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Feng: Contenders’ flaws still give Tigers a chance

Ed Feng
Special to The Detroit News

I understand if you think the Tigers should sell their players at the trade deadline. The team is two games below .500, and perhaps the time to think about the long term has come.

The Tigers could get value for David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria. This would help restock a farm system depleted from years of buying at the trade deadline for a postseason run.

But it’s hard to give up on the season. As of Monday, the Tigers are four games out of a wild-card berth. With the parity in baseball and the large number of teams that make the playoffs, winning the World Series has become a problem of getting hot at the right time.

In addition, there’s one more key reason the Tigers might not want to sell: the American League lacks a World Series favorite this season. Let’s take a look at each of the contenders.

Kansas City

The Royals have the best record in the AL. After last year’s surprise run to the seventh game of the World Series, they look like the prime candidate to return this season.

However, their starting pitching is terrible. To quantify this, consider xFIP, a statistic using walk and strikeout rate to evaluate pitching independent of the defense behind it. xFIP also uses fly balls to estimate the expected number of home runs allowed.

By xFIP, the Royals have the second worst starting pitching in the AL. They hope the starters can hold it together in front of a stellar defense for long enough to get to the bullpen. By trading for Johnny Cueto, the Royals at least have an ace heading into a playoff series.

Minnesota

No game represents the misery of the Tigers season more than the July 10 game at Minnesota. The Tigers had a 6-1 lead with two outs in the ninth before the Twins stormed back for a 8-6 win.

The Twins clustered five of their hits in the bottom of the ninth to score seven runs. Modern baseball analytics suggests this isn’t a sustainable way of winning games.

Minnesota leads the majors in cluster luck, or a team's penchant to consistently clump hits to its benefit. The Twins have scored 23 more runs than their underlying statistics (singles, doubles, walks, homers, etc.) suggest. On defense, they have allowed almost 29 runs fewer than expected.

Due to cluster luck, the Twins’ success this season is unsustainable.

Houston

While no one expected the Astros to contend this season, they have a 55-45 record and trail the Angels in the AL West by one game.

However, one key indicator suggests the Astros are over performing this season. The gambling markets are accurate predictors due to the collective wisdom of those willing to put money behind their opinions. Based on the closing moneyline, one can calculate an expected record for each team.

The markets have assigned Houston a 50.5-49.5 expected record, ninth best of AL teams. Despite their stellar results this season, the Astros have not convinced the markets to favor them more.

One reason behind this poor estimation by the markets might be Houston’s power numbers. The Astros have hit home runs on 14.5 percent of fly balls, the best rate in baseball. Players such as Luis Valbuena have hit home runs at a better pace than their career average.

Houston will have difficulty scoring runs at their current pace when this power dries up.

Los Angeles Angels

The Angels lead the AL West, and on the surface, their starting pitching looks strong. They have the third best ERA in the AL.

However, fielding independent pitching statistcs tell a different story. By xFIP, the Angels have the fifth-worst starting pitching in the AL. They are league average in strike out and walk rate and rely on a stellar defense for run prevention.

In addition, the offense has thrived because of the production of Albert Pujols. But the aging star will most likely not hit home runs at the same rate for the second half of the season.

Toronto

The Blue Jays show up high on everyone’s list of teams that need an ace starting pitcher. They have the third worst staff by xFIP in the AL and could desperately use a Cole Hamels.

In addition, Toronto’s offense isn’t quite as elite as it seems. While Toronto has scored 78 more runs than the second best AL team, some of this production has resulted from cluster luck.

By my calculations, Toronto has scored 39 more runs on offense than their underlying statistics predict, the most in the majors. Even with this good fortune in cluster luck, they have the best run production in the AL. But their offense isn’t quite as stellar as the raw numbers suggest.

New York Yankees

The Yankees lead the AL East and look like the one team no one wants to see in the playoffs. With the return to form of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez this season, the offense has returned to the top of the AL. In addition, Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka give the Yankees two quality starters going into any series.

Even with their impressive roster, the Yankees are only fourth in my team rankings, which takes expected run differential and adjusts for strength of schedule. This puts them behind flawed Houston and Toronto teams in the AL. In addition, they have to hope Tanaka’s arm holds up this season going into the postseason.

Ed Feng has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford and runs the sports analytics site The Power Rank. Have a question about the Tigers you want addressed in this column? Email Ed Feng here.