Inconsistent Tigers treading water after hot start

Tigers 2.5 games behind Royals in AL Central

(Carlos Osorio/AP Photo)

DETROIT – It's already here. The first pit stop, a checkpoint, the time when former Tigers manager Sparky Anderson would start drawing conclusions about his team.

It's the 40-game mark.

That's right, the Tigers' season is a quarter in the books. Forty games in the rearview mirror, and it's time to stop saying "well... it's early" and start saying "this is who they are."

But wait, who are the Tigers?

The strange thing about this team: Its identity circles around the fact that we don't really know who the Tigers are. And we may never really know, because just when you think you have them figured out, they flip the switch and send you right back to the drawing board.

It's like trying to catch a fish with your bar hands. You have it cornered, you're closing in, and somehow it manages to escape. So you start over, and over.

And over.

Instead of repeatedly trying to decide which version of the Tigers, the very good or the very bad, is the real thing, it's more accurate to just accept inconsistency as a part of who they are.

Just look at the last week's worth of games. The Tigers won three straight games from Thursday to Saturday, beating the best team in MLB twice and scoring a total of 27 runs. If someone asked on Saturday, "Who are the Tigers?" they might have gotten a response like "A World Series contender with a deep, explosive offense that can hide an average pitching staff."

Saturday was four days ago. The Tigers have since played three games, losing all three, including twice at home to the worst team in the NL. The Tigers' offense scored a total of four runs in those three games. If asked again to define the Tigers on Tuesday night, that same respondent might say "The Tigers are in a lot of trouble, they've got questions with their pitching staff and an offense that has scored two or fewer runs 19 times."

Upon hearing this, you might rush home to your computer and check the Tigers' schedule on ClickOnDetroit.com to see if that person was exaggerating. After all, a team with Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Yoenis Cespedes and Nick Castellanos in its lineup couldn't possibly have scored less than three runs in nearly half its games.

But that's exactly what the Tigers have done. They've scored just one run eight times and two runs 11 times. Seven of those 19 games have come over the last 10 for Detroit.

If we have to put a label on the offense through 40 games, let's settle on "slump prone."

Pitchers like Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Young, Kyle Gibson, Ricky Nolasco, Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson (all who started in the last 10 games and held the Tigers to two or fewer runs) aren't beating the Tigers. No, the Tigers are beating themselves. There's a reason these pitchers are coming into games with ugly numbers and losing records: They're not great pitchers.

With that said, the offense only makes up a segment of the Tigers' identity.

Let's take a look at the starting pitching.

The staff as a whole was a question mark heading into the season, and the numbers thus far have justified any concerns. Five pitchers have combined to start every game for the Tigers, posting a 4.12 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and striking out just over six batters per nine innings.

Anibal Sanchez sits atop Detroit's list of (non-injury related) concerns. Sanchez allowed five or more earned runs in four of his nine starts. The Tigers are 3-6 in games started by Sanchez, who was once considered the team's second-best starting option. The story for Sanchez during his struggles: Nine home runs. In less than half the starts, Sanchez has more than doubled his home run total from last season.

Shane Greene was headed down a similar path in early May after his third straight awful start left him with 20 earned runs in his last 11 innings pitched. But in his two starts since, Greene allowed just one earned run in 11 innings. In five starts outside that ugly three-game stretch, Greene is 4-0 with nearly as many strikeouts (18) as hits allowed (21).

Shockingly, the reins of the rotation are held by non other than Alfredo Simon. In eight starts, Simon allowed more than three runs only once. His low strikeout rate suggests his numbers will regress, as they did last year, but so far the Tigers have been saved by his strong start.

Brad Ausmus hopes that David Price will return to the form that helped him surrender just one earned run in his first three starts. The Tigers are 7-1 in games started by Price, but the lefty has allowed a total of 18 earned runs in four of his last five outings.

If the rotation trends sound familiar, it's probably because the starting staff's inconsistency is more or less on par with that of the offense. Though the starters have at times been dominant, they've allowed five or more runs 10 times. That means a quarter of the team's games have been near automatic losses by the middle innings.

Because of this inconsistency, we'll label the starting rotation's performance as "feast or famine."

The Tigers have stayed afloat amid the starters' struggles thanks to a gutty effort from the bullpen. Detroit relievers own a 2.89 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 109 innings. Joakim Soria and Alex Wilson have led the charge, allowing just five runs in 33 combined innings. Soria, Wilson and Angel Nesbitt own WHIPs under 1.00 and have emerged as top late-inning options.

Tom Gorzelanny and Joba Chamberlain have been shaky, but play major roles for Ausmus in the 7th and 8th innings.

So far, the bullpen is the stronger half of the pitching staff and ranks in the top five in the AL in terms of ERA, with only three losses. Through 40 games, Tiger relievers have been steady, but not overpowering.

Amidst the batting and pitching inconsistencies, only the Tigers' defense has routinely played at an elite level. As strange as that might sound to fans in Detroit, it's absolutely true. The team that ranked third-worst in MLB last season with minus 65 defensive runs saved is on pace for an historic turnaround.

Detroit's defense is fourth-best in MLB with 15 defensive runs saved through 40 games. That means the defense alone is on track to save about 125 more runs than it did last season. The Tigers' zone rating ranks fourth in MLB at .844, way up from last year's .807 total. The Tigers have committed the fewest errors (15) in the league.

As a result, the Tigers have survived in spite of a much weaker pitching staff. The much-improved defense has been elite, even season-saving so far.

With that, take a look at the full first-quarter report card for the Tigers:

Offense: Slump-prone
Starting pitching: Feast or famine
Bullpen: Steady, but not overpowering
Defense: Elite, even season-saving

If you look at those four lines and think they fairly summarize the first 40 games, then we're on the same page. It's impossible to guess what the offense and pitching might do in any given game, but the defense showed up night in and night out.

Other factors certainly played a role in the 23-17 start. Ausmus has likely cost the Tigers a couple of games by going against the grain in a few big moments. Pinch-running for Miguel Cabrera on May 10 against the Royals and leaving Kyle Lobstein in to face Carlos Gomez in the 7th on Monday come to mind.

Injuries are also a major storyline in Detroit. Former MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander has yet to toe the rubber. Last year's MVP runner-up Victor Martinez is on the DL after hitting just .216 over the first six weeks. Two relievers, Joe Nathan and Bruce Rondon, who were expected to shoulder much of the late-innings load, are on the DL. Last week, starting catcher Alex Avila became the latest Tiger to fall.

The question for the Tigers isn't whether or not they need Martinez, Rondon, Verlander and Avila, but rather if they can stay alive until those players return. That list includes the team's cleanup hitter, power reliever, winningest starter and starting catcher. Detroit needs these guys back sooner rather than later.

As of Wednesday morning, the Tigers are a season-high 2.5 games behind the Royals with no clear timetable for any of these players to return. Though they own the third-best record in the AL, the Tigers haven't put together a consistent run since starting 11-2. In fact, they're just 12-15 overall since that hot start.

It's been an up-and-down season for the Tigers and the rest of the division is quickly catching up. The Twins are just a game behind, the White Sox are back to .500 and the Indians have stopped the bleeding after a 10-18 start.

In winning four straight AL Central titles, the Tigers were the model of consistency. But it was inconsistency that defined the Tigers' first quarter of 2015 and put their run for a fifth straight title in an early hole.