From mediocrity to contention: Tigers are putting up big numbers in their playoff push

The Tigers have had more ups than downs the past few weeks, winning 11 of 16. Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers spent much of the 2016 season in middling mediocrity. Sure, there was the sharp nosedive early on -- a calamitous 11-losses-in-12-games skid that almost cost manager Brad Ausmus his job -- and a few sustained stretches of success, but for the most part the Tigers seemed to live in the land of baseball purgatory: not quite a basement-dweller, not setting the division on fire either.

Granted, the Tigers are not exerting the type of pressure on the Cleveland Indians they’d like to be early in the final month of the season -- they remain 5.5 games behind the Tribe following Wednesday’s games -- but Detroit definitely appears to be in better shape to nail down at least a wild-card spot than at previous points this season.

On Aug. 20, the Tigers were 64-59 and trailed the Indians by seven games and were 3.5 games behind the Orioles for the second wild-card spot.

Since then, they are 11-5.

What has changed as of late? ESPN Stats & Information provided some reasons behind the Tigers’ recent resurgence (all numbers entering Wednesday):

Strong starting pitching

Tigers starting pitchers have allowed three earned runs or fewer in 16 of the last 17 games, which is the most in the majors during that time frame. Their starters also rank 11th in ERA in that span (3.75).

Beyond Justin Verlander’s renaissance season -- which may qualify him for American League Cy Young discussion -- the Tigers have received a huge boost from the efforts of young arms like 23-year-old Michael Fulmer, the current front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year, as well as the prospect tandem of Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris. Even Anibal Sanchez has shown marked improvement lately, though it is unclear whether the veteran will remain in the rotation once No. 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann returns Saturday after more than a month on the disabled list with a neck injury.

The fact the Tigers were able to go on such a tear without Zimmermann’s bulldog presence on the mound is a good sign.

Timely hitting

The Tigers have been clutch producers, batting .286 with 2 outs, ( which ranks 3rd in MLB during that span) and tallying 39 runs with 2 outs (which ranks 3rd).

Prior to dropping the final two games of the series against the Chicago White Sox, Detroit seemed to be showing a flair for the dramatic and a swagger that fueled a number of critical rallies. Since Aug. 21, the Tigers recorded seven come-from-behind wins, adding to a growing sense of confidence within the clubhouse.

Favorable schedule

No reason not to highlight the obvious: The Tigers have been an opportunistic bunch recently. Detroit recorded 8 of those 11 wins against teams below .500 (Twins, White Sox, Angels) while another pair of wins – in a series win last weekend -- came against the Royals, who are sixth in the wild-card race.

And their schedule will continue to be advantageous over the next month. Heading into Wednesday’s action, the Tigers had the easiest schedule -- with an average opponents’ winning percentage of .478 -- among the five teams in the AL wild-card hunt.

Big bats heating up

Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez are swinging the bats extremely well, a good sign for the Tigers’ offense in their wild-card hopes. From Aug. 21 to Sept. 7:

  • Upton has the second-most home runs in MLB (9)

  • Cabrera is hitting .397

  • Martinez is hitting .333

  • Both Cabrera and Upton rank in the top 10 in OPS in that span (Upton: 1.236, Cabrera: 1.135)

Furthermore, the Tigers stand to get back third baseman Nick Castellanos at some point in mid-September, which will only bolster an already potent lineup. The 24-year-old infielder was batting .286 with 18 home runs when he went on the disabled list with an injured hand.