The Detroit Tigers Are Pretty Good At Baseball: An Untold Story
It’s no secret where my allegiances lie when it comes to Major League Baseball, so I sit at work and take the good-natured ribbing from co-workers who happen to root for the Mets or just enjoy wallowing in the misery of Yankee fans. Honestly, I haven’t minded it. I’m a bit dejected right now, but it will pass. I love baseball, and the postseason is one of the best times of year in all of sports- it takes more than a pathetic showing by my team to ruin it for me. Watching the games, the team was outmatched by Detroit. Hell, they were nearly outmatched by the Orioles! The elimination was well deserved, so now I can honestly say that I eagerly await the rest of the postseason and hope the rest of the NLCS and the World Series are compelling. Yet, at times this series was down right infuriating.
I live in New York, and sometimes subject myself to the perils of talk radio during my commute to and from work. I know, it’s miserable. I do it to myself, but I honestly have to wonder if people actually believe things are going down like it’s treated on the airwaves. I don’t know how this is being treated around the rest of the country, but if I hadn’t watched the games, I might think the Yankees were being defeated night in and night out by guys who couldn’t cut it in the Rockies farm system. ESPN’s coverage has been a milder version of the same thing. If I have to hear one person making unfounded conjectures about what impact Alex Rodriguez supposedly trying to get some woman’s phone number during a game means, my head might explode. Did I tune into Entertainment Tonight without realizing it?
Here’s the part I haven’t heard from many fans: The Tigers are good. Like, really good. Sure, people will talk about [soon-to-be-MVP] Miguel Cabrera from time to time, and people know Justin Verlander’s name, but I’ll be damned if this team doesn’t deserve a ton more recognition than they get from the casual fan. As a Yankee fan, I was praying that the Oakland A’s could pull off the unthinkable and beat Justin Verlander in Game Five of the American League Division Series, because the last thing I wanted to see was that Detroit pitching staff in the next round. Their rotation 1-4 is mind-boggling!
You start with Justin Verlander, last year’s MVP and Cy Young winner (and he should retain the Cy Young this year as well). I consider him the best pitcher in baseball right now, and there’s very little (if any) evidence to the contrary. Since 2o09, he hasn’t had an earned run average (ERA) above 3.45, and every year he throws 220+ innings and is good for 220+ strikeouts. It’s not everybody that can come out and throw 94 miles per hour in the first inning with sick breaking stuff, locating all of it when he’s on. Even though he had an off night in game three (and was pinched by a very tight strike zone), he still nearly went the distance despite striking out only three Yankees. I feel like most people know how dominant Verlander is by this point, so I’m going to move on.
Next up, Doug Fister. Since being traded from Seattle to Detroit last year, this guy’s been a monster. He had an ERA of 1.79 in his last ten starts of 2011, and continued to roll with the Tigers in 2012. Despite battling having to spend much of the year battling oblique injuries, he finished with a 3.45 ERA and extremely respectable peripheral numbers. The most impressive part about Fister might be that he’s done this with one of the worst defensive squads I can recall in recent memory behind him, and inducing ground balls at a rate near 50% of the time. He does it with excellent command and solid stuff despite not having the same heat as Verlander. He walked only 37 guys in 161.2 innings this year while striking out 137, making rates of only 2.1 walks per nine innings and 3.7 strikeouts per walk.
Their number three starter for most of the year was Max Scherzer, though based on performance he’s been their number two, and that’s only because Justin Verlander is a borderline superhero. Scherzer has always been a veritable strikeout machine, but he really seemed to put it together over the course of the 2012 season. His full season numbers don’t tell the story, because poor performances in April and May (7.77 and 4.04 ERA, respectively) really inflated his final ratios. From June through October, Scherzer’s ERA remained under 3.00 without losing that monster strikeout potential we had seen in years past. In fact, he seemed to improve in each subsequent month. In September and October combined, Scherzer was boasting a rate of 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings (worse than any other month in the season) alongside an absolutely staggering strikeout/walk ratio of 6.00. That’s approaching Cliff Lee territory! I’m scared to think about what he’d be doing if he hadn’t had a setback due to some shoulder soreness and an ankle injury suffered during the celebration after the Tigers clinched the division (Yeah, that really happened).
The back end of the rotation? Oh, just Anibal Sanchez, former second best starter on the (admittedly inept) Marlins. In 2011, he managed to strike out over 200 batters, one of only six National League players to accomplish the feat. So, the Tigers traded for him around the deadline in order to bolster the rotation (picking up second baseman Omar Infante along the way) for the perhaps irreparably damaged top prospect Jacob Turner. His arrival to Detroit didn’t exactly go as planned, with two of his first three starts going extremely poorly, but over time it seems like Anibal has settled in to a point where the worst thing you can say about him is that he’s a fairly reliable major league starter on any staff. At his best, Sanchez can strike out the likes of any lineup in the majors while going deep into a game. Is that not the kind of upside you want from your worst starting pitcher?
Now that I’ve gushed about the starting rotation, let’s also consider the lineup backing these guys up. I mentioned how awful they are on defense, but they are absolutely not slouches when it comes time to step up to the plate. We all know Miguel Cabrera is among the best pure hitters in baseball, and he’s put together another monstrous year. Though the Triple Crown isn’t as big a deal as some make it out to be, it’s no coincidence that he’s the first to win it since 1967. Adding Prince Fielder, one of the premiere power bats in the league, during the offseason gave them one of the scariest 3-4 hitting combinations in baseball. Fielder had another monster year, batting .313 and reaching the 30 homerun mark for the sixth season in a row and played in every single game. Cabrera led baseball in on base percentage+slugging percentage (OPS), and Fielder wasn’t far behind at seventh. It’s no shock that putting these two powerhouses of the game back to back resulted in tremendous production.
Cabrera and Fielder weren’t the only offensive weapons on this team, however. The team got strong production from their outfield as well. Austin Jackson put together an absolutely excellent year as the team’s center fielder and lead-off hitter. He solved the batting average woes that plagued his 2011 season, and increased his walk rate in the progress. For the second year in a row he lead the AL in triples en route to scoring over 100 runs. 27 year old rookie Quintin Berry finally got his shot at major league playing time when injuries plagued the Tigers outfield and hasn’t looked back since, giving them a solid defender, decent hitter who can take a walk, and a serious threat on the basepaths. Andy Dirks only played about half the season, but hit .322 when he was in the lineup. Brennan Boesch took a step backwards, but the ability of his teammates to step up made up for it. Delmon Young also played in 151 games, but the focus here is about how the Tigers are a good team so I won’t say anything else about that.
Though Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila each had significantly worse years offensively than in 2011, the addition of Omar Infante in the same trade that brought over Anibal Sanchez really bolstered the infield and pushed this team to the heights they have reached. The bullpen was nothing to write home about, but the rotation really does have the ability to go deep into any game and allow manager Jim Leyland to play matchups as necessary to maximize efficiency in his relievers.
Baseball is a great game. For me, the thing that sets a good series apart from a great series is the narrative. What are the underlying stories that are going to define this series in the context of history? In this age of media omnipresence, this narrative is largely defined by the way things are presented to the largest audience. However much it’s seemed like the story has been what a disappointment the Yankees were, I believe the true narrative here is a Tigers team that was supposed to run away with the American League Central, barely managed to stave off the Chicago White Sox (with some credit due to poor play on Chicago’s part) and squeak into the playoffs, and now seems primed to take home another World Series title. I’m extremely excited to watch this pitching staff square off against either the Giants or the Cardinals, and genuinely hope Detroits takes home the championship this year.
All statistics were found using Baseball-Reference.com and fangaphs.com