Miguel Cabrera remains a force in the Tigers lineup, though his power hasn't impressed like most years. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
As baseball’s tell-tale numbers and schedule realities go, some will wonder if the Tigers will buck trends that have been making their July-August ways a blueprint for missing the playoffs.
The Tigers tonight begin a three-game series against the Rays at Tropicana Field not as the American League Central leaders they had been for most of 2014, but as a second-place team, 1½ games behind the Royals.
At a point when Kansas City caught fire — 20-8 since the All-Star break — Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and his troops are 13-18. But then the following numbers might explain why Detroit would have been in trouble against any Central Division team that got itself together in the season’s second half:
■The Tigers are 18th in an offense’s most revealing number, OPS (on base percentage and slugging average), and 20th in slugging. They are 20th in overall ERA (3.96), while only six teams have a poorer WHIP (walks plus hits per inning), which, like OPS, tends to tell a more accurate performance story.
■Defensively, the team is little different from a Tigers crew that is 23rd in fielding percentage and — again, more transparently — is 27th in defensive efficiency rating, which explains how many fielding opportunities are turned into put-outs.
■Factor in a bullpen that is 27th in the big leagues in ERA and 29th in WHIP, and you sometimes get a game where any number of culprits can lead to a mini-disaster, as was Sunday’s 8-1 loss to the Mariners.
“It was a bad day all the way around,” Ausmus said after the Tigers made three errors and handed the Mariners four unearned runs. “We didn’t have good at-bats. Generally speaking, we didn’t pitch well. And we didn’t play good defense.
“That’s a recipe for disaster.”
Perhaps sprinkled into that witch’s brew is a schedule that beginning tonight will see the Tigers play 24 games in 23 days, with day-night doubleheaders Aug. 23 and 30 against the Twins and White Sox, respectively, the calendar’s worst moments.
This pile-up arrives as they deal with missing pitchers, Anibal Sanchez and Joakim Soria, each of whom is on the disabled list. While Soria is expected back as early as next week, Sanchez could be lost until mid-September. There’s no word how long Justin Verlander will be out.
The Tigers will play division teams in 31 of their remaining 40 games, which theoretically allows them to make up ground against the Royals (six games), while getting heavy doses of teams even more challenged than the Tigers (Indians, White Sox, Twins).
But while their starting pitching remains the Tigers’ best friend heading into a division war with the Royals, the other elements of their overall game can betray them, which is how the team has lost seven of its last 10 series.
The bullpen is a not-so-fine example of the Tigers’ offsetting ways.
Al Alburquerque and Blaine Hardy have been excellent during the Tigers’ late-summer slide. Others have been bad, inconsistent, or have picked mid-August to pitch their shakiest baseball of 2014.
Joba Chamberlain, once the team’s most consistent bullpen arm, has a 6.75 ERA in his last 10 appearances.
Phil Coke had a string of mid-season scoreless appearances but has allowed three earned runs in his last four outings, spanning four innings.
Joe Nathan has a 1.74 ERA in his last 11 games, but in his last five the ERA has shot back to 4.15, with six hits, five unintentional walks, and two strikeouts in 41⁄3 innings.
Ian Krol, who has been on the disabled list or at Triple A for part of the season, has a 10.57 ERA in his last 10 appearances.
Even good pitching can be shredded by bad defense, which the Tigers are threatening to affirm as their fielding, particularly in the outfield, has so many shoddy moments, which was the case Sunday when Rajai Davis made an error that strapped new reliever Jim Johnson with a pair of unearned runs.
And then, of course, there is the offense.
Or rather, sometimes there isn’t.
Victor Martinez (.322), and on a relative scale, Miguel Cabrera (.316), have been doing their parts since the All-Star break. But others have either slipped or tumbled from the scene: Rajai Davis (.270), Torii Hunter (.269), J.D. Martinez (.224), Ian Kinsler (.221), Alex Avila (.210), Eugenio Suarez (.195), Ezequiel Carrera (15 games, .193) and Bryan Holaday (nine games, .133).
It is small wonder the Tigers can go 15 consecutive innings without scoring a run, as they did Aug. 10 in their epic 19-inning loss to the Jays.
Nick Castellanos has hit .262 during that stretch, which isn’t a dramatic number but takes on greater sheen when his heavier OPS (.831) is considered.
Ausmus, of course, can’t be concerned with interior statistics that don’t always give a big-picture view a manager must maintain.
Rather, he is left to deal with more concise points, which ultimately get to the heart of a team’s assignment during these next six weeks.
“We need to play better,” the manager said Sunday. “We’re a better team than this — period.”
If they are, and some select numbers make that assertion debatable, the Tigers have only to prove it during their final 40 games. Make good on some specific reforms during these waning weeks and they can take care of a second-place standing — and a gap between themselves and the Royals well within Detroit’s power to close.