBI double in the second inning was foiled by an excellent relay throw and an ill-advised decision by Gene Lamont who gambled and sent Fielder home, thus destroying the possibility of second and third and no outs with Peralta up. Jackson reenacted his rookie and sophomore campaigns with three strikeouts, and Peralta ended the game without a hit.

After two games the Tigers have received production out of two of the five key reasons they needed to win the World Series. Given their defensive handicap, their overall offensive hibernation, and the Giants' stellar pitching, the Tigers are going to need to squeeze every drip of home-field advantage to send this back West. With Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain looming on the horizon, it could be a tall order.

However, if following the Tigers has shown me anything this season, it’s that we must expect the unexpected when it comes to this team, and hopefully their last song has not been sung.

Josh Worn runs the Tigers blog, Walkoff Woodward.

Leyland uses every bullet, not just best

October, 18, 2012
Jim LeylandJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJim Leyland's adaptability and creative lineups are what set him apart from his peers.

DETROIT -- Where the Tigers are concerned, it’s easy to lose yourself in the statistical feats of their star sluggers: Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown, of course, but also Prince Fielder notching his sixth consecutive 30-homer season and Austin Jackson’s huge year.

But successful seasons from his stars are one of the hallmarks of Jim Leyland’s contending teams over the years, going all the way back to his original trio of Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla in Pittsburgh. They powered his Pirates team that won three straight division titles from 1990-92. Each man from among that trio was worth three wins or more at the plate, using Baseball-Reference.com’s oWAR or offense-only WAR, as did shortstop Jay Bell. His World Series-winning ’97 Marlins featured a trio of three-win players (Gary Sheffield, Moises Alou and Bonilla). And the Tigers of this year and last? Same deal. Miguel Cabrera is the lone holdover at that level, though, with the 2011 performances Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta and Victor Martinez being replaced by Fielder and Jackson this year.

Admittedly, there’s an obvious bit of circular logic in play here: If you pile up great players, you’re liable to see great results. One of the frequent criticisms of Leyland’s legacy is that he has been given great talent to work with -- he’s supposed to win with it, and if he didn’t, you’d be no more likely to remember Leyland as a skipper than you do Larry Parrish. Stars represent big-time investments by owners and general managers; you might credit or discount Leyland’s impact on their contributions.

But that brings us to another aspect of Leyland’s teams worth keeping in mind: As with most teams, they’re not just made up of the superstars. Which is why an equally important way to evaluate a manager’s impact is where his choices make a difference. Who’s filling out the rest of the lineup or manning the back end of the roster, and what are they there for?

Unlike Joe Girardi with the Yankees, Leyland has usually had to help conjure up solutions everywhere his stars were not, and to his credit he’s been remarkably adaptable and creative in his lineup and roster choices. As uncharitable as it might be to say about some of the players, Leyland might be one of the best stars-and-scrubs skippers in the majors today.

How so? First, he’s long been willing to make sacrifices on defense in the infield and outfield corners to make room for an extra bat. Having Cabrera play third is only the most recent instance, but Leyland was willing to use the far more error-prone Bonilla at the hot corner 20 years ago, and it worked just as well then: Like Miggy, Bonilla wasn’t great but he was adequate, and the payoff of getting another outfield-level bat on the lineup card more than made up for it, now as then.

Opening up space in the lineup to add extra bats hasn’t been a problem for Leyland over time because he’s one of the game’s more adept platoon-builders. The Pirates' catching platoon of Don Slaught and Mike LaValliere is perhaps his signature on this score, but in the absence of a star first baseman on that same team, he’d do things like pair off Orlando Merced with Lloyd McClendon. He’s platooning with Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia in the outfield right now, not because he wanted to all along, but because he adapted to the talent he had on hand once Brennan Boesch and Ryan Raburn -- the latter a key masher of left-handed pitching -- broke down this year. What he didn’t do was something easy or lazy, like just write Delmon Young into his everyday outfield.

