Slanted Sabr: Royals, Tigers and the Topsy-Turvy AL Central

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Some of you may have noticed that this edition of Slanted Sabr comes later in the week than normal. That’s because I was waiting for the most important series of the year thus far to finish, and it absolutely did not disappoint. Sarah Davis wrote on the AL Central a few days ago, but I wanted to take a deeper look at these two teams.

slanted sabr logoThe Royals and Tigers threw down in Detroit for the rights to first place in a four-game set. Kansas City came in riding a seven-game win streak, while the once mighty Tigers have been in a free-fall. Once terrified of their own inability to hit, since installing Dale Sveum as hitting coach the Kansas City bats have come alive. They scored 45 runs over the course of those seven games, and they were far from finished when they arrived in Detroit. The Royals won three of four and are now the proud owners of first place in the AL Central. They outscored the Tigers 25-15, scoring 11 runs each in games started by Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Yet that shouldn’t be a surprise, as Verlander has struggled mightily and Scherzer has started to slide with him.

While the Tigers may have lost Torii Hunter for a short while to injury, this series is a microcosm of the New World Order of the AL Central. For the past two weeks, the Royals have been twice the team that the Tigers have been, on both sides of the ball. While Verlander and Scherzer have been imploding, Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Jeremy Guthrie have been surging. Joe Nathan managed to look like his old self in the final game of the series, but the entire Royals bullpen is a force of nature. And while the Tigers haven’t been the defensive travesty that they were last year, it’s hard to compete with the Royals on defense.

The Royals winning ways started in earnest around May 29th, but I’m going to compare the teams’ performances over the series and the ten days prior. This excludes any time where the Royals would be statistically adjusting to their new level of production, and gives us that wonderful winning streak as the backbone of the numbers. Naturally a disclaimer must be made that it’s unrealistic to assume that Kansas City will continue to produce at this level, but it’s a fun visual exercise.

Stats – June 5th – June 19th Tigers Royals
wOBA .364 .369
OPS .840 .841
WPA -0.94 2.29
FIP 4.36 2.85
Starter ERA 5.51 2.75
Reliever ERA 4.05 3.38

 

This being Slanted Sabr, I had to include some fun stats to make you say “huh?” If you’re confused about what exactly those acronyms mean, I’ve included links that explain what exactly you’re looking at.

Unsurprisingly, the table shows us that both teams have been hitting the snot out of the ball. The Royals have remembered how to hit, and the Tigers are just being the Tigers. Nothing new there. However, it gets interesting when we look at WPA. WPA, or Win Probability Added, is a counting stat that basically asks, “How did the play that just happened add to the probability of the team winning the game?” The link I provided in the table explains it beautifully. However, I’m looking at it from a team-wide perspective over a period of time. This is every batter’s WPA in every game over that span, added together. And it’s nothing short of astounding.

The Tigers managed an excellent .364 wOBA and .840 OPS over the span of that run, but actually had a negative WPA as a whole. You can’t chalk that up to the poor pitching. What you can chalk it up to is the extreme lack of depth in the Detroit batting corps. The top of the lineup has been excellent, as you would expect a group of Ian Kinsler, Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez to be. Yet Detroit has struggled mightily to find timely and consistent hitting in the bottom of the lineup. The wOBA and OPS stats in the table are also partially inflated by the sudden rise of JD Martinez, who has absolutely caught fire of late. Nick Castellanos has also started to find his stroke recently, but that’s about it. The bench is uninspiring, and the motley crew of infielders, catchers and spare outfielders isn’t anything special. But there’s a lot you can get done with Miguel Cabrera and V-Mart feeding off each other.

The FIP stats listed encompass both starters and relievers as a whole. I went with FIP for the team-wide stat due to its use in talking about actual quality of pitching, and standard ERA for the corps-centric stats because FIP isn’t always useful when talking about actual runs allowed. This is especially true over a small sample size like fourteen days.

Immediately it’s apparent that the wheels have fallen off the Tigers’ rotation. Anibal Sanchez has been the only consistent starter in the Detroit staff, and while he’s been absolutely excellent, even Clayton Kershaw couldn’t take his place and balance out the tire fire that’s happening.

Here’s a fun fact; since his full-time debut in 2006, nobody has thrown more innings than Justin Verlander. Verlander hasn’t been soft-tossing either, he’s been famous for his ability to reach back and touch the high nineties on his fastball late in games. There’s quite a lot mileage on that right arm, and it’s finally caught up with him. Last season’s Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer, has also been wild of late. It’s a perfect storm with Sanchez standing in the eye of it, seemingly untouched. It’s also no secret that the bullpen has been a problem for Detroit, with Joba Chamberlain of all people being the most consistently effective. Mileage may have also caught up with Joe Nathan, who sports an ugly 6.31 ERA.

The exact opposite has happened to the Royals. James Shields has kept on being James Shields, and Jason Vargas has kept on being almost mind-numbingly decent. Yordano Ventura is still the most exciting rookie starting pitcher in the league this side of Masahiro Tanaka. But two very important turnarounds have been fueling the success of the starting staff. Firstly, Danny Duffy is finally delivering on the amazing promise of his rocket through the minor leagues. Duffy actually began the season in the bullpen, but when Wade Davis suddenly morphed into the best setup man in the game (more on that later), Duffy was thrust into the rotation and after a rocky start, is commanding his pitches with ease. A good mid-nineties fastball compliments a looping curve and developing slider, which can all be thrown for strikes. He’s making good hitters look silly, and you should mark his next start in your calendar because it’s must-see TV. Secondly, Jeremy Guthrie is back to being a quality mid-rotation starter after going eleven starts without a winning decision. He cut through the Tigers like butter this week, surrendering only a single run on a homer to the red-hot JD Martinez. This is the Guthrie who made easy work of every team not in the AL East when he pitched with the Orioles, maybe even better. It’s not likely he keeps it up, but it’s not too far above his pay grade at the same time.

The Royals bullpen has been, well, the Royals bullpen. There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been reported dozens of times. Kansas City possesses an embarrassment of riches of fireballing relievers and has used them to great effect. Davis, a recently converted starter, has allowed himself to rear back for even more power and is topping out his fastball at 98 MPH while setting the table for closer Greg Holland. Holland has been everything Nathan hasn’t been. He’s deadly and efficient. His stuff is good enough to mention in the same breath as Craig Kimbrel, plain and simple.

It took seven innings of one-run Anibal Sanchez pitching to shut down the Kansas City win streak. But Sanchez, who usually slashes through batters, did not record a single strikeout in his victory. The Royals are a different team now, making good contact and mowing through batters without having to go to the bullpen, to say nothing of the spectacular defense that has always been the trademark of players like Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar. They’re a strangely more complete team than the Tigers, more balanced and deep despite a lack of big names. That’s the direction baseball is headed in, if you ask the Royals and the Oakland A’s. It’s a combination of dispersal of talent and things clicking at the right time. The wrong things are clicking at the wrong time for the Detroit Tigers, and that’s partly bad luck and partly a product of the structure of the team. I picked the Royals to win the division before the season started for all these reasons, and it seems that my gaze into the crystal ball is paying dividends. Kansas City hasn’t sniffed the postseason since 1985, but it’s time for some changes in the AL Central. Those changes have already arrived.

 

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