Considering that I’m posting this because the Tigers have THE (no ties) best record in MLB three weeks into May, and considering that might not happen again for 50 years, it is imperative that I get this out before Friday’s game against Cincinnati. For all I know, the Tigers will keep playing this winning brand of baseball all season long. Just in case that doesn’t happen, here is the first ever, “Tigers have the best record in MLB on May 18” post. The tone of this post won’t be specific and the message might be pointless. I won’t spare the Tigers criticism just because they have a good record as is commonplace among some fans. What I will be doing, though, is giving everyone the credit they’ve earned and take a look at what might lay ahead. I know there are some people out there that feel that criticism can only be directed at “sinking ships”. As anyone who’s ever been in charge of the success of an organization, only focusing on improving things when things are going bad is going to lead to a quick, and painful down fall. The best organizations (sports or otherwise) are the ones that critique themselves through the good times and bad.
I’d like to take a look at each of the positions on the team and discuss how each has performed thus far and how we can expect them to perform fro this point on.
The offense has been a roller coaster all season long. One game, the Tigers will explode for nine runs which will be followed by a three game-stretch where they won’t score four runs. The offense is built on power. The Tigers are second in MLB in home runs. While that might be a reason to be excited, the down side is that they’re 15th in runs scored and 20th in OBP. The Tigers have been dreadful at “small ball”. They are 26th in SB’s. They have the 7th most strikeouts and are 27th in walks. Basically, the Tigers have been long ball or bust. It’s easy to make the excuse that the Tigers don’t have speed. For some people, that’s enough of an argument. For other people, the 27-13 record means the Tigers have nothing to worry about. For knowledgeable baseball fans, these numbers are troubling. For those that think the Tigers simply can’t play small ball because they don’t have speed, keep in mind that Curtis Granderson, Pudge, Carlos Guillen, Craig Monroe, and Placido Polanco have decent speed. There is no reason why these players can’t steal a base or two every now and then. There’s also no reason why speed should have anything to do with the ability (or inability) to lay down a bunt. The Tigers are quite possibly the worst team I’ve ever seen at bunting. They are also just as bad at moving runners home from third base with less than two outs. The Tigers are 27-13 because of their pitching. The offense has been average at best. The little things like stolen bases, bunting, sacrifices, and base running have been among the worst in baseball. Unless Jim Leyland changes what he’s been doing, the Tigers offensive mediocrity will get in the way of making the playoffs.
The pitching has been dynamite. Justin Verlander is the real deal. Considering he’s the Tigers’ fifth starter and, quite possibly, the Tigers’ fifth best starter, that says something about the depth of the staff. The Tigers lead MLB in ERA. They have seven team shutouts which is by far the best in baseball. The only weakness on the staff is the bullpen’s inability to keep runners off the bases in tight games. While the pen has converted 18 of 20 saves and has 23 holds (4th in all of baseball), the Tigers have had their fare share of sticky situations in the ninth inning.
The Tigers lead the majors in preventing stolen bases. The Tigers are also 5th in double plays turned and 2nd in defensive efficiency rating (DER). The Tigers have gotten an admirable effort from Brandon Inge at third. Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco are as reliable as they come in the infield. The outfield probably isn’t anywhere near the best in baseball defensively but they haven’t been terrible either. Defense in baseball is like an offensive lineman in the NFL. You only hear about either if one of them is bad. The Tigers have been pretty good on defense this year which is something new for Detroit.
Pudge hasn’t been fantastic this season but he’s been good. His average is above .300 as usual. He’s drawing more walks than last season. He still seems to be in tremendous shape. He’s a deterrent to opposing base-runners. The Tigers invested a lot of money in Pudge two years ago and they’re getting what they paid for. With 30+ teams willing to spend tons of money on free agents, few teams are lucky enough to get something for nothing. The Tigers did the next best thing by getting something for something.