Which demonstrates something else Leyland’s adaptable about: He may make a sacrifice to get another star into the mix, but he doesn’t just punt defense outright. If anything, he’s been willing to compensate for the risks he’s been willing to run with guys like Bonilla or Cabrera or by employing some fairly slick defenders over the years. Pirates second baseman Jose Lind was perhaps the best example of his relying on an extreme glove-first everyday player: His highest OBP in any of the five years he started for Leyland was .308, and he had as much power as a potato battery, but he was there to play second base.

[+] EnlargeKelly/Fielder
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJim Leyland has made good use of utilitymen such as Don Kelly, right, over the years.
Over time, Leyland’s list of guys whose primary value has been on defense includes middle infielders Ramon Santiago and Adam Everett, or when he’s using a less-than-Ozziesque shortstop, slick-fielding third basemen like Steve Buechele and Brandon Inge. In short, the selections seem more tailored for each collection of talent. Get the core in place, and then figure out how the rest of the edges of the roster should work around them.

But even those big plans leave room for a quick-fix solution, which brings us to one other thing Leyland’s rosters have reliably featured over 21 seasons: Utility players that he puts to work. Going all the way back to aging utilityman Bill Almon on his first ballclub as a rookie big-league skipper for the Pirates in 1986 to John Wehner with the Pirates to Don Kelly, Leyland has a knack for carrying multi-positional supersubs he can start at five or six positions and give 200-250 at-bats to. They’re not great, but they are handy for the tactical flexibility they give Leyland in-game.

In short, easy as it might be to home in on the big things when evaluating Leyland as a skipper, beyond seeing his stars shine you can just as easily admire the man’s tradecraft with his lineups and roster usage. There is no such thing on a Leyland roster as a player he doesn’t know how to use, or might only use in an emergency, and he keeps them sharp with consistent use. In a postseason where Fielder and Cabrera have one homer between them so far, it’s that sort of acumen that has helped compensate.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Detroit Tigers' lineup problems

August, 25, 2012
As we sit here today, the Detroit Tigers sit two and a half games behind the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central. Now, whether you anticipated the Men from Motown to be in second place this deep into the season or not, the reality is the Tigers, having landed the largest free-agent fish of the offseason (allegedly) are grasping for the division crown from behind the eight ball and there are a number of reasons for this.

At 4.56 runs per game, the offense has been an overall disappointment, one of the reasons that they haven’t been better than a good White Sox team. But that’s simply a blanket response to an in-depth and complicated game.

So we’ll dig a bit deeper. We’ll take a look at why the team, which still has scored the sixth-most runs in the American League, has scored less than expected. Is it just because expectations were too high? Or when we dig deeper will we find a glaring reason?

Tigers have two glaring weaknesses

They may have quality production coming from the first four spots in the lineup as well as the last three, but in the fifth and sixth spots in the lineup, they are less than pedestrian.

In the two charts, we see how the entire American League has batted from the fifth and sixth spots in the batting order this season.

We see that the Tigers don’t actually have the worst production out of the fifth spot, owned almost exclusively by Delmon Young. That honor belongs to the Kansas City Royals, but they have a very respectable amount of production out of the sixth spot, and the Tigers certainly don’t. Here we use simple math. If X is smaller than Y but much greater than Y in the next problem, and the two combinations of X are overall greater than the combinations of Y than X is greater. That’s how you use simple math, right?

The same can be said for the sixth spot in the lineup. The Tigers are bad, the bulk of which is courtesy of Brennan Boesch and Alex Avila, but they aren’t the least productive. That’s the Seattle Mariners. But the Mariners are not exactly dead at the fifth spot in the lineup, as we see. Math, again! The Mariners, who play in an offensive black hole for half the time still produce better from two of the more important spots in the lineup than the Tigers do.

In fact, the team that lacks as much production as the Tigers do from both those spots are the Toronto Blue Jays, who have experienced a very disappointing season from their offense.

But even the Blue Jays haven’t been as bad as the Tigers have been from the fifth and sixth spots in the lineup. We can’t assume we know the number of wins that the ineffectiveness of Young, Boesch, and Avila have denied the Tigers, but it certainly looked like the Tigers would see at least league average-production from each player. Two and a half wins certainly doesn’t seem to be out of reach given the fact that they’ve already played three-quarters of the season.

