The Tigers are winning consistently for the first time since Frank Tanana ruled Tiger Stadium with his 77 mph fastballs. A 12-7 record is hardly reason to make post-season reservations but the Tigers might actually be as good as their record. This year’s version of the Tigers has more in common with those Tanana (or Jack Morris if that makes you happy)-led Tigers teams than just a winning ballclub. The 2006 Tigers have turned the page from recent Tigers teams that featured a multitude of follies. The Tigers are playing good team baseball for the first time in 15 years. Here are some of the improvements that the Tigers have made since last season:
1). The Tigers are inducing high pitch counts from opposing starting pitchers which allows them to feast on middle relievers. The Tigers haven’t exactly lit up the scoreboard this season. They have only scored more than five runs in 8 of 20 games this season. However, in stark contrast from the past, the Tigers aren’t going down without a fight. Early in games, the Tigers are forcing high pitch counts which enable for late-inning heroics.
Here is what the Tigers have elicited in pitch counts from opposing starting pitchers in their last six games:
Pitcher-----Innings-----Pitch count----Runs after 7th inning
2). Twice this season, the Tigers have won games on single at bats from role players late in games. Brandon Inge’s 15-pitch marathon at-bat against Oakland’s Justin Duchscherer propelled the Tigers to victory. Vance Wilson’s 10-pitch battle against Seattle’s Jarrod Washburn was the catalyst to another Tigers victory. Wilson and Inge are probably the last guys Jim Leyland wanted to see up to the plate in those crucial situations. The Tigers were dreadful in drawing walks in 2005. Leyland has clearly emphasized quality at-bats and the benefits of drawing walks.
3). The Tigers are no longer non-factors after the seventh inning. In years past, the Tigers rarely, if ever, won games that they were tied or trailing after seven innings. On their current five-game winning streak, the Tigers have scored nine runs after the seventh inning.
4). The Tigers are finally beating teams they should beat. Normally, the Tigers would be lucky to split a series against Oakland, Seattle or Texas. Already this year, the Tigers have won all three series against those teams going 8-2.
5). The Tigers have been much improved in moving runners over. “Small ball” is most often seen in the National League where runs come at a premium. Jim Leyland has coached his entire career sans this season in the National League. His added emphasis on manufacturing runs has been a pleasant surprise.
6). The Tigers are playing well despite having a number of key players who are nowhere near their primes. Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Jordan Tata, Chris Shelton, and Curtis Granderson are all 25 or younger.
While the Tigers have improved in a number of areas, there are still an excess of issues that will keep the Tigers from contending.
1). The Tigers still lose games in bunches. In the past, it seemed like every three-game winning streak was immediately followed by a four-game losing streak. The Tigers are doing the same thing this year. After starting off the season 5-0, the Tigers proceeded to go 2-7 in their next nine games. There’s no obvious reason for this “glitch” but the Tigers can’t expect to contend with the AL’s elite teams if they don’t minimize losing streaks.
2). While the Tigers have been impressive at working the count this season, they are still extremely inconsistent on offense. With a lineup that seems to be strong on paper from top to bottom, the Tigers struggle too often to score runs.
3). The starting pitching has been inconsistent from top to bottom. It seems as though there is a 50/50 chance that any of the five starters will have a good or bad start. Jeremy Bonderman hasn’t been terrible but he isn’t providing a reliable effort night in and night out. The same goes for Nate Robertson. Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander have been on and off as well. Mike Maroth has been excellent but he will have to return to Earth soon enough.
4). Tigers relievers have been good on paper but untimely walks have occurred far too often. Fernando Rodney hasn’t allowed a run this season but his first batter walks often put the Tigers in a bad situation. Joel Zumaya, Jordan Tata, and Jason Grilli have also struggled at times with control yielding walks.
5). The Tigers still can’t beat the AL Central’s best team. For years it was the Minnesota Twins. Now, it’s the Chicago White Sox. The Tigers were swept by the ChiSox earlier this year. It seems like there’s a mental block that forces the Tigers to play poorly in “marquee” series.