Why Have the Detroit Tigers Faltered? An Answer from Lee Panas of Tiger Tales

Posted on June 7, 2008 by


Both during and after an NBA season I offer posts on individual teams centered around two points of view.  First I look at how many wins a team could have expected given the past performance of the players employed.  I then look at how many wins the team could expect given the current performance of the players employed.  By comparing the two studies I am able to determine which players are responsible for the changes we observe for the team.

Of course I am not just a fan of basketball.  As a kid the sport I followed most religiously was baseball.  And the team I follow in baseball has always been the Detroit Tigers, who I think are the most disappointing team in Major League Baseball in 2008.  Generally expected to contend for a title, the Tigers have struggled most of the season to escape last place.  This result leads to the question: Who on the Tigers is most responsible for this outcome?

To answer this question I turned to Lee Panas.  Lee has a website called Tiger Tales where he frequently employs sabermetric methods in the analysis of the Tigers.  A few days ago I asked Lee if he could do for the Tigers what I do for NBA teams.  Specifically, could he look at how many wins we should have expected from this team (given the past performance of the players), and compared that to what we have seen this season?  Thankfully, Lee agree to address the question and his answer – which is very good — has been posted today.

Sharing the blame

If you wish to see his methodology — he employed Win Shares (which was created by Bill James and calculated by The Hardball Times) – you can click on the above link and read the entire post.  The post also has two tables which reports Lee’s analysis of both the hitters and pitchers Detroit employed this year.

For here, I am going to pick up the post right after the tables.

Looking at the totals row in each table, we can see how many team win shares the Tigers would accumulate in 2007 if they performed the same way in 2008 as 2007. It comes out to 297 expected win shares in 2008 (213 for the batters and 84 for the pitchers). That is 99 expected wins assuming no injuries or player regression. So far this year, they have accumulated 75 win shares (52 and 23). Extrapolating that over 162 games, it comes to 209 win shares (144 for hitters and 65 for pitchers). That is equivalent to 70 wins.

So, if they keep up the same pace, the Tigers will lose 29 more games this year than expected based on their performance in 2007. Some of it is injuries to Curtis Granderson and Gary Sheffield and a few others but they haven’t been hit that hard by injuries this year. So which players are underperforming the most?

Table 1 illustrates that six position players are underperforming by three or more wins over a full season.

Curtis Granderson (5.67 wins) – We can’t blame Granderson for his hand injury but even if we lower his expected plate appearances to reflect time missed for the injury, it still comes to 4+ wins of underperformance.

Jacque Jones (5 wins) – Some people were not expecting much from him but he should have been expected to be a decent platoon player. Instead he had zero win shares at the time of his release.

Miguel Cabrera (-4.67) – He is tied for second on the team in win shares but he has simply underperformed. There is no excuse for him other than he is trying to adjust to a new league.

Magglio Ordonez (-4.00) – I’ll excuse Ordonez for not repeating his career year of 2007. If I had used a three year average as the comparison rather than just last year, he would be performing just as expected. So, let’s not blame Magglio.

Gary Sheffield (-3.33) – Sheffield has been hurt but he was hurt last year too so I wasn’t expecting a full season of plate appearances from him. He has produced very little while playing though.

Edgar Renteria (-3.00) – Renteria had one of his best seasons last year but even if we take a three year average, he is still underperforming by more than 2 games.

On the pitching side, there are three players underperforming by 2 or more games:

Justin Verlander (-4.00) – He is apparently healthy and simply underperforming.

Dontrelle Willis (-2.33) – has been injured most of the season.

Joel Zumaya (-2.00) – has been injured all season.

My conclusion is that most of the team underperformance compared to 2007 is due to three things:

(1) the underperformance of the following players: Cabrera, Verlander, Granderson, J.Jones, Renteria and Sheffield.

(2) injuries to Zumaya, Granderson, Willis and Sheffield.

(3) Magglio Ordonez should not have been expected to repeat his amazing 2007 season.

So, for those who want to point the finger, there is plenty of blame to go around. For those who like to make excuses, there is some reason for that too. Regardless of how you look at it, it’s been a very disappointing season for the Tigers.

There you have it.  The Tigers – given past performances – should have expected to win 99 games.  Instead the team is on pace to win 70.  And that is before the injury to Jeremy Bonderman. 

Looking at the players whose performance has changed the most, there are a few who we might expect to get better.  On this list would be Granderson, Cabrera, and Verlander.  But even if these players completely rebound, the Tigers are still going to fall far short of 99 wins.  In sum, it looks like the 2008 season is going to continue to disappoint.

Although I do not like that answer, I definitely would like to thank Lee for going to all this trouble to provide the answer.  And I also hope Lee is right about something else he said at Tiger Tales:

… I still think they have a core of talent that can compete in the AL Central if they make the right acquisitions during the off-season and some players having bad seasons bounce back in 2009.

Although it is still just June, it might be time to start thinking about 2009.  Or maybe we should just focus on the Red Wings, who just won the Stanley Cup.  Unfortunately I am not a big enough hockey fan for that to distract me from the Tigers in 2008.

– DJ