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Why I’m high on this Tigers team
- Updated: April 23, 2009
Before the season, I wrote that these Tigers would be a bit of a mystery. We didn’t know what to expect. Unlike the “experts,” I didn’t expect the worst. But other than that, I had no idea what we’d see out of the 2009 Detroit Tigers. Well — and knowing full well the dangers in trying to extrapolate too much out of two weeks of baseball — I’ve come to my first conclusion. This team — tied for first place at the moment — is actually pretty good and can keep it up. You know why?
- The pitching — The Tigers have found a new respect for the strike zone. Whether this can be directly attributed to first-year pitching coach Rick Knapp — who preached the importance of throwing strikes in the Twins organization for years upon years — or some sort of early-season fluke is up to you to decide. I’m pretty sure it’s not a fluke, though. They are just pounding the strike zone, from rookie Rick Porcello to the previously location-less Edwin Jackson and Fernando Rodney. Right now, the Tigers have allowed the fewest walks in the majors (33). You may want to point to the Tigers having a pedestrian strikeout rating (7th in the American League), but I’d counter it’s about what you’d expect when two of your five starters are sinkerballers. And with the defense behind them (I’ll get to that later), that’s not a bad thing. The Tigers still have the third best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the AL. The bullpen has allowed 13 runs — eight of them by Eddie Bonine and Juan Rincon, who do not figure into the Tigers late-inning plans, and three more by Brandon Lyon in his first time on the mound in a Tigers uniform. Meanwhile, Bobby Seay, Ryan Perry and a rebuilt, finally-healthy Fernando Rodney have been extremely stingy after the seventh inning. In all, it’s resulted in an ERA of 3.87, a number that I believe is more or less sustainable. And considering the Tigers spent 7 of their 12 games this season playing games against the Blue Jays (6.04 runs per game, third in AL) and Rangers (6.79 runs per game, first in AL), while putting decent pitching numbers up. Finally, remember Detroit is already missing two starting pitchers — Jeremy Bonderman, and, if you choose to count him, Dontrelle Willis — and a reliever — Joel Zumaya, who hit 100 on the radar gun in a two-inning scoreless rehab assignment in Triple-A on Saturday. All of them could be back on the mound within a month. So you have to believe Detroit has enough depth in pitching this season to keep it up.
- The defense — The Tigers’ defensive efficiency of .716 is not only near the top of the majors, it’s a sustainable number. They’re not getting extraordinarily lucky. They’re getting what everyone expected to see after a couple of key offseason moves: solid, respectable defense backing up the pitching. You can point to a few mishaps – Brandon Inge making a couple of bad throws, Adam Everett getting the ball stuck in his glove — and wonder if the stats aren’t a bit misleading. But just think about the number of web gems Inge has already made this season. He’d be an elite++ defender if he made better decisions, but as it is, he’s still getting to many, many more hits than his predecessors. The Everett-Ramon Santiago combo at shortstop may be near-elite as well. With Curtis Granderson in the outfield, Placido Polanco looking better at second and Miguel Cabrera playing solid first base now that he has a year there under his belt, Tigers’ pitchers can feel secure about throwing strikes, because they know the defense has their backs (by the way, Billfer has more on defense at the Detroit Tigers Weblog). You put pitching and defense together consistently, and you’re pretty close to a contender.
- The roster has flexibility — This one is key. Unlike 2008, 2007 and, when you get down to it, 2006, as this year’s Tigers have the flexibility to play multiple styles of baseball. In the past, they were a team of softball players aiming for the stands. And while the mantra of “wait for the 3-run home run” has a long standing in baseball, sometimes, you’ve just got to play for a run or two. The Tigers have the ability to go either way this year. The power is still there — albeit in a weakened form compared to the past. Right-handed sluggers Cabrera and Marcus Thames are joined by rookie lefty Jeff Larish in that category — and possibly righty Inge, depending at what rate he keeps up his four home run start. In the past, Granderson could be counted on for 20 home runs as well, though he is more of an all-around hitter than a slugger (so far this season, he is neither, but that will change). On the other hand, the speedy Josh Anderson gives Detroit a threat to steal, and the bottom of the lineup guys have all proved to be adept at laying down sacrifices. Stats have shown, sacrificing and stealing can actually cost you runs and that’s why I’m not big on playing that style of baseball every game of the year. But some innings, it’s the right play, and it puts pressure on the defense to be ready for everything. The Tigers used the squeeze play successfully twice in three days. When is the last time you remember them being capable of doing that? And wise use of the hit and run can open up the defense and allow a hit through an open hole that otherwise may have been snared. All in all, it allows Jim Leyland a chance to manage and have some fun, and it keeps the other team on its heels, because for once, anything can happen when Detroit’s up to bat.
- They can still hit — Although, like I said, power numbers are a bit down, these Tigers can still put the bat on the ball and move station to station, and that’s with the top of the lineup starting a bit slow for the Tigers. Detroit has at least 12 hits in 8 of 12 games. The bottom of the order can’t keep scoring forever. Santiago has 11 RBIs, but he won’t finish the season with 100. But I don’t think you can count on Granderson, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen being held to a paltry two home runs, 20 runs and 14 RBIs all season either. Ordonez and Guillen are aging, but they’re not that old.
- Miguel Cabrera — Is asking for a triple crown a bit much? Yeah, probably. It’s been decades since the last one. But last year, he came inches from capturing the HR AND RBI titles after looking lost for the first month to six weeks of the season. As for average? He’s leading baseball in that with .489 and has a career .311. So I will continue to dream. But in the meantime, it’s just plain fun to watch the myriad ways Cabrera can drive the opposing team nuts at the plate. Towering home runs hit a country mile, line drives that make even the left fielder duck, opposite field shots, and — what’s that? he even stole second base?! When you have a player like that, any moment can be a magic one. This year, he knows the AL, and he’s going to make it pay.
So yeah, it’s only two weeks and anything can happen, but there’s plenty of reason to believe the Tigers are a contender now and will be a contender for the length of the season. It’s good to see that again.
Kurt Mensching writes about the Tigers Daily on his site Mack Avenue Tigers.