Why the Tigers are off to MLB's hottest start

Jason Miller

At the quarter-mark of the season, Detroit is off to the best start in baseball and one of the best starts in franchise history. The frightening thing for the rest of the league? It's no fluke.

"Take all that clubhouse [stuff] and all that, throw it out the window. Every writer in the country has been writing about that [nonsense] for years. Chemistry don't mean [anything]. They got good chemistry because their team is improved, they got a real good team, they got guys knocking in runs, they got a catcher hitting .336, they got a phenom pitcher they just brought up. That’s why they’re happy."

-- Jim Leyland, June, 16, 2010, via Adam Kilgore

Jim Leyland spent 22 years as a big league manager. He has a World Series ring to show for it and can lay claim to a pair of American League pennants as manager of the Detroit Tigers. Before that he spent four years as a coach on Tony La Russa’s staff. Before that he spent seven years as a minor league catcher in the Tigers organization. If Jimmy Leyland tells you chemistry don’t mean shit, you should probably listen to him. And yet …

From the first minute spent in the Tigers clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium in their winter home of Lakeland, Fla., the chemistry was undeniable. Here was a clubhouse of laughter, of cards, of pranks, of Instagram videos filmed, of pitchers and position players and Latinos and African Americans and whites and veterans and rookies and free agents and trade acquisitions having fun from day one. They hadn’t won shit, in the parlance of their former manager, not four months after his retirement from the game. On paper they were good -- that’s good, not great -- but the Tigers were untested, the winning only in ink and pixels and laurels from the year before.

Others were not so certain. How can they score runs without Prince Fielder protecting Miguel Cabrera in the middle of the lineup? Where’s the power going to come from? What in the world was general manager Dave Dombrowski thinking, trading rotation stalwart Doug Fister to the Nationals for a trio of players whose names nobody recognized? And who’s going to get the lead safely through to closer Joe Nathan, now that the bullpen has seen such turmoil? Isn’t the window on a possible Tigers championship closing? Shouldn’t these guys feel a little, well, a little pressure to win a championship before it was too late? No tightness in that clubhouse could be found. "There’s no pressure if you study for the test," Torii Hunter said, flashing his signature smile. "And we’re prepared."

The Tigers strolled through the bowels of Progressive Field Monday afternoon in Cleveland, clad in Zubaz from head to toe, 2011 Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander wearing a Zubaz tie to complete the look. Hunter was right, as he usually is. The Tigers were prepared for the test. They flew into town from Boston after sweeping the defending World Series champion Red Sox, that same club that knocked them out of the playoffs a season earlier. "As long as we keep playing good baseball, this stuff is going to be around," Hunter, speaking of the team’s sudden love of stripes, told the Detroit News Monday. "Once we get in a little funk -- if it ever happens -- trust me, the Zubaz are out. Right now, we’re just going to enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun, camaraderie and chemistry. That’s what you need and we’re doing it."

***

Of course, chemistry don’t mean shit without talent, that’s the point Leyland was getting at. The Tigers didn’t get off to their best start since 1984 by playing dress-up. They’re just a whole lot better than their opponents.

It starts with the pitching. A lucky team facing the Tigers in a three-game series will only have to face one of the new Big Three: Justin Verlander, 2013 Cy Young Max Scherzer and 2013 American League ERA leader Anibal Sanchez. Their consolation prize on the other days is a meeting with right-hander Rick Porcello, who with a 2.91 ERA is finally getting the results expected of him. Or they may face left-hander Drew Smyly, whose ERA of 3.05 makes you quickly forget about that whole Doug Fister thing. And if Smyly didn’t, the 11 innings of one-run ball thrown by Ray, the chief prize in the trade, as a spot starter speaks well for the future. The Tigers’ rotation sparkles with an ERA of 2.70, the best in the big leagues.

The Tigers are 24-1 when leading after the seventh inning and 24-0 when leading after the eighth.

The starters will probably hand a lead to the bullpen, and the bullpen will probably keep it. The Tigers are 24-1 when leading after the seventh inning and 24-0 when leading after the eighth. And don’t forget, the the relief corps is supposedly the Tigers’ Achilles heel. Since stumbling out the gate, the group has come around with an AL-best 2.33 ERA in May. Reclamation project Joba Chamberlain ably handles the eighth inning, and closer Joe Nathan has locked down the ninth. Left-hander Ian Krol, acquired along with Ray in the Fister trade, and right-hander Evan Reed have posted ERAs on the season of 1.84 and 2.81, respectively. Meanwhile former all-star closer Joel Hanrahan is waiting in the wings in Lakeland as his Tommy John surgery rehab nears its completion. He’s expected to join the team in June.

That supposedly confusing offseason seems to be playing according to plan. With Prince Fielder traded to the Rangers in exchange for Ian Kinsler, the Tigers managed to reconfigure their infield in a way that added dimensions to their game on both sides of the ball. The team defensive efficiency ranks ninth, with 71.4 percent of balls in play turned into outs. Last year, it ranked 27th. Kinsler, along with shortstop Andrew Romine and left fielder Rajai Davis, gives manager Brad Ausmus the ability to ask for an extra base from time to time. Just 36 games into the season the Tigers matched their stolen-base total from 2014, 35. Today they rank second in baseball, first in their league, in the stat.

They’ve done all that without sacrificing power. They have the third-highest slugging in the game at .430. Contrary to fears, their isolated power has actually seen an uptick to .152. Fielder may be gone, but with a .329 average and 11 home runs Victor Martinez has done more than enough to fill the hole. He likely won’t keep that up, but he only had to do it long enough for Cabrera to return to form, which he has. After batting .277 with 735 OPS and only two home runs in the first month of the year, Cabrera bounced back with a .391 average and 1131 OPS in May with five home runs.

* * *

The Tigers lost to the Indians Monday, 5-4 in 10 innings, snapping an 11-game road win streak, but hit the 40-game mark a major-league-best 27-13, good for a .675 winning percentage. They remain on pace to post the best record in the franchise’s 114-year history.

The last two times the Tigers won more than 100 games, they also won the World Series. In 1984, a 35-5 start resulted in a 104-58 finish. Before that, they bounced back from the disappointment of 1967 -- finishing a game behind Boston for the AL pennant -- with 103 wins and a championship in 1968. At their current winning percentage, the 2014 Tigers are on pace for 109 wins. That would be the most a team had since the Mariners’ 114 in 2001.

Detroit probably isn’t going to keep that pace up. But the Tigers still ought to be able to win 100 games. Their pythagorean winning percentage, that’s the one based on runs scored and allowed, stands at .646. That’s 105 wins. Baseball Prospectus’ third-order winning percentage -- that’s based on how many runs a team should have scored and allowed, and adjusted for quality of opponent -- of .621 also puts Detroit at more than 100 wins on the year. Even then, we haven’t seen a team win more than 100 games since the Phillies’ 102 in 2011. These Tigers are pretty good.

Chemistry, talent, a near-historic start, the Tigers have it all right now. Thirty years after their last championship, their start isn’t a fluke. They really are the best team in baseball right now.

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