There is currently very little the team can change.

The problem the Tigers now face is overcoming these inefficiencies. Where do you take production from? A team can’t exactly pull it from the seventh and eighth spots in the lineup, can they?

The Tigers have actually tried. Recently, they’ve begun moving Jhonny Peralta around with the aforementioned names in hopes that something, anything, can be sparked. So far the results have been mixed. The month of August has seen the worst production of the year out of the fifth spot and the very best out of the sixth spot.

The solution is an impact corner outfield bat that general manager Dave Dombrowski can pick up on waivers. That’s obviously an easy answer, so we should all expect that to happen in the very near future.

No, the solution is the players have to produce. The issue is they haven’t all year.
It may keep the team out of the playoffs, it may not, but the lack of production certainly isn’t making life any easier for anyone involved.

Josh Worn writes about the Tigers at Walkoff Woodward.

Tigers' infield defense a big problem

May, 26, 2012
When the Detroit Tigers inked their prodigal son to a contract back in January, the bulk of the Tigers fan base knew Prince Fielder’s presence would come with strings attached. They knew that the cost of signing him was not exclusively limited to the nine-year deal, or the $214 million, or the drama with his estranged father.

They knew that, given the fact that All-Star first baseman Miguel Cabrera was already on the roster, there would have to be some shuffling done. Questions were quickly answered at the news conference announcing Fielder's deal; the more agile Cabrera would move across the diamond and play third base, as he had when he first arrived in Detroit four years ago, and Fielder would play first base.

Immediately, you took a look at the projected infield of Fielder, a platoon of Brandon Inge/Ryan Raburn/Ramon Santiago at second base, Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, and Cabrera, and you cringed. While national writers and bloggers lamented how this would affect the Tigers’ starting pitching, the Tigers fan base, for the most part, shrugged and said, "We know it’s bad, we know there’s no range. But. They. Will. Score. Runs."

Well, here we are, nearly two months into the season and the Tigers sit at 21-24 entering Saturday's action and are in third place in the AL Central. The bullpen hasn’t been consistent (while better as of late, they still sit at a league-high 4.64 ERA), and the offense has been suspect and stagnant, but both of those will most likely improve as the season goes on. The defense, however, has certainly lived up to its reputation. I’m not sure it’s going to get better.

[+] EnlargePrince Fielder, Brian Dozier
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMaybe Detroit's first baseman should change his name to Prince Batter.
On May 16, the Tigers and Rick Porcello faced the last-place Minnesota Twins. Porcello induced two groundballs to start the game. Fielder fielded the first one cleanly for one out and Santiago (starting at shortstop to give Peralta the day off) fielded the second one cleanly for what should have been the second out. However, Fielder flat out dropped the throw, and Brian Dozier was safe at first on the error.

The Twins capitalized. Joe Mauer doubled Dozier home, and Josh Willingham doubled Mauer home. While it wasn’t the final out of the inning, Fielder’s gaffe on an easy play turned into a pair of runs before Porcello could recover, striking out the final two batters of the inning.

The Tigers scored once in the bottom half of the inning and Porcello returned to the mound trailing only 2-1. After he recorded two outs and allowed a single, Erik Komatsu bounced a groundball to Raburn, who booted the easy play. With both runners safe, Dozier stepped to the plate and promptly swatted a three-run home run to make it 5-1, Minnesota. Four of those runs came courtesy of the Tigers’ infield defense.

The Tigers ended up losing the game, 11-7, each member of the infield defense had an error, and the game became the perfect example of how to lose when professional baseball players forget to play defense. It wasn’t the first game, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Defensive efficiency measures the percentage of batted balls in play that are converted into outs. It’s obviously not the only thing you look at when measuring a team defense, but it is one thing. And in this area, the Tigers are among the worst in baseball, ranking 26th in the majors at .692. The Blue Jays top the majors with a .735, meaning they're turning an extra 4.3 percent of balls in play into outs compared to the Tigers. The Tigers are obviously not a very clean fielding team as a whole, led by their uninspiring infield.

