Now that we are at the 40 game mark, people are starting to really try and determine which surprises are real. The Tigers have received a lot of attention, what with the best record in baseball and all. Most has been positive, but there are dissenters, and they have just cause. The Tigers, particularly the pitching staff, are playing at levels that are by and large, well above what their careers would indicate. But back before the season started, PECOTA thought this might happen.
PECOTA ranked Jeremy Bonderman 1st, Mike Maroth 9th, and Nate Robertson 10th in terms of breakouts for starting pitchers. It also liked Justin Verlander to be the Tigers second best pitcher behind Bonderman. Now even with the system being fond of the rotation, they are all pitching around the 90th percentile projections. I think it’s safe to assume that the Tiger starters won’t continue to post an ERA nearly a run better than the next closest team (3.20 for the Tigers, 4.08 for the Yankees).
The Tigers staff have benefitted from some strong defense. More and more Tiger fans are learning to eschew the fielding percentage statistic in favor of the more objective Defensive Efficiency Rating. The Tigers rank first in DER, converting 73.6% of balls in play into outs, but that is only part of the pitchers success. The staff is keeping the ball in the park in the first place.
Their ground ball rate is league average (47%), and their line drive rate is just slightly better than league average (18% for Detroit, 19% for the league). You don’t have to be a math genius to know that their fly ball rate is normal for the league as well. The difference is that they are inducing a larger than normal number of infield flys (Verlander had 7 the other night). They are also allowing a smaller number of those flies to leave the yard at 8% instead of 12%. The result is a pretty weak .365 slugging percentage allowed.
The fact that the Tigers have managed to hit home runs without any trouble, lends me to believe that the pitchers’ success so far is real and not a matter of ballpark. Whether or not it is sustainable remains to be seen.
I’ll concede the fact that the Tigers are pitching over their heads. Their career numbers, and current peripherals don’t make it seem like it can continue. But as long as they keep allowing singles, and the 3 lefthanders and Pudge limit the running game, and they continue to strand runners well above league average, who knows what can happen.