Chris Shelton is fine just the way he is. Unless you got caught up in Shelton’s nine home runs in his first 13 games, you don’t expect anything more than a slightly above average power-hitter that can hover around .300 all season. Jim Leyland had Shelton hitting in the 6th spot from the get-go and that move has paid off. Shelton’s slump of late has been minimized by the fact that he is not in the middle of the order. Although his impact hasn’t been minimal, the 3-5 hitters in the lineup have been able to pick up the slack. Shelton is also an above average fielder with a knack for being in the right position. He orchestrated an out earlier this week by allowing a ball down the first base line to roll back into fair territory. The thing I like about Shelton the most, though, is the fact that he puts things in perspective. When he was hitting nine home runs in 13 games, he admitted that he was just going with the flow. When he went 2-4 the other day, the TV reporter asked him if he was now back on track and Shelton said something to the effect of “It’s one game. If I put a few of these games together, then we might have something.” Shelton seems to be somewhat back on track which is something the Tigers would gladly welcome.
Nobody in baseball strikes out less than Placido Polanco. For at team that seems to be trying to manufacturing runs as much as your average National League team, Polanco would be a perfect fit in the two-hole. Unfortunately, Polanco has been injured as of late. However, with less than two outs and a guy on first or second, Polanco is “money” at advancing the runners. This is an art that has been lost on virtually every other Tigers hitter. While I can’t discount Polanco’s ability to move runners over, it takes more than one hitter of Polanco’s ability to make for an effective offense. Polanco has been solid in the field and gives the Tigers the best second baseman they’ve had in years.
Carlos Guillen has been a professional-grade hitter ever since the Tigers finished runner-up in the Rich Aurilia sweepstakes. Guillen can hit effectively from both sides of the plate. He can hit the ball to all areas of the field. He can hit for power or simply get on base. There is no question that Guillen’s prowess on the base paths has been compromised by his knee injuries. Leyland needs to recognize this before he continues with the “Guillen getting thrown out trying to steal second” game-plan.
If the Tigers were like most teams in MLB and relied on power and run production from their third basemen, then Inge would clearly be a disappointment. However, Inge often hits ninth and hits very well for a ninth hitter. It would be my preference to have Jim Leyland use the hit and run less with Inge at the plate. Inge is not one of the better contact hitters on the team. Leyland’s aggressive use of the hit and run has led to way too many rally-ending plays. Inge is one of the top end-of-lineup power hitters in baseball. He is above average as a third baseman considering he is a converted catcher. Inge has been a pleasant surprise in the field and with the bat this season.
Magglio Ordonez is finally healthy. His numbers have been through the roof these past few weeks. The baseball world “threw a fit” when the Tigers signed Mags to a long-term deal. The fact that the only way the Tigers could compete is to make such offers seem to be lost on most baseball “experts.” The Tigers used that strategy on both Ivan Rodriguez and Mags and now it’s paying off. The Tigers have two All-Star caliber hitters in the middle of the lineup. Plus, Mags has sweet hair.
With Cameron Maybin in the fold, the Tigers only need a fill-in centerfielder for three years. Curtis Granderson should be able to get the job done. He has taken a lot of criticism as a leadoff hitter because of his less than stellar average. However, his OBP is much higher than our leadoff hitters of the past. He also leads the team in walks and it’s not even close. My biggest complaint with Granderson is not actually with Granderson. Leyland has done a borderline-awful job at managing base runners this season. Last weekend, Granderson was on first with no outs in a 1-0 game (Cleveland was leading). Cleveland’s catcher, Victor Martinez, is THE worst catcher in MLB at throwing out base runners. He had thrown out 3% (yes, 3) of base runners this season. Instead of sending Granderson (Leyland’s leadoff man, mind you), he opted for a hit and run which turned into a double play. I was screaming at the TV imploring Leyland to send Granderson. You can imagine my state of mind when the DP happened. Some people might point out that Granderson did try stealing later in the game (with the game in hand) and was thrown out. What those people won’t tell you is that Cleveland called a pitch-out which is a guaranteed out. Granderson has been average at the top of the lineup and considering what the Tigers have had in years past, average is fine by me.
