Let's just move past the recent boring Rockies losses and on into a much more pressing question.
Just what exactly is the deal with the Detroit Tigers?
Detroit is 31-14, which is the best record in the big leagues at the moment. They're pretty much that good, too. They've scored 226 and allowed an ML-low 154. They lead the majors in staff ERA, and by a lot. Their offense is pretty good too, with a tied-for-seventh .811 OPS. Chris Shelton has slowed down a little bit, but there are some other weird names on their statistical tables past the guys you would expect to be good like Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordoñez. Brandon Inge is a nice utility player who is somehow slugging .504 as everyday third baseman. Curtis Granderson is hitting .268/.363/.482. Someone named Marcus Thames has six homers. Ivan Rodriguez isn't having a great year, but he's come a long way from the depths of 2005. He has seven walks already! Dmitri Young has really struggled, but with the emergence of all the young players, it hasn't mattered.
However I think most observers would have expected before the season began that Detroit could have an at least league-average offense with the players they had on hand. They were middle-of-the-pack last season even with a banged-up Ordoñez and Pudge's lost year. It's the pitching aspect of the 2006 Tigers that is completely bizarre. I'm not saying that it's impossible for young starters to get better. I'm not saying that teams can't win building around homegrown pitching. What I am saying is that the Tigers have a number of pitchers who have had more than enough time in the majors to prove whether they were any good or not, and on the whole, the evidence mounted before this season strongly indicated the latter (not good) option. Mike Maroth, before 2006: 40-58, 4.82 ERA. 2006: 5-2, 2.45. Old Nate Robertson: 20-29, 4.90. New Nate Robertson: 4-2, 3.02. Or Fernando Rodney: 4.52 career ERA through 2005, 1.37 so far in 2006. Justin Verlander barely had a major league career before this season, but geez, who knew he was this good? The one guy I always actually thought was good, Jeremy Bonderman, is the only guy who seemingly hasn't benefited this year from Jim Leyland's magical yelling powers. What's going on?
Well, Detroit's defense has been amazing. Their defensive efficiency score is 0.739, which is the second-best figure in the majors. This is a little weird because they more or less have the same guys they had last year when they were 15th, but Granderson is playing more and has a phenomenal defensive reputation in center field, so there's that. Defense alone can't account for how the Tigers' pitchers are faring so well while striking so few guys out. Verlander's K rate is 5.10 per nine. Kenny Rogers, 4.43. Maroth, 4.15. Robertson, 6.04. Bonderman is at 8.04, but his ERA is 4.66 -- go figure. They walk guys like crazy, too. Rodney, Joel Zumaya, Jordan Tata, and Jason Grilli all have BB/9 rates over 4. Robertson's is 3.69, which is pretty high for a starter. The sudden dominance of Detroit's pitching staff is like the Chewbacca Defense. It does not make sense. It can't last. Can it?
Here's why I think Tigers pitching is due for a second-half letdown: batting average on balls in play. There are some kooky figures on the Detroit staff for this stat, which is one of the most luck-influenced numbers in the game. Rodney's is .133. Verlander, .247. Robertson, .272. Maroth, .283. Rogers, .262. Zumaya, .233. Only two guys on the whole staff are over .300, and no matter how good their defense may or may not be, that's weird. (As a point of comparison, the BABIP number for Brandon Webb, one of the few guys in the majors about whom you might make the claim that he can actually control what happens after one of his pitches is hit, is .305.)
Is Detroit a good team? Yes. Bonderman and Verlander are good pitchers. Kenny Rogers has certainly proved enduringly effective over his long career. Maroth and Robertson are certainly not the Cy Young contenders that their current stats would indicate, but they may well be better than their records from the Tigers' last several awful seasons would suggest. However, both the offense and defense seem to be performing well above reasonable expectations, and a correction has to be due. They've won so many games already that their chances to make the playoffs are going to be pretty good, but I think in "truth" they're more of a 85-88 win team than a 90+ kind of club. That said, 85 wins is way better than I expected the Tigers to be before the season began and I owe them an apology for that much. Best team in baseball? Uh-uh.