Buster Olney is a great reporter. If you want to find out what’s going on around the league he’s absolutely someone you should follow. However, while his reporting is fantastic, I don’t always agree with his analysis. On ESPN Radio, Olney did a quick hits segment wherein he predicted that the Tigers would win the AL Central. His reasoning? Olney had spoken to Justin Verlander at the All Star Game, who asserted that because Delmon Young had turned it on, Detroit would win the division. Olney concurred and asserted something to the effect that the Tigers are all about complementary parts.
This theory stunned me, as it seemed like the opposite of the truth. Coming into the season the Tigers had a lot of hype surrounding them due to their superstars, but there were some serious question marks after their studs. Make no mistake – Verlander, Cabrera, and Fielder are absolutely some of the best players in the majors. My problem with the hype was that baseball is a 162-game season where 10-15 players per team decide individual games. Depth is incredibly important and – as the White Sox learned to their sorrow in 2011 – ghastly production at enough places in the lineup can torpedo a roster. I had considered the Tigers to be remarkably top-heavy.
To put it another way – after the Tigers’ Big Three, don’t the White Sox have a much better roster? If we had known that Sale, Konerko, and Dunn would be almost as good as Verlander, Prince, and Cabrera, wouldn’t you give the edge to Chicago? Let’s take a quick look at how things have played out so far this season.
I have included OPS+ here because there are obvious differences between U.S. Cellular and Comerica that must be taken into account when comparing performance between these two teams. Another thing to consider is that, while all of these players are defensive liabilities, the White Sox have deployed this at 1B/DH as opposed to 1B/3B, which I believe has further eroded the Tigers’ edge in this department.
So, while Konerko and Dunn have performed admirably, I don’t think it’s a surprise that Prince and Miggy are better, and probably profile to do better in the second half given their ages and track record. Now to jump over to the aces.
Once again, the Tigers probably come out on top here. Verlander is a known commodity, has thrown more innings, and Sale’s ability to hold up over a whole season is still new territory as a starter. But, the general point also stands that the Tigers’ advantage here is not enormous.
Does this advantage do enough to offset my hypothesis that the White Sox have a better roster in spots 4-25?
Both teams have had pleasant surprises and some disappointments. Austin Jackson has been phenomenal (.323/.401/.529), and both Avila and Peralta have hovered around league average offense at tough positions. After that, you’re looking at part time players if you want an OPS+ above 100. Berry has filled in admirably, and Gerald Laird is coming off the best half season of his life. Andy Dirks looks like he might be legit, but he also hasn’t been able to stay healthy.
The White Sox have had a wealth of feel good stories on offense. Jason has already addressed Pierzynski’s amazing resurgence this year, Alejandro De Aza continues to be an asset, and Alex Rios is doing his best to eliminate my residual hatred for him (.313/.352/.530). Viciedo has been about average offensively.
As for the bad news on offense, the White Sox look like they have resolved their glaring weakness at 3B. I don’t think anyone who has found their way to this site needs me to tell them how good Youkilis has been or how bad 3B was prior to his arrival. The other problem spots have been at 2B (Beckham 80 OPS+) and SS (Alexei at 68). As far as black holes go, though, it’s much more acceptable from slick middle infield gloves than elsewhere on the diamond.
Second base for the Tigers has been a disaster on both sides of the ball, with Raburn and Santiago posting OPS+ of 31 and 66 respectively, and Raburn isn’t exactly known for his defense. Brennan Boesch is another all-bat-not-much-glove guy whose bat has vanished, with an OPS+ of 76 so far. And Boesch illustrates my point nicely – he’s hitting about like Beckham, but Beckham’s a plus second baseman and Boesch is poor in right. Finally that brings us to Delmon Young, whom the Tigers have decided should play DH instead of Miguel Cabrera for some reason. Delmon Young’s OPS+ of 91 is about what you can expect from him, as quite frankly it’s now 3000 PAs into his career and his OBP stands at .319. Yes, Delmon Young hit a home run in four straight games, but those were off Swarzak, Jonathan Sanchez, Adcock, and Teaford. Not exactly aces, and two of them are lefties.
With the starting rotation, you can argue that the Tigers’ second best starter in Fister has been out for most of the season, and that he’s due back. I suppose that’s fair, but it’s important to remember that Fister’s K/BB ratio of 11.40 (!!) with the Tigers last year has lead to him becoming overrated in people’s minds. Other than that, not a single Tigers starter has an above-average ERA, and with guys like Scherzer and Porcello the track record of simply not performing up to their talent is starting to pile up. You can counter and say, “Scherzer’s striking out literally a million hitters, it’s just awful defense behind him,” but in the context of this conversation I’m not sure that helps the Tigers’ case.
Similarly, despite being without Danks and Humber for most of the season, and Floyd not being himself, Peavy and Quintana have been excellent. While I don’t think it’s fair for anyone to predict that Quintana will have a second half like his first – there are maybe a handful of guys I would project to post sub-2.50 ERAs for 100 innings at a time – Keith Law agrees with me that his great walk rate and ability to keep the ball in the park make him a legitimate starter moving forward.
Defensive metrics are generally a mess, particularly in samples under 3 years, but I’m fairly confident about a few things. First, that the White Sox are running average-to-plus defenders at shortstop, second, center, and right field, and are positioned to have below-average-to-acceptable defense at third, left, first, and catcher. The Tigers, on the other hand, basically have one plus defender in Austin Jackson, and then a mélange of mediocre-to-awful defense all over the diamond. Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been the historic trainwreck some project for him at third, but he’s still bad. Even if Miggy were to move to DH, that would likely mean any defensive benefits are offset by Delmon Young’s hideous glove work being back on the field. I don’t think there’s any question that the White Sox have an advantage here.
Bullpens are notoriously fickle beasts, and taking a quick glance at it, I suppose I prefer the Tigers’ to the White Sox, but it’s not a slam dunk, and I’m not sure how much we should really be weighing bullpens that aren’t that far away from league average, which is about where I’d put both of these teams.
So to sum up, while the Tigers’ stars are incredibly important, and are better than any three players on the White Sox, the analysis shouldn’t stop there. This isn’t the NBA. I believe the White Sox compensate on offense with a deeper lineup, whose worst hitters are much better than the Tigers’ worst hitters. Further, the White Sox have a superior starting rotation and are much better defensively. This is not to suggest the White Sox will win the division easily – at this point, I’d still probably flip a coin. But to argue that the Tigers have better “complementary parts” seems to be a losing proposition.