Sparky Anderson used to say that it took 50 games before you could start to evaluate a baseball team. We’ve reached that point for this Tigers’ team, so here we go.
Al Alburquerque: So far this season, the most interesting thing about the Tiger reliever with the Triple-Word-Score Scrabble name has been his new nickname: Everyday Al. The slim right-hander has pitched in at least three straight games three times already and he leads the AL in games pitched with 26. The rail-thin righty has usually had problems with his control, but surprisingly in 2014 he’s walked just six batters in more than 20 innings so far. Part of that is due to his new reliance on his fastball early in counts. His ERA is well below his career mark, and when he’s struggled Alburquerque has allowed the longball — he’s on pace to allow far more homers than he ever has. That may be a trade off for challenging hitters more. Unfortunately for Alburquerque, fans have little confidence in him. It’s white knuckle time every time he enters a game.
Bradball: Folks are fond of throwing around this word as a quick description of a shift in offensive philosophy for the Tigers. It’s an oversimplification to say that under Jim Leyland the team was a station-to-station power-hitting team and that under Brad Ausmus they’ve evolved into a speedy, small-ball team. For years the Tigers have been a high-average team that sprays the ball into the expansive gaps of their home ballpark. They have only lost one power hitter this year (Prince Fielder), but the addition of Nick Castellanos will return a portion of that lost power, if not all of it. With Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and Ian Kinsler, the Tigers have three important tent poles that prop up their offense, which is based on getting on base and advancing runners with extra-base hits. The addition of Rajai Davis, who is one pace to steal 50 bases, makes a difference for sure, and a few others have also started to run more, but unless the Tigers continue to steal bases at a smart rate (70% or more success rate), the extra running will be more harmful than helpful. The Tigers are NOT bunting more or employing the hit-and-run more than they have in previous seasons, the numbers don’t show that they are at all. So, some of this is just symbolic, residue of a change of regime.
Coke Zero: How much more do the Tigers have to see before they recognize that Phil Coke is not a major league pitcher? Using the high-strung lefty is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Consider this: since opening day of 2011 Coke has a 5.11 ERA if you take out a two-week stretch late in 2012 which carried over into the postseason. That’s an ERA over 5.00 for nearly 3 1/2 years of pitching, and it’s time Dave Dombrowski realized that Coke’s ’12 postseason run was an anomaly, not a predictor of what he can do.
Defensive Efficiency: The not-so-secret dirty little secret of the Detroit Tigers the last two seasons has been how porous their defense has been. Since the start of the 2012 season the Tigers have been the worse team in the American League at turning a batted ball into an out. Thankfully, because they’ve had a few of the best starting pitchers in baseball, that hasn’t prevented them from winning the AL Central division each year. The Tigers’ pitchers strike out a ton of batters (they set a new MLB record in 2013) so the Detroit defense faces fewer batted balls than any other team. Still, the piss-poor Detroit defense has cost the Tigers and it could be argued (I’d make that argument) that it’s the biggest reason they haven’t won a World Series title in the Cabrera/Verlander Era. Too often the Tigers have watched as balls have skipped past their outstretched gloves, too often they’ve failed to turn a double play that other teams do, too many times they’ve missed cutoff men or allowed opposing baserunners to advance extra bases. That adds up. It’s the hidden side of baseball, because pitching and hitting stats are easily digestible to the average fan, but many fans are completely oblivious when their favorite player is terrible at fielding a baseball (I’m looking at you Jhonny Peralta fans and those of you who thought Miguel Cabrera was adequate at the hot corner, and while we’re at it, anyone who thinks Don Kelly is a defensive specialist).