Defensive Runs Saved uses video review to estimate each fielder’s defensive contribution and compares each fielder to the league average for his position. The Tigers' infield defense looks like this:

1B Prince Fielder: -5 runs (386 innings)
2B Ryan Raburn: -2 runs (162 innings)
2B Ramon Santiago: -1 run (132 innings)
2B Danny Worth: -1 run (60 innings)
2B Brandon Inge: -2 runs (43 innings)
3B Miguel Cabrera: -3 runs (388 innings)
SS Jhonny Peralta: -4 runs (348 innings)
SS Ramon Santiago: -1 run (50 innings)

That’s pretty brutal, especially when you consider that this is what the defense looks like a quarter of the way through the season. I mean, oh man, holy tomato sauce, something has to be done here, right? No wonder people punch their mirrors. Looking at yourself is sometimes ugly.

So, what is going to happen going forward?

The Tigers like to be traditional and old school and they like to stick to certain roles for as long as they can. I doubt we’ll be seeing any changes here unless they swing a trade later this summer.

With Delmon Young ousted out of left field thanks to the start of Andy Dirks, the designated hitter position is taken. I don’t think we’ll be seeing Fielder moving to DH and Cabrera to first base, nor do I think that they will do that even if they make a trade.

Peralta was moved to third base when he was with the Indians two years ago due to his lack of range at shortstop. After a big 2011, his offense thus far has been suspect. He’s also about to turn 30 years old and on the final year of his contract.

Raburn's versatility would keep the Tigers from trading him even if he wasn’t hitting .148/.214/.217 through the first two months of the season.

No, I think the Tigers are sticking with what they have. They are going to rely on the hope that their offense eventually clicks, their pitching dominates (i.e., they need to rely even more on strikeout pitchers Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and, apparently, Drew Smyly), and the rest of the AL Central can perform like they did last year and allow Detroit to run away with the division.

Some might ask if that is realistic. Maybe it’s not. But do they really have a choice?

Josh Worn writes about the Tigers at the Walkoff Woodward blog.

OK, I'll give you Justin Verlander.

I'll even give you Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson.

But five through 25? I think I'll take the Cleveland Indians over the Detroit Tigers.

The Indians beat the Tigers 5-3 on Tuesday, even though Ubaldo Jimenez struggled once again with his control. Relief ace Chris Perez, who criticized Indians fans on Saturday for their lack of support (Cleveland is last in the majors in attendance), was greeted with a thunderous ovation as he came in out of the bullpen in the ninth inning. With two runners on, he struck out Cabrera and got Fielder to ground out.

Just another save. "That's the loudest I've ever been cheered here," Perez said. "I was pumped, the adrenaline was going. It could have gone the other way. I came through. I didn't know which way it was going to go. I was thankful it went the good way."

The good way pushed the Indians to 24-18. The Tigers are 20-22, and for the life of me I can't understand why everyone still thinks Detroit is the better team. Mind you, I'm not saying the Indians are better. I just don't see why the Tigers are better. Just because everyone picked them before the season?

Once you get past those big shiny names on the Tigers' roster, if you want to pinpoint one big difference between the two clubs, it's a little statistic that us sabermetric types love: the old base on balls. The Indians lead the American League with 188 walks, 25 more than any other team; the Tigers have 127 walks, ninth in the league. That patience will go a long ways toward giving Cleveland an offense capable of scoring as many runs as Detroit's (the Indians have outscored the Tigers by one run so far, 184 to 183).

In fact, when you go position by position, you'll see what I mean.

Catcher: Carlos Santana versus Alex Avila. So far, Avila has been unable to match 2011's .366 average on balls in play, the sixth-best average in the majors. Which means he's hitting like he did in 2010. Santana, meanwhile, is a walks machine who hit 27 home runs in 2011.

First base: Casey Kotchman versus Prince Fielder. Obvious edge to Fielder, of course. The most interesting thing about his start (.292/.354/.472) is his walk rate is down from 15.5 percent to 8.5 percent. Part of that is he was intentionally walked 32 times a year ago, just three this year.

