Slumping role players drag Tigers out of first place

Team finishes 2-7 on recent road trip

Headline Goes Here AP Photo/Bech Diefenbach

J.D. Martinez congratulates Torii Hunter for scoring a run against the Oakland Athletics on May 27.

DETROIT - Over the course of a 162-game baseball season, the best teams and players almost always rise to the top in terms of performance and statistics. Underperforming stars finish the season strong while overachievers come back down to earth.

In early August, the Tigers are experiencing the latter, which has landed them in second place in the American League Central.

When Detroit entered the All-Star break in mid-July, it did so with the largest division lead in baseball and a top-five offense in terms of batting average and runs scored. Miguel Cabrera represented that offense in the Midsummer Classic by blasting a two-run home run in the first inning en route to the American League's victory.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, the team's offensive production came to a screeching halt after that blast to left field, starting at home against the Cleveland Indians. The bats produced only 12 runs during the four-game series, setting the tone for what has been a dreadful stretch 26-game stretch.

Tigers' offensive splits
First half: .280 average, 4.80 Runs/Game, .445 slugging percentage
Second half: .253 average, 3.81 R/G, .367 slugging

A 6 1/2 game lead has vanished, and now, the Tigers are looking up at the Kansas City Royals and are tied with the Seattle Mariners for the final wildcard spot.

The post-break offense: By the numbers

The Tigers have averaged under four runs per game in the 26 games since the All-Star break, fueling a 10-16 slump against mediocre competition. The offense has posted more than five runs only four times during the stretch after doing so 34 times in the first half.

Thanks to contributions up and down the lineup, Detroit owned the best average in the American League by 11 points in the first half, batting .280 as a team. But since the break, the Tigers have drastically fallen in terms of average, hitting .253, which is seventh in the AL and 30 points behind the leading White Sox.

What's wrong with Detroit's "high-powered" offense? It might be helpful to take a look at that very branding. The Tigers' offense isn't stacked with dangerous bats like it used to be. In fact, the current lineup's major drop-off after Torii Hunter is a cause for concern as the Tigers look to regain first place.

Role players slumping down the stretch:

When the Tigers were comfortably atop the AL Central, it was largely a result of unproven role players overperforming at the bottom of the lineup.

In J.D. Martinez's case, the 26-year-old was hitting in the fifth spot of the order, protecting Cabrera and Victor Martinez in one of the most important offensive spots.

J.D. Martinez was hitting .346 at the break with 13 home runs and 43 RBI, powering a Tigers' offense that lacks a true home run threat after Cabrera and Victor Martinez. J.D. was actually inserted into the cleanup spot during Victor Martinez's absence, a huge role for a player that was released by Houston during the offseason.

J.D. Martinez's 2014 season:
Before All-Star Game: .346 average, 17 2B, 13 HR, 43 RBI, .654 slugging
Since All-Star Game: .193 average, 3 2B, 2 HR, 8 RBI, .325 slugging

In August, J.D. Martinez has hit the wall, batting just .163 in 12 games. The Tigers have leaned heavily on his bat to protect Cabrera and Victor Martinez, but his slump prompted manager Brad Ausmus to move him down behind Hunter in the lineup. J.D. Martinez has just one home run and four RBI in August, which cripples the lineup from the six-hole.

J.D. Martinez isn't the only Tiger struggling. The bottom of the order is flooded with slumping hitters making weak outs in August. One of those players is former No. 1 prospect Nick Castellanos, who flourished in the first half of his rookie season.

Castellanos fills a critical power position for the Tigers at third base, but in August he has hit only one home run and driven in three. The rookie has reverted to some of his earlier habits, swinging at poor pitches and striking out frequently. He struck out 13 times in his first 11 August games and recorded just seven hits en route to a .200 overall average.

Nick Castellanos numbers by month
April: .217 batting average, 16 strikeouts
May: .233 BA, 26 SO
June: .337 BA, 16 SO
July: .243 BA, 23 SO
August: .200, 13 SO

Losing production from J.D. Martinez and Castellanos marks the biggest factor in the proverbial power outage in Detroit. From an average standpoint, Eugenio Suarez's numbers have dipped in August as well. Suarez has hit just .167 with 10 strikeouts this month after setting the table from the bottom of the order for much of the first half.

Suarez on-base percentage in 2014
June: .364
July: .310
August .242

The question that haunts Tiger fans as the postseaons draws ever nearer is, Which offense is the real offense?

Are Castellanos, Suarez and J.D. Martinez slumping, or was the first half merely a hot streak? While each player's performance is likely to fall between the current level and that of before the break, if the slump doesn't end soon the Tigers could end up on the outside looking in during October.

There are certainly more problems with the offense than just the role players. Miguel Cabrera is posting some of the worst power numbers of his career, Ian Kinsler is hitting .237 with no home runs since the All-Star break, and Austin Jackson is gone.

Ausmus expects Cabrera and Kinsler to get back on track this season because of their history, but for some of the younger players, the future is cloudier. It will be those players, like J.D. Martinez, Castellanos and Suarez, who have to bounce back in August and lift the Tigers.

If the bottom of the order can regain its previous form, the Tigers will win a fourth straight AL Central title. If August's slump continues, a team destined for postseason play will stay home in October.

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