The Tigers won’t have Jose Iglesias this season, most likely. His presence would go a long way toward improving Detroit’s infield defense. Nick Castellanos is showing that he’s pretty darn good at charging the ball and making the one-handed play, but his lateral range is not that good. An outfield of Rajai Davis, Austin Jackson, and Torii Hunter is not bad, as long as Hunter can learn to hit the cutoff man a few times. Ian Kinsler has been better than expected at turning the DP and he’s pretty good at going back on the ball, but his lateral range is also not that good. This hurts Rick Porcello and Drew Porcello the most, the two pitchers who coax the most groundballs. New manager Brad Ausmus has employed more shifts this season, in fact far more than Jim Leyland ever used. So far, however it hasn’t made that much of a difference in defensive efficiency. There will come a time when the Tigers will win or lose a postseason game because of their defense (again), and when that happens let’s hope someone on this team is in the right position.
The Evan Reed Story: So far in 2014, Evan Reed has been one of the best stories on the team. The tall righty debuted last season as a 27-year old rookie and it seemed he would be a flash in the pan, but he won a spot in the bullpen in Lakeland and he’s shown how dependable he can be, performing as well as anyone out of the pen on a consistent basis.
Fatigue: An unrelenting schedule in May has left the Tigers’ pitching staff in a shambles. After the rotation produced 26 quality starts in the team’s first 39 games, they had only one in their next nine (through Tuesday). Have the long seasons finally catching up with the Detroit pitchers? For three straight years, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer have made at least 36 starts each season as the Tigers have advanced to the ALCS each October. Rick Porcello looks the freshest of the starters and he’s just maturing and didn’t pitch as many innings as JV, Scherzer, and Sanchez (who has been hurt a few times the last three seasons). If anything should happen to one of Detroit’s top three starters that shelves them for any time, the division race could become interesting. As it is, even if Detroit escapes the regular season without a serious injury to one of their starting pitchers, one wonders how a fourth straight postseason run will impact the arms of Verlander & Co.
Getting better: There’s a chance the Tigers can be even better the rest of the way with the addition of a new shortstop (more on that below), the return of Andy Dirks (the team could use a left-handed bat), and free agent reliever Joel Hanrahan. Hanrahan is an interesting project, the Tigers inked him for a very affordable deal after he’s missed nearly a year due to Tommy John surgery. But if he can come back and be anywhere near what he was when he was a two-time All-Star for the Pirates, the Detroit bullpen could be much improved.
Home Cooking: Over the last five years, the Tigers have won at least 50 games at home each season (2009-2013), something they had never done before in team history. The Tigers love to play in Detroit. But so far this year the Tigers have been a little uneven in Motown, posting a 14-11 record through the end of May. If they are going to distance themselves from the rest of the pack in the AL Central, they’ll need to hold serve at home as they have the last five years.
Ian: The new Tigers’ second baseman has been everything and more that we thought he could be. In May he’s hit over .375 to lift his average among the leaders in the AL. In the field he’s been good enough and at times he’s actually been very impressive at turning the double play, especially when he’s the feeder to the shortstop. Kinsler is very gifted at shuffling the ball to his DP partner, sort of looking like vintage Steve Nash with his one-handed passes to the keystone bag. Kinsler will probably be an All-Star and it’s much deserved. He’s done it everywhere too – he’s hitting over .320 both at home and on the road. Given that Prince Fielder was a bust in Texas this season (a minus with the bat and then a season-ending surgery on his neck), it seems that Dave Dombrowski has turned one of his legendary clever moves again.
Joba: A nice surprise has been the arrival of Joba Chamberlain, who has been more than just a good addition to the bullpen, he’s been a model teammate and a good new piece of the Tigers’ clubhouse. Teams need good guys like Joba (it seems impossible that he was once a controversial figure with the Yankees), and he’s more than just a fun guy, he’s showing that he has a great arm and the experience to handle tight spots. Minus a handful of tough outings, The Bearded One has been right on the mark as the 8th inning guy for Brad Ausmus. Like Joaquin Benoit, Joba’s success will play a big factor in how far the Tigers will go in ’14.
K: This is something Victor Martinez knows little about: through 49 games he had 12 homers and 13 K’s, putting him in position to become one of the few players to hit more homers than strikeouts.
