So, I've been sitting here for fifteen minutes attempting to think of some cool, exciting angle to approach the Detroit Tigers from, and I've essentially come up empty. The Tigers in 2011 are a pretty good baseball team, though clearly not a great one, as evidenced by their good-but-not-great 40-35 record. They aren't terrible, so I can't make jokes at their expense and/or highlight promising young players who might help the team in the future. But they also aren't great, so I really can't moan about how the Diamondbacks are going to get massacred.
Moreover, this isn't even a surprise: most people expected them to compete for the AL Central title, and that's exactly what they're doing, as they sit in second place after finishing in second place three of the previous five seasons. They aren't "surprising" or "disappointing" or any other cliches that sportswriters use to chastise teams for not complying with their preseason predictions.
The Tigers have some very good players who I could talk about, like Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, but chances are you already know who they are. They also have some fairly bad players, but every team does, and they don't even have anyone who's epically bad enough to single out (hear that, Magglio Ordonez, you're off the hook). And honestly, I can't even make sweeping generalizations about the Tigers' fanbase, since I've only even met two Tiger fans. For the record, both of them were very nice, but the statistician in me would balk at making totally subjective judgements off of a sample size of two. God, this is frustrating.
So, I guess that's my angle. Detroit Tigers: most aggravatingly decent team in Major League Baseball.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs)
Arizona (42-34) Detroit (40-35) Edge
Even though offense is down across the board this year, the Tigers are still hitting just fine. That wRC+ is fourth in baseball, just behind well-known offensive powerhouses St. Louis, Boston and NYY. They aren't great at running the bases and they don't hit an eye-popping number of home runs, but they're very adept at getting on base, as their OBP is third in the majors.
The Tigers' pitching has been a problem however, as starting pitchers not named "Justin Verlander" have struggled with consistency all season. And relief pitching has been, if anything, even worse. The Tigers' bullpen has a collective ERA of 4.55 this season, good for 28th in baseball. Their FIP is slightly better (4.12) but still nothing to write home about.
Miguel Cabrera is really good. "Of course," you're thinking, "I already knew that, It's not like he plays for the Marlins anymore." To which I respond: no, he's really good. His career batting line is .314/.391/.553, meaning that he has spent half of his career hitting better than .314/.391/.553. He is in one of those phases currently, as his current OPS in 2011 is 1.028. If you want some perspective, that's the fourth-best OPS in all of baseball.
The Tigers also have a trio of exciting young position players to complement their superstar in Alex Avila, Brennan Boesch and Austin Jackson. Alex Avila hasn't gotten the national attention that other young Poseys...I mean, "catchers" have received, but he's quietly produced an OPS of .905 in his first season as a starter and is one of only two catchers in the majors with a higher fWAR than our own Miguel Montero. Brennan Boesch is having a nice sophomore season, with an OPS+ of 135, though hitting ahead of Cabrera admittedly helps. Though Austin Jackson has slumped in 2011 after a strong rookie year, he's plenty talented enough to bounce back.
Victor Martinez continues to put up nice numbers, with an OPS+ of 146. Additionally, the success of Avila means that he can slide into the Designated Hitter role, which should help preserve him as he ages. Former Indians' shortstop Jhonny Peralta has made Chuck Berry proud by being good so far in 2011, with an OPS+ of 138. Longtime Tigers stalwart Brandon Inge has struggled to overcome injuries and general ineffectiveness in 2011, and Don Kelly replaces him.
Friday: Zach Duke (1-2, 4.66) vs. Phil Coke (1-7, 3.95)
Insightful Commentary: I'm not quite sure what Phil Coke did wrong to end up with a 1-7 record with an ERA under four and one of the best offenses in baseball, but that's neither here nor there. The former reliever has probably been the Tigers' best starter outside of Verlander in terms of results, though his peripherals are troubling. His K/BB rate is a mere 1.35, thanks to a strikeout rate (4.61) that has dropped by almost three strikeouts per nine innings since his transition to a starter.
I don't quite know what to make of Zach Duke yet. He doesn't walk many guys, either in 2011 or in his career, and he hasn't given up many home runs. However, he has given up hits at a ridiculous rate despite not having a LD% that's at all out of the ordinary. His BABIP is going to drop, but given how high it's been for his entire career (.325), it might not drop as much as we're all hoping.
Saturday: Josh Collmenter (4-3, 2.09) vs. Justin Verlander (9-3, 2.54)
Insightful Commentary: It almost feels like the baseball community takes Justin Verlander for granted. Everyone knows about his raw stuff and about how quickly he adjusted to the majors, but lost in the shuffle is the fact that he's slowly but surely improved in his six professional seasons. His FIP and ERA have both dropped substantially since 2008, and he's shaping up to have one of his best seasons yet in 2011. He has kept his K/9 on par with his career averages, while dropping his walk rate new lows (1.94). He's 28, entering his prime, and very, very good.
I'm slowly coming to the realization that I may never feel truly comfortable with Josh Collmenter on the mound. No matter how well he pitches, I'm going to look his 88 mph fastball, his two-pitch repertoire, and assume that it's only a matter of time before things all come crashing down. And I know I'm not the only one, since people on this board are openly talking about what sort of reliever he would make despite his 2.09 ERA (and solid 3.56 FIP). It's nothing personal, Josh, and we all want you to succeed, but Barry Enright made us a bit gun-shy about trusting rookies with iffy stuff.
Insightful Commentary: It really wasn't that long ago that Brad Penny was one of the best pitchers in the National League, as he produced an ERA around 3 and 4.3 fWAR for the Dodgers in 2007. But since then he's struggled with arm injuries, and shifted from a fastball-dominant pitcher to more of a splitter and change-up guy. He's largely done his job for the Tigers though, as he has been a perfectly competent back-end starter.
On May 13, the Diamondbacks were 15-22 and Joe Saunders had an ERA of 5.48. In the seven starts since then, Saunders has an ERA of 3.26, and an adequate (if not great) K/BB ratio of 27:14. In short, he's pitched reliably well during the Diamondbacks' turnaround and has become a solid contributor. Will it continue? I don't know, but it does suggest a terrifying conclusion: as Joe Saunders goes, so too do the Diamondbacks.
Final Verdict: Detroit is a good team, and they're at home. And when you consider that the Diamondbacks won't have either of their two aces, this series doesn't fill me with a bunch of warm fuzzies. But the Diamondbacks have spent seemingly all of 2011 finding a way to win. As such, I think they'll find a way...to win one game. Tigers two games to one.
Visit Bless You Boys to hear about the Tigers' take (yes, it's a Tigers blog, I promise).