And, as a fan of the Tigers, I have to say that, as the season progressed, I did not think this was a very likely end result. Yes, they signed Prince Fielder in the off-season; but, in truth, if not for Victor Martinez's January season-ending injury, they likely would not have gone after Fielder. Martinez is good for a .300 average, 20 homers and over 100 RBI; Prince hit 30 homers on the nose, batted .300 and had 100 RBI. So, a substitution of sorts, nothing more. Now last year the Tigers won 92 games to capture their division, then beat the Yankees in a five game ALDS before losing to Texas in a six game ALCS. This year it seemed a universal opinion that there were even higher expectations (which, to be fair, at this point they have now achieved) and, so, when things did not appear to be going well, I began to investigate why this year was considered a disappointment, and here's my pre-World Series assessment.
They wound up with 87 or 88 wins in a weak division, so only four or five games off last year's pace. And, so, what went right? Well, Prince Fielder, of course. Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown, obviously (he also won the batting title last year). The emergence of Austin Jackson as a lead off batter, and Andy Dirks as a left-handed hitting corner outfielder who could play full time. Justin Verlander posted a 2.6 ERA after his 2.4 last year, so all well and good there. Also, Max Scherzer matured as a starting pitcher and, beginning in July and into September (when he missed some starts with a sore shoulder), he was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. But that's it, really. I mean that's all good stuff, sure, but here's what went wrong -
Jackson and Dirks, as good as they were, each missed a month with injuries (kudos to rookie Quintin Berry for being a spark plug of a fill-in; I do want to acknowledge that), and that certainly slowed the offense down to a certain extent. Utility infielders were a nightmare, from Danny Worth to Ramon Santiago to Ryan Rayburn to my beloved Brandon Inge, hitting anywhere from like .075 to .220 on the high side. The Tigers lead ALL of MLB when it came to hitting into double plays. The collapse of the bullpen in the second half of the season, including usually reliable set-up man Joaquin Benoit ending the year with this remarkable stat - 15 home runs in like 70 innings (inexcusable!). Last year, Jose Valverde didn't blow a save which still boggles my mind because, if you watched him perform on a daily basis, and you checked out his stats, you simply wouldn't think it was possible. This year, Jose was even less pleasant, blowing a save on opening day and then wrapping that up in a nice little bow with his 9th inning meltdowns in the playoffs in both Oakland and New York. Apparently he had no splitter this year, which leaves him a one pitch kind of a guy - a 92 mph fastball folks can sit on. Doug Fister, the number 2 starter, was on the DL by the second day of the season, the first of two visits and, when he returned, he was simply not as effective as last year. Good, he was, yes, but not brilliant. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta? Hit .270 or so last year with 20 HRs; this year, .240 or so with 10. Catcher Alex Avila? .285 or so last year with 18 HRs and over 100 RBI, slugged over .500. This year? Mid .240s with maybe 10 HRs and 50 RBI and a slugging percentage below .400. Brennan Boesch, the right fielder? Hit .240 with maybe 10 HR after hitting .280 last year with 15 or 16 HRs in an injury-shortened season. In fact, Boesch was finally benched in September (way too late in my opinion) for an Avisail Garcia/Berry platoon, and was even left off the playoff roster. The top half of the Tigers' order was fine and dandy all year, the bottom half a catastrophe (at some point I coined the phrase "three runs whether we need them or not" for the offense). Also, their infield defense is not too great - I think they lead the AL in unearned runs; what pitching staff doesn't swoon along to that stat.
So, again, I didn't imagine they'd make the playoffs, let alone last all that long if they did. They caught a break to be sure playing in the weakest division; they caught a break when, after trailing the White Sox by three games with two weeks to go, the Southsiders decided to reel off a 1-9 during a ten game stretch. Against Oakland in the first round of the playoffs they managed to split the first four games even though they scored 11 total runs, 8 of them earned - if Coco Crisp does not drop Miguel Cabrera's very catchable ball in Detroit in Game 2, there might never have been a Game 5 series-clinching masterpiece from Verlander, and it would have been the A's (whom I just love, I have to say) advancing.
And speaking of advancing - yes, the Tigers have good starting pitching, no doubt, and I did like the way Leyland moved away from Benoit and Valverde in the late innings after the latter's 9th inning flame-out in Game 1 vs. the Yankees in the ALCS (Phil Coke pitches in all four games, doesn't allow a run, and records 2 saves - I think he had 1 save all year), but let's take a gander at the Yankees, shall we? Their post-season meltdown began against the Orioles in the previous round, and they had A-Rod, Granderson, Swisher, Cano (Cano!), Chavez - none of these guys hitting at all, and piling up strike out after strike out. Well, this Yankees' meltdown did not hurt the Tigers' chances one bit is all I'm saying.
At some point in late August I started to think about how much better the Tigers were going to be next year, when Martinez returns and is full time DH, batting behind Fielder. Pretty fantastic, that. And some of the younger pitchers getting experience, like Smyly and Albuquerque. And maybe another arm in the bullpen (definitely another arm in the bullpen - Valverde is a free agent). And perhaps this kid Garcia, the mini-Miggy, really turning into something - he's only 20, the same age as Cabrera when he came up. He even looks like Cabrera, and apparently has a chance to be the kind of a player Cabrera is but with speed and better defensively. (We'll see.) And I still think that's true, I think they can be better next year, which I'm happy about. But, you know, that was my August thinkng. In the meantime -
they are inexplicably in the World Series. And I'll watch as much a I can, the first two games for sure and see how it goes from there, and I'll keep my expectations low because that seems not unreasonable based on what I watched them do on the field all year. But if there's a Game 5, or a 6, or a 7, series on the line, and Valverde trots in from the bullpen with a one run lead to "lock it up", it's not impossible it may just be the perfect time to walk the dogs. You'd hate to miss something brilliant, I get that; but, more than that, you'd hate to see something awful, and I've seen that twice already now in the post-season and didn't enjoy it either time, I have to say...