There are so many things that go on during the course of a 162-game season that it’s usually difficult to pinpoint one situation as the difference maker.
A turning point? Yea, that works, but saying one thing in particular was the reason behind a certain team living or not living up to expectations is hard. After all, baseball involves a ton of variables on any given night.
However, upon looking back on 2016, there’s a good chance the Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros wondered what could’ve been if they didn’t struggle so mightily against the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers, respectively.
Up to this point in the season, though, the narrative has been flipped on its head.
Tigers’ Performance vs. the Indians
The American League East dominated the 2016 AL Wild Card race. The Boston Red Sox won the division, but both the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays finished with identical 89-73 records to qualify for the one-game playoff.
Could you take a guess as to who the first team looking in from the outside was? Well, if you can read between the lines, it was the Tigers, who finished 2.5 games off the pace with an 86-75 record. Detroit went 38-37 against their division, and even though they probably wouldn’t have caught Cleveland at the top, things could’ve been different if they beat the Tribe every once in a while.
For some perspective, the Tigers limped to a 4-14 record against the Indians, but went 82-61 against everyone else. That record against teams not named Cleveland would’ve given them a .573 winning percentage. If they played at that clip across the board, they would’ve been a wild-card team.
Fast-forward to this year, though, and it’s already a different story. Heading into action on Wednesday night, ESPN Stats & Information pointed out how different Detroit’s 2017 performance against the Indians had been.
The @tigers have already matched their win total against the Indians from all of last season and Detroit has done it with offense. pic.twitter.com/DCXc3ycDSF
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 3, 2017
These numbers changed a bit since the Tigers went on to lose Wednesday night’s contest 3-2, but you get the picture. Along with having to sustain this level of success against their divisional rival, Detroit will have to hope it starts translating to the rest of the league, where they currently boast a 10-11 record.
Astros’ Performance vs. the Rangers
You know how misery loves company? Well, all the Tigers had to do was find the Astros in this particular situation.
Houston’s futility against the Rangers looked a lot like Detroit’s — they went just 4-15 against Texas last year, but 80-63 against everyone else. This had to have been especially rough on the Astros because even though they went 7-17 last April, they finished the year with a +23 run differential, while Texas went 95-67 despite a -4 run differential.
How did their record end up so much better than Houston’s? It was likely their historic performance in one-run ballgames, which was evident during their head-to-head matchups. Of the 19 games they played, nine were decided by one run and Texas won eight of them.
Yea, that’s frustrating. But, just a year later, it’s a totally different story.
The Astros are currently 19-10 and holding onto first place in the AL West, while the Rangers are struggling in the basement at 12-16. Their first head-to-head matchup came this week, with Houston taking three of four games.
There were no one-run contests, but manager A.J. Hinch watched his club average nine runs during this series, while Texas managed just six per game — and it would’ve been a lot worse if they didn’t put up 10 runs in the finale.
So, it looks like Houston is also a good bet to surpass last year’s win total against the Rangers, and unlike the Tigers, they’re also taking care of business elsewhere. Outside of their 3-1 mark against Texas, they’re 16-9 against the rest of the league.
Does this actually mean anything? Maybe.
While saying their performances in these situations is the sole difference between making the playoffs and watching them is probably a bit much, it can certainly have a direct influence on their eventual fate.
As currently constructed, the Astros appear better suited for a playoff run than Detroit thanks to their deep lineup and the presence of a resurgent Dallas Keuchel and healthy Lance McCullers. But even if the Tigers are a flawed team, anything can happen as long as they stay close in the AL Central race.
And ultimately, the best way to give yourself a chance to finish in first place is to take care of business within the division.
There’s still plenty of baseball to be played, but the Tigers and Astros have set a much different tone early on in 2017.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball, contributes to The Sports Daily and is also an editor for numberFire. In the past, he has written for FanDuel Insider and Bleacher Report. He’s a lover of all baseball, especially the Mets.