DETROIT – With more than one-fifth of the full schedule in the books, the Detroit Tigers have one of the best records in the entire American League. Nobody is buying them as real competitors, but the Tigers have a chance to prove themselves as the schedule gets much tougher, starting Monday night.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Tigers have scratched and clawed their way to an 8-5 record -- good for fourth in the AL. They’re just a half-game behind the Minnesota Twins atop the Central Division, and only the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics have better records elsewhere.
There’s good reason to be skeptical of the team’s hot start, though. For one, the Tigers have a zero run differential, which is often more representative of a team’s talent than the actual record. On top of that, Detroit is one of only two teams in MLB (Chicago Cubs) that have played every game against opponents with losing records.
The Pittsburgh Pirates (3-13) are by far the worst team in baseball so far. The Kansas City Royals (7-10) are in last place in the AL Central. The Cincinnati Reds (7-9) are only out of the cellar thanks to the Pirates.
In the Tigers’ defense, they can only play the games on their schedule, and they more or less took advantage of those first 13 games.
But now it’s time to see if this team is actually good enough to slip into one of the eight playoff spots in the AL.
Monday starts a stretch of 35 straight games against legitimate playoff contenders. That stretch, which currently has two off-days and two doubleheaders, includes 10 games against the Chicago White Sox, eight games against the Twins, six games against the Cleveland Indians, four games each against the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers and three games against the Cubs.
That means the Tigers will play 58.3% of their schedule over the next 35 days with 11 games against first-place teams and 27 against teams with at least .500 records. The Brewers and Cardinals are currently a game below .500, but they’re both expected to be postseason contenders, at the very least.
The way the Tigers have played so far suggests they’re the best of all the really bad teams. But really, they need to be the best of a slightly higher tier of teams.
If the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians all make the playoffs -- and they likely will -- that leaves two spots open in the AL.
While they haven’t been the worst teams in the league so far, the Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals figure to drop out of that mix, based on their rosters.
That means the Tigers would need to finish among the top two of this group: the White Sox, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays.
So far, all four of those teams behind the White Sox are at least two games under .500. With the Tigers sitting three games above .500, that’s a nice little head start for a 60-game sprint.
Looking forward, this week’s series with the White Sox is extremely important. Not only do the White Sox appear to have the best roster of that middling tier, they also play the Tigers 10 times during this stretch.
Detroit needs to find a way to earn a split with in the season series, because making up ground against the Indians or Twins would be very difficult.
It took a pandemic, expanded playoffs and some scheduling luck, but the Tigers are in the thick of a playoff race by the middle of August, and that’s pretty awesome for starved Detroit sports fans. Every game is meaningful right now, and that hasn’t been the case since the end of 2016.