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Tigers' Plan Gets Them To World SeriesPosted on October 19, 2012 at 07:27 AM.
When the Detroit Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a nine year $214 million deal, the worry was that the Tigers defense was going to sabotage a talented pitching staff. Because the signing necessitated Miguel Cabrera moving over to third base, the Tigers were heading into the season with one of the worst defensive third basemen in the game, a shortstop with seemingly limited range, a question mark at second base, and a slugger at first base. And, given their outfield defense didnít look all that spectacular either, it looked as if the Tigers were taking a big risk
It sort of became a joke when Cabrera took a ball to the face during Spring Training, avoiding injury only because he was wearing sunglasses. They may score 1,000 runs, but they may give up 2,000.
But, all of that seems so long ago doesnít it?
The Tigers were able to endure the regular season and get to the World Series. Endure is the correct word because at times the Tigers looked inept. They were frustrating and aside from an early season surge of 9 wins in 12 games, they would struggle until August to find any sort of consistency. But, they were able to survive the gauntlet that is the 162 game season for a few reasons.
First, and most importantly, they played in the least competitive division in the sport. The White Sox held the division lead for much of the season, but they were a flawed team that was feasting on the inferior competition of the division. The Tigers stayed close enough to the White Sox and were able to surge ahead at the end of the season when the White Sox inefficiencies began to manifest.. If the Tigers had played in any other division, they likely miss the playoffs because of their flaws.
Those flaws were definitely exposed in the regular season. The defense was, predictably, terrible. They ranked 13th in the American League according to UZR, weighing in at negative-28.1. They also ranked 13th in defensive runs saved with negative-32. They ranked 8th in the league with 99 errors. 8th sounds mediocre, but considering that they had zero range, committing 99 errors is quite a bit. Miguel Cabrera was a poor defensive third baseman. He made 13 errors, eight of them throwing errors. He was also minus-10 according to UZR and minus-4 according to DRS. But, on a positive note, he did manage to get an out on 86 percent of the batted balls hit his way. The League average was 87 percent.
And, considering that the Tigers didnít get great defense from their third basemen in 2011, they really didnít lose much with Cabrera. Couple that with the fact that they received the best offensive production from a third baseman in the sport, the move, at least for this year, was a success.
Two things helped the defense as the season went on. Jhonny Peralta turned in an above average defensive season at shortstop. Austin Jackson played a good center field, and the acquisition of Omar Infante solidified second base.
Of course it helps that the pitching staff led the league in strikeouts per nine, was in the top three in least walks allowed, and elicited the most swings and misses on pitches thrown in the strike zone. A poor defense can be masked by an elite strikeout group. The Tigersí pitching staff is, as a whole, an elite strikeout group.
The defensive flaws were masked by the pitching staff and the offense, which ranked fourth in the AL with a .328 wOBA and third with a .315 wRC+. It doesnít hurt to have a triple crown winner batting third followed by a power hitting first baseman who hit .313/.412/.528. Austin Jackson rebounded to produce an .856 OPS and Andy Dirks played 88 games while compiling an .857 OPS.
At times, the offense was frustrating. Peralta had a down season, so did catcher Alex Avila. Aside from Cabrera and Fielder, no Tigers batter hit more than 16 home runs. But, the Tigers ranked second in on base percentage and fourth in slugging.
The Tigersí offense was supposed to be deep. It wasnít. But, it was enough given their pitching staff. It was enough because no other team in the AL Central was any good. With 88 wins, the Tigers were able to win the division. They survived the regular season because they werenít a team built for 162 games. Jim Leyland had to mix and match players like Quintin Berry, Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young, Don Kelly, and young Avisail Garcia. He had to mix and match a bullpen that underperformed. He endured injuries to Doug Fister and Max Scherzer. The flawed regular season team had to hide their deficiencies.
But, the postseason is different. The short series allows for stars to dominate and a hot streak from an unexpected source to carry a team through. Justin Verlander put together another excellent regular season and should win the Cy Young Award. But, the Tigersí ultimate weapon can have more of an impact in a short series. The Oakland Aís won games three and four at home, but had to face Verlander in game five. Verlander had already beaten them in game one, but in game five he was masterful, pitching the complete game to eliminate baseballís best story of 2012. Then, Verlander dominated the Yankees in game three of the ALCS to essentially put the series away. Of the Tigers seven postseason wins, Verlander has three of them. Doug Fister and Max Scherzer are veterans of the postseason now and have pitched well. Mid-season acquisition Anibal Sanchez has given up just two runs in 13.1 postseason innings.
Because of the short series and the performance of the starters, Leyland has been able to mask his teamís greatest weakness--the bullpen. Jose Valverde almost cost them game one of the ALCS, but the rest of the series has shown the strength of the Tigersí rotation. With the exception of Scherzer, the starters pitched deep into each game. Only Phil Coke was used in games three and four, leaving the rest of the bullpen as spectators.
Leyland also gets credit for revamping the bullpen. Heís gone with the hot hand in Phil Coke to close out games after Valverdeís poor postseason. One of Leylandís greatest strengths as a Manager is his loyalty. He stayed with Valverde for as long as possible. But, he switched to the suddenly hot Coke, which has worked well.
Now the Tigers sit and wait for the winner of the Cardinals and Giants. The break will allow them to line up their rotation for the Series that will start in the National League park. That will allow them to get Verlander lined up for a game one start. That will allow them to set up their plan once again. They will get elite pitching, good performances from their two offensive stars, and some good performances from some of the role players. They are a team that is almost perfectly built for the postseason. They have an elite pitcher who is backed by an above average rotation that gets a ton of strikeouts. Their performance masks the defense and the soft underbelly of the bullpen. Their offense has two stars that get the attention, which allows for role players like Peralta and Delmon Young to get good pitches to hit. And, they have a Manager who is willing to change his use of the closer as well as play match ups with his batting order..
They didn't dominate the regular season, but they weren't built that way. In a short series, however, they have all the necessary weapons.
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