Second base: Jason Kipnis versus Ramon Santiago/Ryan Raburn. Please. Big edge to Kipnis with Santiago and Raburn both hitting under .200. Will Detroit make a move here?

Third base: Jack Hannahan/Jose Lopez versus Miguel Cabrera. This may be the first and only time you'll see Jose Lopez mentioned in the same breath as Miguel Cabrera. So far, however, this edge has been minimal. Cabrera is hitting .304/.362/.488, Hannahan .287/.365/.436 but with better defense. According to Defensive Runs Saved, Cabrera has cost the Tigers four runs -- worst among third basemen (tied with Hanley Ramirez).

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera versus Jhonny Peralta. With the Indians preaching plate discipline, check out Cabrera: Last year, 44 walks and 119 strikeouts; this year, 18 walks and just 12 strikeouts. He's hitting .309 with an OBP over .400 but hasn't lost any power. In 2011, he swung at 31 percent of the pitches out of the strike but he has cut that down to 24 percent. Small differences can go a long way. Peralta was a big surprise for Detroit last season but hasn't matched the numbers in the plate or in the field.

Left field: Johnny Damon/Shelley Duncan versus Andy Dirks/Delmon Young. Damon has looked terrible. Dirks has looked great, but too early to evaluate this one.

Center field: Michael Brantley versus Austin Jackson. With his defense and hot start at the plate, Jackson has been as valuable as any player in the American League not named Josh Hamilton.

Right field: Shin-Soo Choo versus Brennan Boesch. This one isn't close and that's with Choo off to a middling start in the power department. Choo has a .391 OBP, Boesch a .271 OBP. Choo is a solid defender while Boesch is slow and lumbering. With his poor start at the plate and poor defense, Boesch has been one of the worst regular in baseball so far. Choo is an underrated asset and I love Manny Acta's decision to move him into the leadoff spot.

Designated hitter: Travis Hafner versus field. Cleveland's designated hitters have six homers and .370 OBP (fourth in the league). Detroit's DHs have one home run and a .238 OBP (13th in the league). Big, big edge to Pronk.

Rotation. With the best pitcher on the planet, Detroit's rotation has posted a 3.87 ERA; without the best pitcher on the planet, Cleveland's rotation has posted a 3.94 ERA. Both teams have played 42 games and Cleveland's starters have thrown 12 more innings. Moving forward, maybe you think Detroit's group will perform better. After all, Doug Fister missed some, Max Scherzer just struck out 15 in game (never mind that the Pirates have been an historic strikeout binge of late) and Rick Porcello will put it together one of these years, because everyone says so. Meanwhile, Ubaldo Jimenez can't throw strikes, Justin Masterson hasn't pitched as well as last year and Derek Lowe is doing it with smoke, mirrors and a deal with the devil. The one thing the Cleveland starters do is keep the ball in the park; they've allowed 20 home runs, second-fewest in the league. Look, maybe you think Scherzer will start pitching better; I'd say so will Masterson. Maybe you're a Porcello believer; I'm not, especially with that infield defense behind him. Lowe is a fluke? Well, let's see how Drew Smyly does as the scouting reports get around on him.

Bullpen. Neither pen has been stellar, as Cleveland's 4.16 ERA ranks 13th in the AL and Detroit's 4.76 ranks 14th. Cleveland's top guys, however, have been pretty solid -- Chris Perez is 14 of 15 in save opportunities while Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith and Nick Hagadone have pitched well. Detroit's top two of Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit, so dominant a year ago, have both struggled to throw strikes.

I said before the season that I believed the Tigers were drastically overrated. On the Baseball Today podcast late in spring training, I predicted Cleveland would win the division. Unfortunately, when ESPN.com published predictions a few days later, I changed my pick to Detroit. I bought into the hype.

I'm not buying any longer. This division is wide, wide open. (And I haven't even mentioned the White Sox!)

Jose Altuve Troy Taormina/US PresswireDiminutive Astros infielder Jose Altuve isn't always so low to the ground.

