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Detroit Tigers: Top 5 reasons for near-perfect start

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(AP Photo)

DETROIT – As a baseball fan in Detroit, you've certainly heard the buzz surrounding the Tigers after a nearly perfect 10-game start to the season. The Tigers are 9-1 for the third time since 1968, and in both other instances the team went on to win the World Series. Miguel Cabrera is on pace for 291 hits this season, which would shatter MLB's single-season record. Jose Iglesias is looking to become the first Tiger to hit .400 since Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann did it in back-to-back seasons in 1922 and 1923.

Okay, so that last statement is absurd. Cobb and Heilmann are Hall of Famers and two of the greatest Tigers of all time. Iglesias has only gotten through 10 games and, despite a hot start, would ultimately love to finish the season at around .280 or .300.

But you get the point. Through 10 games the Tigers are off to an historically good start. And although winning the first sixteenth of the season doesn't mean anything, Detroit would much rather be 9-1 than, say, 3-7 like Seattle.

How have the Tigers jumped out to such a hot start? Well, baseball teams simply don't win nine of 10 games at any point in the year without almost everyone clicking on all fronts. The offense has scored 56 runs in 10 games, the pitching owns a 1.82 ERA and the defense has made just three errors.

Most of the roster contributed in some way during the 9-1 start, but I've narrowed it down to the top five standout performances and trends that shaped the early run.

5. Joakim Soria nailing down the 9th

Don't look now, but the Tigers have a stable closer at the back-end of the bullpen.

In his last four outings, Joakim Soria hasn't allowed a base hit or a walk. In fact, he faced 13 batters in four innings with only one reaching (via fielding error). He allowed one run on two hits on April 11 and hasn't been touched since.

Soria turned the most tense, uncertain portion of each game in recent Tigers history into a boring, everyday 1-2-3 inning. He gives the ninth inning the excitement of an afternoon nap.

Unfortunately, Brad Ausmus set an alarm, so it looks like that nap will be cut short.

Ausmus said that Joe Nathan, who hit the disabled list with a flexor strain two weeks ago, will resume his role as the closer when he returns. That means the calm, quick ninth innings fans have seen since mid-April will be replaced with the tense, often hostile, aura Nathan triggers from the mound.

On second thought, Ausmus didn't set an alarm, he brought an air horn.

Soria has been the bullpen anchor the Tigers desperately needed last season, converting four saves in four tries last week. If Nathan returns and struggles in the ninth, Ausmus will have a mob of angry Tigers fans to answer to.

4. Mr. Jose "Do It All" Iglesias

The Tigers made a handful of significant offseason acquisitions, adding Yoenis Cespedes and Anthony Gose to the lineup and Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon to the starting rotation. But so far, no addition has matched the production of Iglesias, who returned from a season-long injury in 2014 and looks better than ever.

Iglesias was brought to Detroit to anchor the infield defense at shortstop. Through 10 games, he's done just that, demonstrating his elite range (especially to his right) and strong throwing arm. Statistically, Iglesias ties for first in the AL with two defensive runs saved and fifth in revised zone rating, which measures how consistently a player turns balls within his zone into outs.

To put his defensive impact into perspective, take a look at Tigers shortstops from a year ago. Andrew Romine and Eugenio Suarez led Detroit to a total of minus 10 defensive runs saved throughout the season. This means the Tigers could have slotted an average defender into the position and allowed 10 fewer runs on the year.

But they didn't add an average defender at shortstop, they added one of the best in the game. Now Iglesias is showing fans why Dave Dombrowski was willing to part with Avisail Garcia (who hit a home run in Comerica Park Friday) to bring Iglesias to Detroit.

When Iglesias contributes on offense, that's just icing on the cake. Right now, the defensive specialist is leading the AL with a .484 batting average, four stolen bases and only one strikeout. On Friday, the 25-year-old delivered a walkoff single in the 9th to knock off the White Sox.

Baseball is a game of ups and downs, so Iglesias will surely battle through his own slumps this year. But right now he's raking from the bottom of the Tigers' order, one of the main reasons the team is 9-1.

3. Defensive improvement across the diamond

Iglesias isn't the only player flashing some serious leather early in the season. The Tigers as a whole have kicked off 2015 as a much-improved defensive unit, demonstrated not only by the eye test, but also a .992 fielding percentage.

