Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter is showing his age (38) with defense that's declining and an on-base percentage of .290. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — Bad teams don’t usually go 27-12. And good teams don’t usually go 9-20.
So the easy thing is to say the Tigers are somewhere between a bad and good team.
The trickier task is to not just figure out the Tigers problems, but figure out their biggest problems.
The problems are plentiful, and all-encompassing for a team that in its last 29 games has a 5.60 ERA and averaged four runs.
Throw in a rookie manager in Brad Ausmus, who admittedly is struggling to find solutions, and it’s remarkable the Tigers remained in first place as long as they did.
Take the Rays. They also are on a 9-20 run — and absolutely buried in the AL East.
The Tigers, as Ausmus pointed out, still are “in the thick of it.”
The question is, for how long?
It depends on when they turn are these key problems, ranked in order of most important:
1. Starting pitching
Everyone knew from Day 1 that if Justin Verlander wasn’t Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer wasn’t Max Scherzer, the Tigers weren’t going to get it done.
It’s that simple.
The rotation has been the backbone of the recent baseball renaissance, and that was expected to be the case this season despite the fact the Tigers traded Doug Fister to the Nationals. And that was the case when the Tigers were rolling.
But not anymore. Since May 14, Verlander has a 7.83 ERA and and a WHIP of 1.85; and since May 21, Scherzer has a 6.86 ERA and 1.57 WHIP.
A slight regression wouldn’t be a surprise for Verlander, 31, who’s thrown more innings and pitches than anyone since 2006. That’s the most reasonable excuse for the fastball velocity being down considerably. A distant second would be the fallout from his offseason core-muscle surgery. But he still has the plus-secondary stuff to get the job done.
Given what Scherzer, 29, did last year — 21-3, 0.970 WHIP, Cy Young Award — these results are more puzzling. And one has to wonder if the sheer pressure of his situation — he publicly turned down a $144 million extension offer, betting on himself he’ll get more on the open market this winter — isn’t playing at least a little factor.
■How fixable: Rather. Verlander has shown the ability, along with pitching coach Jeff Jones, to recognize and correct woes. Scherzer is less of a concern because “the stuff” still is there.
2. Getting old
Joe Nathan joked about it this spring. Every year, he would hope and pray it wasn’t the year his velocity finally abandoned him.
It’s not a joke anymore, with a 6.31 ERA and 1.56 WHIP. Some say that’s what the Tigers get for spending $20 million on a 39-year-old closer.
Then there’s Torii Hunter, who’s looking every bit the 38 he is. His defense slipped last year, but has flat-out fallen off a cliff this season, plus he’s rocking a .290 on-base percentage.
Hunter is the final year of his two-year, $26 million deal, and almost certainly won’t be re-signed. Nathan is in the first year of his two-year, $20 million deal, and his future in Detroit is less clear.
■How fixable: Mixed bag. The Tigers don’t have any other realistic closer options in-house. So, Nathan might just have to figure out how to get hitters out without that 95-mph fastball — he did strike out the side to save Thursday’s 2-1 victory — , and the Tigers will have to live with the results, unless they trade for someone like Houston Street. But the Tigers have outfield options, including red-hot J.D. Martinez, who’s bat is forcing manager Brad Ausmus to play him day in and day out, and Ezequiel Carrera, who’s on fire at Triple A Toledo. There’s also Andy Dirks, who should return from an injury in the coming weeks.
The Tigers have been less aggressive on the bases lately. Then again, it’s hard to be aggressive when you’re not getting on base.
The inability to draw walks has become a problem — 185 this season, sixth-worst in baseball — despite a team on-base percentage of .325, eighth-best.
Torii Hunter (seven walks), Rajai Davis (10) and Nick Castellanos (12) are the biggest offenders, although Castellanos gets a pass since most rookies struggle early with discipline. Castellanos has been better lately, but Hunter and Davis are veterans who should be better than this.
Manager Brad Ausmus said more walks would be a good thing. But he also pointed out it’s a delicate balance. You can’t tell a hitter to take a walk — such a mindset could make them tentative.
■How fixable: Doable. Is being aggressive part of new hitting coach Wally Joyner’s approach? The Tigers were one of the better teams at walks last year, while the Phillies, Joyner’s old team, were one of the worst.
4. Making changes
Fans are wondering when manager Brad Ausmus makes some drastic moves to jump-start the club. Ausmus understands the sentiment. He also knows, as a major-league catcher for 18 years, it’s a fine line the manager must walk.
“If you do something radical, you can lose some of the players,” Ausmus said.
The response from players?
“He’s the manager,” catcher Alex Avila said.
In other words, if Ausmus thinks something to work, then Ausmus should do it. And there are more than enough veterans in that clubhouse who agree with Avila.
Those who would be turned off by Ausmus making drastic changes — benching Torii Hunter or moving Avila and his .340 OBP (third-best) up to No. 2, ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez — need just look at the standings a month ago and today.
■How fixable: Very. This also falls on general manager Dave Dombrowski’s shoulders. If it’s best for the team for Corey Knebel to be on the roster over Phil Coke, or to trade for another starter and send Drew Smyly to the bullpen, then those are moves that will have to be made.
At first, Brad Ausmus could do no wrong — the team was winning, Now, Ausmus can do no right.
Everyone knew there would be mistakes by Ausmus, who, outside a brief cameo with Team Israel, never had managed. He hadn’t even coached in the majors — or minors.
Twice, Ausmus has let the starting pitcher talk him into staying in — and both times, it didn’t work.
He’s also made some questionable calls with the lineup — Don Kelly (career WAR: 0.5) No. 2 in the order three times and No. 5 five times — and been inconsistent when talking about the bunt.
■How fixable: Very. Like anyone at at new job, they’re are some growing pains, but Ausmus still is learning. Remember, he’s only known most of the players a short time, so he’s still getting familiar with the personnel and personalities. Mike Matheny took over a World Series champion in the Cardinals, and had his bumps in 2012. But an NLCS and World Series later, it’s worked out fine.