Sometimes the analysis is pretty easy.

The Detroit Tigers' lineup on Sunday featured 31-year-old minor league veteran Brad Eldred, who last played regularly in the majors in 2005, hitting fifth. He was followed by Ryan Raburn, Ramon Santiago, Gerald Laird and Danny Worth. You're not going to beat CC Sabathia with that group.

In recent days, Tigers relievers have included Luke Putkonen, Collin Balester, Brayan Villarreal and Thad Weber. Who? Villarreal was the losing pitcher on Friday night versus the New York Yankees.

On Sunday, Max Scherzer walked seven batters in a 6-2 loss to the Yankees. Earlier in the week he got hit around by the Mariners. His ERA is 7.77 and he has yet to pitch more than six innings in any of his five starts.

In 2011, Rick Porcello ranked 84th among 93 qualified pitchers in ERA. Still, many projected a breakout season. Good stuff, they say, good hard sinker. So far, it has been the same Porcello: A lot of hits allowed and not many strikeouts. Two starts ago against the Texas Rangers, he got three outs and gave up 10 hits and nine runs. Against the Seattle Mariners, he gave up five runs and two home runs. He has a 6.45 ERA.

With Doug Fister on the disabled list, rookie Adam Wilk made three starts, losing all three and allowing 21 hits in 11 innings.

Despite batting in front of Miguel Cabrera, No. 2 hitter Brennan Boesch is hitting .231 and has just two walks with 20 strikeouts.

Prince Fielder is finding the pitching a little tougher in the American League. After homering twice against the Boston Red Sox in the second game of the season, he didn't homer again until Sunday.

Left fielder/designated hitter Delmon Young was placed on the restricted list after getting arrested on Friday for allegedly attacking a man in front of a Manhattan hotel and yelling anti-Semitic remarks.

Closer Jose Valverde and setup man Joaquin Benoit hardly look like the dominant duo of a year ago, having allowed 23 hits and 16 walks in 19 innings.

Listening to the Tigers' local radio broadcast the other day, the announcers described the team's energy as listless.

And then there's the defense. Entering Sunday, the Tigers ranked 26th in the majors in defensive runs saved, at 13 runs below average. It's not all Cabrera's fault. He's at minus-2, but Jhonny Peralta is minus-4 at shortstop, Fielder minus-3 at first base, Boesch minus-3 in right field and Raburn minus-2 at second base. The totals should not be surprising as none of them have a reputation for being good defensive players.

That 4-0 start seems like a long time ago to Tigers fans. After starting 9-3, the Tigers have gone 2-8, they've been outscored by 10 runs on the season and their flaws have been exposed like a leaky pipe -- drip, drip, drip, a slow understanding that something isn't right. Detroit doesn't appear to be the super team it looked the first week of the season, but rather a team with little depth in the bullpen, a starting rotation that is relying too heavily on Justin Verlander, poor defense, and a lineup that needs Alex Avila and Peralta to start hitting.

Leyland showed some frustration after Sunday's loss, telling MLB.com that a crucial 2-2 pitch to Derek Jeter that he checked his swing on and was called a ball wasn't a bad call, even though catcher Laird said Scherzer hit his target. "That's all excuse stuff," Leyland said. "That Jeter pitch was a close pitch, but when you're that wild, you're not going to get close pitches."

Instead of escaping the inning, Scherzer allowed two more runs and he ended up throwing 119 pitches without getting out of the fifth inning. "Max is a huge key for us. It has to get better, plain and simple," Leyland said.

Is this a bad time to mention that all 50 ESPN.com voters in our preseason predictions file picked the Tigers to win the AL Central? Obviously, that cast the Tigers as overwhelming favorites to win the division. I was one of those 50, although I hesitated, even once saying on the "Baseball Today" podcast that I was going to pick Cleveland to win the division, before changing my mind when I had to submit my vote.

OK, it's just 22 games and the Tigers are only one game out of first place in the AL Central, a division that has been collectively outscored by 63 runs so far. Rookie lefty Drew Smyly has been impressive. That still makes the Tigers the heavy favorite in this field of five.