Craig Monroe has taken some heat for his .230-ish batting average. That might have been a problem last season when Monroe was our best power-hitter. However, with Monroe often hitting in the #7 or #8 spot, Monroe’s 9 HR’s and 20+ RBI’s will do just fine. Monroe is more than adequate in the field and provides end of the lineup pop with Brandon Inge. Few teams in MLB can put hitters like Monroe and Inge back to back in the 8 and 9 spots.
Leyland has been liberal in his use of the bench this season. He has used Ramon Santiago, Vance Wilson, Omar Infante, Marcus Thames, and Alexis Gomez far more than I had anticipated entering the season. To everyone’s surprise, these players have delivered time and time again. Thames has a thunderous bat which often provides havoc at the end of the lineup. Wilson allows Leyland to keep Pudge in the game as DH which is a big upgrade over Trammel’s substitution patterns.
Kenny Rogers has been worth far more than $8 million this season. His numbers are fantastic (7-2 2.91 ERA) thus far. However, his biggest impact might be from his constant mentoring of the other four starters in the rotation. Some people thought that giving Rogers all that money was a kin to throwing it away. However, Dombrowski took a gamble and it has paid off again. Jeremy Bonderman was all set to be the staff ace before Rogers signed. He has pitched well for the most part. His good games are as good as it gets. His bad innings are the stuff of nightmares. However, Bonderman has weathered the storm early on and boasts a sub 4.00 ERA and is among the league leaders in K’s and K/9. Maroth and Robertson have been pleasant surprises as they have both improved since last year. If they both can continue to pitch effectively, the Tigers will not go away before the end of the season. The biggest question mark coming into the season was how effective Justin Verlander could be in the fifth spot. Although Verlander has had shaky performances (Angels), he has done more than anyone could have hoped with a 5-3 record and a 3.18 ERA.
The Bullpen has been good but has the potential to be fantastic. As good as Fernando Rodney’s ERA and Todd Jones’ save total have been neither pitcher has gotten into a groove. When those two get going, the Tigers will have the best bullpen in MLB. There isn’t a team in MLB that can bring a guy into a game in the 7th inning that’s anywhere near as good as Joel Zumaya. His consistent 100+ MPH fast balls leave opposing players shaking their heads. Zumaya might very well be the best pitcher in the Tigers’ pen, if not on the staff. Jamie Walker has been weak as of late but his 1.04 ERA means that he has been good way more than he’s been bad. Jason Grilli, Bobby Seay, and Ramon Colon/Jordan Tata don’t see much game action and that’s not such a bad thing. That means that we’re playing close games where Zumaya-Rodney-Jones is the preferred order.
Of the Tigers that have pitched 14+ innings, none has an ERA higher than 3.86. The domination by the pitching staff has truly been a team effort.
I know it’s chic to give Jim Leyland all of the credit for the Tigers being 14 (yes, FOUR-TEEN) games over .500 but it’s important to avoid “Larry Brown Syndrome”. Whereas Leyland has brought a sense of professionalism to the Tigers that has been missing since Sparky Anderson, Leyland has been far from brilliant over the first two months of the season. Leyland’s impact is felt in the locker room and on road trips. He gives his team confidence by standing behind them. Don’t get me wrong, that is a vital component for a team to be successful. However, the health of Mags and Carlos Guillen, the mindset of Pudge, the emergence of Chris Shelton, and the dominance of the pitching staff have more to do with the Tigers success than Leyland’s arrival. Remember, Bob Cluck (Tigers former pitching coach) said all along that the Tigers would have a dynamite pitching staff in ’06 well before Leyland arrived.
My beef with Leyland has been solely in the area of game-management. As I mentioned above, his handling of base runners has been atrocious. Yesterday, he ran a suicide squeeze with Mags on third base. Except, he forgot to tell Brandon Inge who happened to be the hitter. Leyland failed repeatedly to send runners on first with no outs against the worst defensive catcher in baseball against Cleveland last week. The Tigers were fortunate enough to leave Cleveland with three wins but that was no thanks to Tigers base running. Leyland also cost the Tigers a game against Baltimore by leaving in Fernando Rodney for two innings after he gave up a two run lead in his first inning. Rodney, who was clearly having an off day, came back in the ninth to lose the game. While I admire Leyland’s confidence-building approach, when a pitcher is struggling and you have other options, you make the switch. It seemed like Leyland had already decided Rodney was going two innings before Rodney even threw a pitch.
