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The Pitching-Needy Tigers Are Blasting Their Way Back Into Contention

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The Indians added a pitching magician; the Rangers refashioned their lineup; the Cubs solidified their bullpen. It was a bountiful trade deadline for nearly all the top 2016 contenders, and yet the best week in baseball belonged to a team that hasn’t tasted first place since the first week of the season.

Just eight days before the trade deadline, the Tigers lost on two walk-offs in the same afternoon, pushing their playoff odds down to just 15.2 percent, per Baseball Prospectus. They haven’t lost since, and after sweeping wild-card competitors Boston and Houston, Detroit has moved into the second wild-card spot and now has a more than 55 percent chance to reach the postseason. No other team in baseball has seen its odds improve by even half as much as Detroit’s have over the past week.

But like their namesake animal in Life of Pi, these Tigers might not be for real. Though a number of compelling arguments support Detroit’s postseason bona fides, a lackluster starting rotation and inactivity at the deadline could sink the team’s chances.

Starting with the positive: To varying extents, every AL contender outside Cleveland does more to score runs than prevent them, and recently, the Tigers have been better at batting than anyone else. The team boasts the second-highest OPS in the league since the All-Star break, with contributions coming from all throughout the lineup.

Miguel Cabrera is having a typical Miguel Cabrera season full of homers, walks, and doubles. Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos are enjoying their best seasons in Detroit uniforms. Cameron Maybin boasts an on-base percentage just a shade under .400. Justin Upton has increased his OPS each of the first four months and is back to slugging like the player who earned more than $130 million this offseason. Even Tyler Collins is hitting .314/.400/.629 since returning from the minor leagues in mid-July.

The Tigers scoring 39 runs in a recent four-game stretch wasn’t a surprise, but their failure to put up crooked numbers like that more often is. And with J.D. Martinez returning from the disabled list Wednesday night, Detroit is adding even more depth to its formidable lineup; since joining the Tigers in 2014 and remaking his swing, Martinez has been a top-15 hitter. He crushed a pinch-hit, game-winning home run off Chris Sale on the first pitch he saw after being reactivated.

Matching the Tigers’ offense in league-best performance is past and present ace Justin Verlander, who was baseball’s most valuable pitcher in July. He struck out more than a batter per inning and allowed a .169/.243/.243 slash line to opposing hitters in the month, for which he earned his first Pitcher of the Month Award since 2012.

The 2016 Verlander is dominating in a different way than the Verlander of five years ago; most notably, he has adjusted to losing three miles per hour off his fastball by adding a new pitch. According to Brooks Baseball, he had never thrown a cutter in his career before this May, but it has since become a regular offering — even if Verlander contends the cutter is just a slider gone wrong.

Whatever it is, it’s working. Opponents have hit just .130 and slugged .200 in at-bats ending with Verlander’s cutter — both the best marks against any pitcher’s cutter this year, per Baseball Prospectus’s PITCHf/x leaderboards.

Beyond the reinvented Verlander, however, question marks abound with Detroit’s staff, and given the group’s current makeup, it’s hard to foresee Detroit keeping pace in the AL race.

Michael Fulmer would lead the AL in ERA if he had enough innings to qualify, and his continued success should warm Tiger hearts for years to come. But the right-handed rookie will reach his career high in professional innings pitched by next week, so even though the Tigers say he won’t be shut down, his reliability down the stretch is unclear.

Beyond those two are Anibal Sánchez, who was demoted to the bullpen for a month and has a 6.75 ERA as a starter; Matt Boyd, who has been solid of late but also has the worst allowed home run rate of any pitcher since the start of last season (min. 100 innings); and Mike Pelfrey, whose apparent aversion to strikeouts represents the antithesis of the sport’s long-term trend.

Pelfrey is on pace for one of the two worst strikeout-to-walk ratios of the past decade. For reference, Clayton Kershaw would need to walk 119 batters without recording a strikeout to reach Pelfrey’s paltry ratio.

Jordan Zimmermann, slated to return from the DL on Thursday night, can replace only one of those pitchers, and even he’s a question mark. The former Nationals hurler has a 5.74 ERA since the end of April, thanks in large part to a precipitous drop in strikeout rate and an unprecedented inability to find the strike zone.

As one of just three teams in baseball without a top-100 prospect, per Baseball America’s midseason rankings, Detroit lacked the pieces to add a top pitcher at the trade deadline, but even a back-of-the-rotation innings eater — think Wade Miley, who went to Baltimore for just an average Triple-A arm, or Jeremy Hellickson, who appeared to be there for the taking — would have been a boost to the Tigers’ lagging staff. Relying on Pelfrey one in five days is no way to chase a pennant.

The rotation’s lack of strikeout-hungry hurlers is exacerbated when paired with a typically mediocre bullpen and unhelpful defense, which ranks the worst of any contender in advanced fielding statistics. The likely outfield alignment of Martinez, Maybin, and Upton includes three porous defenders — meaning the Tigers can’t keep the ball out of play with strikeouts and can’t catch balls that are in play, either.

Still, Detroit has showed over the past week that it is capable of outscoring opponents if it needs to, its competitors for the wild card are slumping, and with Martinez and Zimmermann bolstering the roster, the team could add an impactful bat and starting arm without completing a blockbuster trade.

The wild card remains an even-odds battle, and even the deadline-darling Indians are just two games ahead of Detroit, with severe injury concerns of their own. The Tigers are hunting a playoff spot, and suddenly their prey is within striking distance.