Ian Kinsler has been dynamite at second base so far, ranking among the top five in the AL in terms of range and runs saved at his position. He, paired with Iglesias, gives the Tigers a dangerous double play combination up the middle with range to cover the team's less mobile options at the corners.

But even Nick Castellanos, who was a major defensive liability in 2014, has taken a step forward. Castellanos ranks second in the AL with two defensive runs saved and lies in the middle of the pack in terms of range factor. Last year, he was two times worse than the next-lowest ranked defender at third base, with minus 30 defensive runs saved.

At the very least, through 10 games, he appears to have made marked improvement.

In the outfield, the Tigers skyrocketed defensively by letting go of Torii Hunter, who was statistically the second-worst outfielder in the AL last year. Detroit filled his void with Cespedes, who ranked 11th in the AL last season with 11 defensive runs saved. The new Tiger has already offered a glimpse of his defensive prowess, robbing a home run on Opening Day and holding runners to singles down the line with his rocket arm.

In center field, Gose's elite range more than makes up for an average defender in J.D. Martinez.

The Tigers underwent a huge identity change during the offseason, and the most obvious sign has been improved defense up and down the lineup.

2. An extraordinarily high BABIP

If you're not familiar with the batting average on balls in play (BABIP) statistic, it's exactly what it sounds like: How often a player or team's balls in play result in hits. With BABIP, we can essentially identify two trends: the quality of contact a player makes and how lucky he gets when he puts a ball in play.

For starters, a team that features hitters like Kinsler, Cabrera, both Martinez's and Cespedes is expected to post a higher than average BABIP. But through the first 10 games, Detroit is posting a mark that is, simply put, unsustainable.

Since 2007, no team has finished a regular season with a BABIP over .330, with the '07 Tigers boasting the high mark of .329. Through 10 games this year, the Tigers are batting .368 on balls in play.

Over the last three games, the offense has posted a much more reasonable .314 BABIP, which is likely an early sign of that inflated number starting to regress toward the team's more sustainable ending average. As the at-bats continue to mount, we'll have a better idea of what the lineup can really bat on balls in play this season.

But so far, the Tigers have used a combination of luck and consistent, hard contact to lead the league in BABIP. That's a major factor in the team's 9-1 start.

For an offense that posted .319 and .318 BABIPs over that last two years and underwent significant lineup change during the offseason, Detroit will likely end up somewhere around .320-.325 on balls in play by the end of the year.

1. Starters pitching deep into games

When the Tigers traded for David Price at last year's trade deadline, they knew they were getting perhaps the most durable pitcher in today's game. Price tossed at least eight innings in exactly half of his 34 starts last year, the most of any other pitcher in the game. Through three starts in 2015, he's already pitched at least eight innings twice.

What the Tigers didn't expect, was that the rest of the rotation would follow suit.

Already the Tigers lead MLB in starting pitcher ERA at 1.55, with only 12 earned runs allowed in 69.2 innings. Greene and Simon have combined for three starts of eight innings in their first four appearances for Detroit, while Anibal Sanchez added 6.2 shutout frames in his first outing.

If the Tigers' starting rotation continues to pitch deep into games, it not only holds opponents off the board through the late innings, it also masks the teams overbearing weakness: The bullpen.

Detroit's bullpen owns a 2.79 ERA and a perfect 2-0 record through the first 10 games. Opponents are hitting just .164 against Tiger relievers this season.

Is this a result of an offseason makeover, or significant improvement on the parts of Joba Chamberlain, Ian Krol and Blaine Hardy?

No. The stats are improved because the bullpen is rarely entering the game. Detroit relievers have tossed an MLB-low 19.1 innings so far, more than half of which have come from Soria, Tom Gorzelanny and Al Alburquerque. The numbers are so improved because the top few relievers are the only ones pitching significant innings.

During the second half of 2014, Chamberlain and Nathan were the two biggest offenders in terms of blowing leads in the late innings. This season, those guys have combined to pitch a total of one inning through 10 games. That's how you overcome a weakness: Hiding it.

Over the next 152 games, the Tigers will have offensive slumps, rough turns through the rotation and even stretches of poor defensive play. The bullpen will certainly take its bumps and bruises along the way. But the first 10 games have been a nearly spotless start to the season, and the Tigers need to ride that streak for as long as they can.

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