I have also been disappointed with Leyland’s refusal to allow his starters to finish games. While the Tigers bullpen has been impressive this year, time and time again, Leyland has pulled a starter after the eighth only to see Todd Jones or Fernando Rodney allow two or more base runners. Pitchers love complete games. Anybody who tells you less would be lying. That doesn’t mean that Leyland shouldn’t go with the pen or should always award his starter by giving them a complete game. What I am saying is that when a pitcher has gone 8 innings with less than 100 pitches, stay with the guy that just went 8 innings without giving up a run instead of bringing in a guy who puts runners on base like it’s his job, or the guy who can’t help but walk the leadoff man. The Tigers have seven shutouts this year with no complete games. The last three shutouts have seen the starter go eight before bringing in a reliever in the ninth. It seems like Leyland is pandering to the save statistic rather than going with what has worked for eight innings.
I understand that saves are important to relievers. I understand that saves are how relievers make money. However, when a starting pitcher has gone eight innings and allowed zero runs, obviously his stuff is on that night. Whether the closer’s stuff is on that night is a totally different story that won’t be known until that pitcher comes into the game. If the game is 3-2 and the starting pitcher has a high pitch count, by all means, bring in the closer. But, if the game is 1-0, and the starting pitcher is breezing, stay with what got you there. Starting pitchers LOVE complete game shutouts. In seven chances, Leyland has awarded exactly zero of his starters with a complete game shutout. I would venture to say that a complete game shutout is ten times more meaningful to a starter than a save is to a reliever.
Leyland obviously knows the game of baseball. He'll only get better as he gets acclimated to being on the bench six days a week. I like Leyland's candor. He's good for the organization. He gets pissed when the Tigers don't play hard. He defends his players. I just hope he improves his in-game management.
The Tigers haven’t jumped to a 27-13 record and the best mark in MLB with smoke and mirrors. The Tigers have easily the best pitching staff in baseball. They have allowed twenty less runs than the next best team (St. Louis). They have allowed 41 less runs than the next best team in the AL (NY Yankees). Those are unbelievable statistics. They have pop from 1-9 in the lineup. They have a good defensive infield. They have the best defensive catcher in baseball. They have lights-out middle relief. This is a team that will be in contention all season. There will be trade rumors as the deadline approaches but the Tigers don’t have many weaknesses. Unless a starter goes down, the Tigers do not have room to acquire another starting pitcher. The bullpen is packed. The lineup is stacked. No matter how many Joel Zumaya for Dontrelle Willis trade rumors you here, the Tigers don’t need anything via trade barring an injury. The only thing standing in the way of the Tigers and the post-season is the fact that there are two elite teams standing in the way. The Tigers have to either beat out the Chicago White Sox to win the Central Division, or beat out the NY Yankees/Boston Red Sox (whoever doesn’t win the East) for the Wild Card. Considering that the ChiSox won the World Series last year and the Red Sox and Yankees have payrolls of $120 million and $199 million, the odds don’t look to be in the Tigers favor. Having said that, the Tigers are easily one of the four best teams in the American League. Whether the Tigers make the playoffs or not, this team will experience a meaningful September for the first time in many, many years.
My prediction for the Tigers was 87-75. As it stands now, I’ll stay with that prediction. The Tigers have done well to dispatch of the Twins and Indians thus far but both of those teams should improve as the year goes on. The Tigers also have to contend with the ChiSox on a number of occasions. If the Tigers can play .500 ball against the ChiSox, then they will have a chance at the division. Considering Chicago’s penchant for beating up on the bad teams, anything less than a .500 record against them will likely spell a second place finish in the Central for Detroit. The only difference between the Tigers and ChiSox right now is that the Sox are excellent at manufacturing runs. They play “small ball” as well as any team in baseball. Considering both teams have dynamite pitching staffs, small ball will likely play a deciding factor in many games. The Tigers must improve in this department to contend.