If you want other good news, according to our RPI standings, the Tigers have also played the fourth-toughest schedule in the majors so far. The next month presents a schedule that could prove much kinder: Kansas City, the White Sox, at Seattle, at Oakland, at the White Sox, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, at Minnesota. Tigers fans will undoubtedly point out that Detroit was 25-26 as late as May 29 a year ago, and tied for first as late as July 20, before finishing with a 38-16 kick over the final two months. That surge coincided with Fister's arrival from Seattle, as he went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA. Fister threw a bullpen session on Thursday and will make his first rehab start on Wednesday in Toledo, as he returns from a strained rib cage muscle.

Still, the Tigers will need more than Fister's return. They need Scherzer and Porcello to pitch better. They need a reliable arm in the bullpen besides Octavio Dotel. They need Fielder to start slugging. They need the defense to help out the pitchers a little more. Young? Ahh, he's not that good anyway.

In the end, I see an imperfect team, certainly not one that will win 100 games or even 95. I see a good team in a weak division, but a team that could easily finish fifth in the AL East. I see a team that is ripe for a surprise pennant race if one of their division rivals puts it together.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
First base: Mr Enigmatic. Is Max Scherzer a good pitcher? A mediocre pitcher? A potentially great pitcher? Last October, in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, we saw how good Scherzer can be when he pitched six scoreless innings, using an explosive, moving fastball to throttle the Yankees. And there he was two starts later in the American League Championship Series against the Rangers, getting knocked out in the third inning. One reason so many people predicted the Tigers to run away with the AL Central is they penciled in improvement for Scherzer and Rick Porcello. I wasn't quite so sure; both have maddeningly inconsistent in their young careers and it's been mostly bad Scherzer in 2012. The punchless Mariners roughed him up Tuesday for 10 hits and five runs in five innings, bumping his ERA to 8.24. Frankly, I can't figure him out. He has a nice 23/6 strikeout-to-walk but has allowed 30 hits in 19.2 innings. Unlucky on balls in play? Sure, probably. Mix in a little Miggy Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta as well. But it was similar last season, when he posted a 4.43 ERA: Good ratios, but too many hits and too many home runs (29). Coming on the heels of Porcello's one-inning stinker, the Detroit rotation after Justin Verlander remains a work in progress.

Second base: Narveson out for season. Tough day for pitchers, as Michael Pineda will get another opinion on his shoulder and Mike Pelfrey went on the disabled list with elbow inflammation and possibly worse. Brewers starter Chris Narveson, however, is done for the season after it was announced he'll undergo rotator cuff surgery. Narveson was a solid fifth last season, but Marco Estrada is a nice replacement -- maybe even a step up. A fastball/curve/changeup guy, the Nationals originally drafted Estrada but never quite believed in him since his fastball is 90-91, and the Brewers picked him up on waivers in 2010. He pitched well last season, including a 3.70 ERA in seven spot starts, and threw well last week with five innings of one-run ball, with nine strikeouts and no walks against the Rockies. He isn't flashy, but he throws strikes and should be solid. We talk a lot about the need for rotation depth. Estrada will end up being a key to the Brewers' season.

Third base: CarGo-es deep. The Rockies lost 5-4 to the Pirates as the bullpen blew a lead in the eighth inning but the good news was Carlos Gonzalez finally hit his first two home runs, improving his triple-slash line to .278/.328/.500 (he raised his average 38 points and his slugging percentage 140 points in one night). Nice, but the Rockies will need more ... like 2010 more, when Gonzalez led the National League with a .336 average, slugged .598 and finished third in the MVP vote. That season was built on a .384 average on balls in play, third-best in the majors. His BABIP returned to more normal levels last season and his numbers fell. Gonzalez did start out slow last April (.228, one homer) before heating up in May and June, only to come down with a wrist injury in July that he aggravated again in September. Hopefully this is a sign the wrist is completely healthy and he'll start heating up.

Tweet of the night. A's rookie lefty Tom Milone improved to 3-1 with a 2.00 ERA with eight shutout innings against the White Sox.