L-WO: That stands for a loss in walkoff fashion. The Tigs have suffered four of those this season, three of them in the last 12 days. It would be nice if they could stop doing that, since it only underscores a weakness of this team for years – the backend of the bullpen. So far, Joe Nathan has looked more like Average Joe than Joe Cool. The free agent closer has left his breaking pitch up in the strike zone too many times, and when he does that, it’s just a 80-something MPH pitch that big leaguers can tee off on. every time he struggles it looks more and more like Detroit has another over-the-hill closer, only this one doesn’t do a stupid dance after a save.
Miggy: After he got off to a lukewarm start, some were whispering that maybe Miguel Cabrera was hitting his decline phase. Or maybe the money got to him. But the report of his demise was greatly exaggerated. Before April was over, Cabrera was righting his ship, and by the second week of May he had his batting average up where it belonged and he had a stretch where he drove in 32 runs in 23 games. Most impressively, Miggy was showing his power – driving 16 extra-base hits in the first 24 games of May. Cabrera will most likely win the batting title again, ho hum. And because he’s on a pace for about 140 RBIs, he’ll be right there in the AL MVP race too. Enjoy him, sports fans.
Nobody: That’s what you see at the end of the Detroit bench too often. With 7 relievers on his team, Dave Dombrowski has given Brad Ausmus 13 position players, meaning he has only 4 bench players for any one game. A few times this season that’s hurt the Tigers, when they could have used a pinch-runner or a good left-handed pinch-hitter. I don’t expect that to change, since the 7-man bullpen is a fact of life in modern baseball.
Overrated: After a good start in the first few weeks of April, Austin Jackson has settled in right where we could imagine he’d be: somewhere around .260-275 with modest power, a lot of strikeouts, and dumb mistakes on the bases and in the field. He’s a maddening ballplayer: one minute he looks like an All-Star when he chased down a flyball, the next he’s turning the wrong way and allowing a ball to soar over his head. In one game he can go 3-for-4 and look like he might hit 25 homers; then he’ll show us in another game that he’s one of the dumbest baserunners on the team. I said before that the Tigers should look to move Jackson while they can get something for him. That shouldn’t be in the middle of the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 27-year old swapped in the off-season.
Plane Problems: Did something funky happen in Boston two weeks ago when the Tigers boarded a plane to leave Beantown only to find that there were mechanical issues with the machinery? Since then, the team has gone into a spiral, losing three straight to Cleveland, three of four from the Rangers, and three times losing in walkoff fashion. Not since D.B. Cooper has there been a more troubling plane conspiracy.
Quick: I was just a little kid when Ron LeFlore was in his prime, and I remember that he was pretty damn good at stealing third base (this website tells me he pilfered third base 11 times in one season), but it’s possible that Rajai Davis is even better at it. In Oakland this week he stole third when the catcher was throwing the ball back to the pitcher, setting up a Detroit win. For his career, Davis has been successful at stealing third 82 times in 91 tries.
Road Warriors: In April/May the Tigers won 11 consecutive games on the road, the most in franchise history since 1984 when they tied the MLB record with 17 straight wins away from Detroit. This is a very good sign – bad teams don’t usually win on the road at the pace the Tigers are winning (.625 as of May 29).
Shortstop: Are we to believe the Tigers are going to stick with an anemic platoon of Andrew Romine and Danny Worth at shortstop all regular season and into a possible postseason? I don’t think so. Sure, there a cute reasons to root for Worth and Romine, each are nice little ballplayers who have the “underdog” thing going for them. Every rare base hit, every stolen base, every slick player in the field, regardless of how infrequent, will earn the pair some fans. But the facts are clear: Romine is a 28-year old light-hitting middle infielder with average defensive skills and below-average big league offensive skills. With the stick he’s a Triple-A player. He might have had a job as a utility player in 1974 when teams could afford to carry a utility infielder who couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag, but in today’s game, he’s very marginal. Danny Worth is in his 10th stint with the Tigers in five years. The 28-year old has spent eight years in the minor leagues and he’s only accomplished one thing: he’s risen higher and higher on the all-time lists of the Toledo Mud Hens. Worth has proven he’s not a big league regular, though he has some skills that could make him a bench player filling in at 4-5 positions, even (as we found out this season) on the mound.
