When the Detroit Tigers signed 1B, Prince Fielder, to a 9 year-$214 many expected the Tigers to easily win the American League Central division and be a sure lock for the playoffs and a good bet to make the World Series. On the contrary, the Tigers already had 1B Miguel Cabrera, and some people, including Fangraphs' Dave Cameron thought that the Tigers could have done a better job spending their money. After about one-third of the season the Tigers season hasn't been going as planned, they are currently 32-34 and are 3.5 games back from first. What exactly is the cause of the Tigers' early season struggles? More after the jump!
Since many people felt like Prince Fielder was the piece that would push the Tigers over the top, let us take a look at how he's doing. Normally Fielder is a strong bet to have an ISO above .210 and has had .330 ISO for his career high. This year it's a different story though. He currently has a .187 ISO, a number that's above average but below average for Fielder's standards. During the season you can typically expect Prince Fielder to hit flyballs 40% of the time, but this year he's only hit them 31%. He's also seen his line drive percentage increase to 25%, which is odd considering he's never had a LD% higher than 19.8%. One explanation could be that Fielder made a little mechanical change in his swing, but it's unlikely.
Generally when a player begins to decline they start to struggle against fastballs. So far Fielder has been worth -2 runs against the fastball, according to PITCHf/x and before this season he never had a value below 16. There's a chance that Fielder is just having an off year but his .333 BABIP suggests he's actually been lucky. Again, Fielder could be having an off year, but there's a chance he's already starting to decline. Read this excellent article by Ryan Campbell of Fangraphs for more information on heavy hitters and early declining. Fielder has also never been known to be a good defender, his UZR is currently -3.5, something that will likely continue.
Last season was a breakout year for Tigers catcher Alex Avila and many believed he had finally developed into one of the games best catchers. He showed an impressive power spike, hitting for a .211 ISO and capped the year off with 4.9 WAR. One thing that the casual fan would not have noticed is that Avila's performance was aided by a .366 BABIP. We don't have a ton of data n Avila's true BABIP but I think it's safe to say that it isn't .366.
Fast forward to this season and it looks like we may have been right. In the 44 games that he's played in this season he's had a BABIP of a much more consistent .306. He's also seen his power fall to .179, a number more in line with his .189 career ISO. I think it's safe to say that last season may have been a career year. It doesn't help that he's been on the DL since June 7th with a hamstring injury though. He had previously missed time to another injury.
Jhonny Peralta is another key guy that has regressed back to his true talent level. Last season was a phenomenal year for the shortstop, he hit .299/.345/.478 and had a 120 wRC+. Not always known for his defense, his +10 UZR helped him achieve a WAR of 5.2, a career high in that department. This year is a different story though. He's seen his power virtually disappear, his ISO went from .179 all the way to .146, which is considered below average. While his overall line isn't as impressive, he still gets on-base at a solid clip. His line currently sits at .268/.350/.414.
Those three players were each a big part of the Tigers' success and it's only natural that the team would struggle when they do. On the bright side Austin Jackson is having a career year, and Miguel Cabrera is continuing to do his thing. The DH is also a big problem for the team, they've only managed .9 WAR and have shown virtually no power. To put in perspective how much the Tigers offense is struggling the Minnesota Twins are getting 8.9 WAR from their offense, compared to 6.5 for the Tigers.
The Detroit Tigers pitching has been one of the better in the league, but that can largely be contributed to the success of ace Justin Verlander. Max Scherzer's has faced his share of struggles, but he's not as bad as his 5.17 ERA indicates. His FIP marks him at 3.87 , his xFIP expects his ERA to be closer to 3.19 and his 2.95 SIERA expects him to be even better. Another thing you can look at is his .376 BABIP and know that he's been extremely unlucky. Doug Fister has been solid in 7 starts, he currently has a 3.59 FIP but he needs to stay healthy. The Tigers may have to look at acquiring a starting pitcher at the trade deadline. I mentioned Zack Greinke in this post but he may cost more than the Tigers are willing to trade. Ryan Dempster could be an option as well, but they'd have to beat out teams like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers. Matt Garza could be another option, but again the Tigers would have to give more than they might feel comfortable with.
Ideally they probably would want a guy like Josh Willingham, but I highly doubt the Minnesota Twins would trade within their division. Another interesting option would be to acquire San Diego Padre, Chase Headley. Headley can play the outfield or third base. If the Tigers acquired him they could and should consider putting Miguel Cabrera at first, and Prince Fielder at DH. Headley would then play third and has shown that he can be an average to above average defender. It's hard to say what it'd cost the Tigers because Headley has posted a WAR of 4.9 in 2010, 2.7 in 2011 and is already at 2.7 this year. They'd get a player who has good plate discipline, below average to average power but a solid contributor offensively nonetheless. One can make an argument that Petco is sapping Headley's power. When he's at home he has an ISO of .113 but when he's away he has an ISO of .202. While his true talent level may not be .200+, it is quite possible that it is in the .180 range. Defensively they rank second to last in baseball with a team UZR of -24.2
It's possible that expectations were too high for the Tigers right off the bat. A couple of their players were a result of lucky seasons/career years and regressed towards their true playing level this year. If the Tigers make a move or two they should be able to win the Central, and possibly make a little run in October.