Last week was the tale of two very different series, one against a young, struggling team, the other against the juggernaut of the American League. Despite some bumps, our Tigers handled themselves pretty well and still sit perched atop the AL Central.
Overview: 3-0 at the Royals, 1-3 vs. Rangers, 4-3 for the week and 10-6 on the season, 1st place
We know one thing after leaving Kansas City following the first series against the division rival: the Royals are still somewhere between “bad” and “promising”. Despite some good-looking young players, the Royals were steamrolled by Detroit in a three-game sweep. They competed valiantly, losing three low-scoring games, two of which they had the lead late. But Justin Verlander was a monster in the first game, as Jim Leyland allowed his ace to finish out the game, 3-2. Is it possible that Smoky is reading my posts? As I said last week, the only way for JV to learn how to close games, is to be allowed to do so. Leyland scared the crap out of many Tigers fans by letting Verlander throw 131 pitches (don’t even get me started on the silliness of pitch counts), and SURPRISE! His arm didn’t fall off. Drew Smyly and Max Scherzer provided two more fine starts in the next two games and The Dreadlocked One delivered the game-winning hit in game #3. Exit KC with three W’s.
The four-game set with Texas was a chance for Detroit to measure themselves next to the best team in the AL right now, albeit early in the season. The results were mixed. The Rangers look like a team on a mission, like the 1984 Tigers or the 1975-1976 Reds, they have a swagger that says, “We know we’re good.” They showed it by smacking the Tigs around in the first two games. Rick Porcello had his first rough outing, getting only three outs in Saturday’s opener of a split doubleheader, but as strange as it may sound, Porcello made a lot of good pitches, the Rangers are just that good. I am not worried about Ricky yet.
Verlander was Verlander again on Saturday night, winning another game, this time with help from the bullpen. Through four starts, he’s given up just 17 hits while fanning a batter per inning. Is there a pitcher more important to his team in baseball? No. Without JV’s losing-streak-stopper stuff, the Tigers are probably under .500 and everyone in Motown is out on a ledge somewhere.
Amazingly, the Tigs had a really solid chance to split the four-game set with Texas on Sunday, taking a lead late into the game. But the bullpen, which pitched a lot during the week, ran out of gas. Detroit lost in 11 innings to Texas. Sound familiar? See the 2011 ALCS.
The Tigers young pitchers are the biggest story of the young season. Smyly put up two more quality starts this week, and the last one on Sunday against a Texas lineup that’s as scary as something out of “Where the Wild Things Are”, was impressive. The kid will have some tough outings this year, but he looks very poised on the hill. I think his deceptive delivery and slow breaking pitches fit nicely in the rotation, especially after opposing teams have been trying to time the offerings of JV and Max. In Porcello’s nightmare start, Duane Below gave the Tigers a huge lift with six innings of shutout relief. The Michigan-natibe has yet to allow a run in ’12, and is making a case for a start. Speaking of starts, Adam Wilk started and took the loss in game #1 against Texas on Thursday, but he still hasn’t looked bad in his two starts this year in place of Doug Fister. Below and Wilk give Leyland three left-handed options for the rotation as he shuffles his pitching staff around early in the year. Collectively they are doing far better than anyone could have dreamed, and that’s great news for the Tigers.
Brennan Boesch showed some signs of coming out of his season-long slump: he hit two homers this week. If he can get going, the RBI opportunities will swell for Miggy and Prince.
Also have to be fair and give Brandon Inge some props. His homer on Monday helped JV get his first win of the season. Inge still needs to only get AB’s against LHP though (more on that below).
The Tiger offense scored just 22 runs in seven games last week, and if we go back 10 games they’ve scored just 3o. Three runs per game is not acceptable from the Detroit lineup, obviously. It is early, the weather has been cold, and normally pitchers ARE ahead of hitters, but the output from a lineup that some said could score 900 runs this season, has been poor. The biggest culprits have been Boesch (538 OPS), Ryan Raburn (271!), Inge (278!), and Jhonny Peralta (694 and no HR).
Daniel “White Flag” Schlereth was sent down to Toledo on Saturday between games of the doubleheader and replaced by Thad Weber, a rookie right-hander. Schlereth pitched terribly this season and anyone could tell that from his first outing, but inexplicably, Leyland kept giving the lefty a chance to redeem himself, even in games that counted. “I deserve this,” Schlereth said on his demotion. No kidding.
The Tigers roster selection needs to be talked about. Just two and a half weeks into the season there have already been two games where Leyland has been backed into a corner or backed himself into a corner, because of the composition of the Detroit 25-man roster.
Look, the Tigers are carrying 12 pitchers. A lot of teams do that in today’s game, I get that. Since the late 1980s, the workload of starting pitchers has increasingly been reduced. Hell, I’ve heard people applaud starters for going five innings while allowing 2-3 runs! But with that comes the need for more innings from the bullpen, and ML teams have decided that means more relief pitchers. Every team also likes to carry a left-handed pitcher as a specialist to come in and get a strikeout in tight spots. Phil Coke serves that role for the Tigers. But seven relievers? Is that really where we’re at now in big league baseball? Seven guys in the bullpen? That means most ML teams will carry seven guys all season long who will pitch about 400 innings combined. Often those are some of the most critical innings.
By definition, middle inning relievers and specialists are not the best pitchers on your roster, otherwise they’d be starting or closing games. So does it make sense to have the Schlereth’s and Ballester’s and Dotel’s sitting in the pen taking up roster space when there are better players you could have on the roster?
I know we’re not going to get the Detroit organization to change direction and (ala Texas) start asking their starters to go deep into games, but the use of seven roster spots for relievers has already cost the Tigers early in the year. Twice so far in ’12, Leyland has been unable to pinch-hit for a batter (Inge once and Kelly the other time) because had he done so it would have meant he’d have to bring his DH in to play defense. Once you do that, you lose the DH for the rest of the game.
Because the Tigers have seven roster spots being used up by relievers, and because they stubbornly insist on having Inge on the team (when they already have a guy in Kelly who can play all over the diamond), their manager has little flexibility for subbing in players at key spots like second base, left field, and DH.
The Tigers sorely lack a quality LH bat off the bench. Kelly is valuable because he can play everywhere, but he’s not a big threat with the stick. If the Tigers used one more roster spot for a position player and jettisoned Inge, they would have a much more flexible bench. Leyland (and GM Dave Dombrowski) should be challenged on this. I haven’t seen anyone do so yet.
Three games vs. the Mariners in Detroit, and three games at the Yankees in New York. Game to watch: Friday’s opener in The Bronx, Verlander vs. Ivan Nova, who’s 3-0 for the Yanks.