So what will the Tigers do to fill this void in their lineup? So far the offense has been good enough that poor production from Romine/Worth hasn’t been much of an issue. But it will, and the defense is below average. Eugenio Suarez is now at Toledo, having been promoted this season after showing he could handle Double-A pitching. The 22-year old shortstop is the best prospect at that position in the organization and he’ll be summoned to Detroit at some point. He’s right-handed, he’s strong, and his glovework is already major league worthy. He’d be a very good defensive shortstop on his first day in the big leagues.
Talent: This team is just too talented to be caught by any of the other teams in their division. I do suspect that one of the teams behind them (probably the White Sox) will mount a challenge, but ultimately, Detroit has Cabrera and Verlander and Scherzer and VMart, and the other teams don’t. That’s the difference over the 162-game schedule.
Underrated: I know a lot of Tigers’ fans love Anibal Sanchez, but it’s time he got some more publicity. The hard-throwing righthander is an ace in #3 starter clothing. He missed almost a month with blister problems, but he hasn’t skipped a beat, coming back with wicked stuff. As of this writing his 2.49 ERA ranks among the best in the AL (though he’ll need to stay healthy to defend his ERA crown). If I had to pick a Detroit pitcher most likely to throw a no-no in ’14, it would be Anibal.
Verlander: Which JV will we get as the 2014 season unfolds? Will it be the Verlander who had the best April of his career, or will it be the JV who struggled for much of the first half of the 2013 season, and who seems to have resurfaced here in May? One thing we know about Verlander is that he can’t just turn it off and on. It might seem that way considering how dominant he was in 2011-12 and was again in the last 6 weeks of the ’13 season, including his remarkable postseason performance. Verlander doesn’t need to win the Cy Young again, but it would be nice to see him be consistent for a long stretch.
Worth-Time: If I told you when the season began that Brad Ausmus would have to use Danny Worth out of his bullpen twice before June 1, you would have scrambled for your nearest comfort food and covered your head with a blanket. But, the Tigers are off to a strong start and still they had to use their middle infielder twice to spell their bullpen. Worth delighted Tigers’ fans with his knuckleball in his first appearance against the Rangers on May 22, pitching a shutout inning while striking out two. But two days later he was called on again, and it didn’t seem quite as cute, with Detroit losing for the fifth time in six games. Worth isn’t Steve Sparks and he isn’t Phil Niekro, so don’t count on seeing his flutterball out of the bullpen when it really matters. But it’s nice to know Ausmus has an option when his seven relievers just aren’t enough.
X: That’s what fans should mark next to the names of Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, and Max Scherzer in balloting for the All-Star Game. I know fans don’t vote for pitchers, but Mad Max deserves to make it, and by the time the game arrives in mid-July, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello should get consideration too. If I had to guess, I would bank on five Tigers making it, with the three everyday Tigers and Max and Porcello making it (the league won’t be able to ignore Rick if he has 10-12 wins by then). Joe Nathan could also sneak in of he lowers his ERA or crawls his way into the top two in saves (he’s currently tied for 4th with 11 saves).
You’re Not Don Kelly: I’ve been critical of Don Kelly in the past (as I should have been), but I have to give him props when he deserves it. So far, Kelly is having a good season. Though his offensive numbers have sagged of late, he has produced some key hits when given the opportunity. He’s also been solid in the field, which is a good sign, because his range in the outfield and play at third has historically been suspect.
Zubaz: Love ’em or hate ’em (and you should hate them), the Zubaz are probably here to stay. But if the Tigers don’t climb out of the slump they’ve been in since they went public with their airport photos of the team in matching Zubaz, we may have to hold a ceremony where we perform “The Burning of the Zubaz.”