Note: I am a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan. I have had season tickets for five years and have been there through thick and thin – yes, that includes cheering on Mike Maroth while on his way to 20 losses.
So far this season the Detroit Tigers have played 60 games and have posted a disappointing record of 28-32. For a team with such high preseason expectations to have a record below .500 is disappointing and unacceptable. Fans expect changes to be made and for heads to roll, which is normal for fans because they speak with emotion and passion and generally don’t think of long-term consequences. Frustration has hit a boiling point to where manager Jim Leyland’s credibility and job security are taking major shots right now. And some of his moves have been head scratching. Whether it was batting Brennan Boesch in the second spot with his harrowing .240/.270/.369 splits and his 5.25 SO/BB ratio, or his riding of Ryan Raburn until his wheels fell off - some of the criticism towards the Skipper has been justified. Again, let me repeat that for all Leyland bashers and critics. SOME, not ALL. The hand Leyland has been dealt this year has not been an optimal one, and the forefront of those problems has been the injuries.
Before the season even started the Tigers were dealt a blow that many underestimated when Victor Martinez needed surgery on a torn ACL. Martinez, not Cabrera, was the guy who Tiger fans had the most confidence in to get the big hit needed last year. Every time he came up with guys on base, I knew one of two things would happen:
- Victor Martinez would see more than two pitches. Or;
- Victor would take whatever the pitcher gave him. If the pitcher wanted to go breaking ball outside, Victor was going opposite for an RBI double. If he wanted to pump a fastball, Martinez would make the pitcher pay by going deep.
Prince Fielder has been great filling in that 4th spot behind Cabrera, but all but 2 of his 10 home runs have been solo shots, with none of those coming with 2 outs and RISP or in Late & Close situations (plate appearance in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck). Their ability to make clutch plays as a whole this season, has left a lot to be desired. Of the 8 guys with 25 at bats in a L&C situation, 5 of them (Boesch, Jhonny Peralta, Delmon Young, Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago) have a average of .256 or lower, highlighted with Santiago’s putrid .148 BA. The clutch hit hasn’t been there, and unless they have a cloning device to make 3 more Cabrera’s or Martinez recovers quickly from his surgery, that lack of clutch hitting will cost them more games as the season goes on.
The injuries don’t stop there for the Motor City Kitties. Doug Fister has only pitched 34.1 innings due to a re-occurring side injury. He was scheduled to start Wednesday, but soreness has pushed that back even further. His initial replacement, Drew Smyly, had to leave his start early on Sunday to to a blood blister Leyland claimed was the worst he’s ever seen. 2011 All-Star and Silver Slugger winner Alex Avila is now on the DL with a hamstring injury, forcing the duo of Gerald Laird and Bryan Holaday to assume the catching duties. Avila’s 2011 WAR was 4.9, which put him 24th in baseball, second among catchers (Mike Napoli), the second youngest in the top 25 (behind Justin Upton at 23; Avila is 24) and all the while making $425,000, the second lowest in the top 25 (behind no. 25 Peter Bourjos). Getting a healthy Avila back now is priority number one, especially since they activated Austin Jackson.
Having the reputation of a fast runner that maybe strikes out too much for the lead off spot (which was the same criticism Curtis Granderson got in Detroit), Jackson has the look of a star in the Tigers outfield. He is already an elite defensive center fielder, but now his consistency with the bat is coming around. He is hitting .324 with 6HR and 20RBI with a BABIP of .373. The high BABIP should continue because of his high level speed. His strikeout rate of 17.9% is 9.2% lower than last year, and actually lower than the MLB average of 18.7%.
Jackson has been the best outfielder for the Tigers this year, but it’s not like the competition is making it hard on him. Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young have been real bad this year- notably early in the count. Young’s first pitch swing percentage (FPS%) is an incredible 44%, with Boesch swinging 30% on that first pitch (league average is 25%). Both players have given away at bats all year with their undisciplined at the plate and unwillingness to take a pitch. Combined this season the 2 have seen ten 3-0 counts (4 for Young, 6 for Boesch). With former whipping boys Brandon Inge (in Oakland) and Ryan Raburn (in the minors) off the team, both guys have been taking turns as public enemy #1 in the eyes of Tigers fans. With the emergence of speedster Quintin Berry, one of the two should and will see more time on the bench. The answer should be easy for Leyland, and that would be to sit Young and only play him against left handed pitching. But because of the contract (making $6.75 million on a one year deal) Leyland might be forced to keep the more expensive option in the line-up, unless one separates itself from the pack. Boesch has showed signs recently of turning things around. In the last 7 days Boesch has hit .350 with 3 extra base hits.
At the home opener this year against the Red Sox, I was sitting a table of 7 Tiger fans. We were taking about the team and players we wish we had back, and the unanimous choice was Placido Polanco. The decision to let him walk after the 2009 season was highly criticized then, and they have yet to find anything close to a replacement. So far this year the second base position has splits of .175/.254/.240 with 2 HR and 14RBI. Yet everyone wants that to be placed on the shoulders of Jim Leyland? The fault and blame needs to be placed right on GM Dave Dombrowski. He has failed to draft good position players, and their minor league depth is now showing the effects of that. How is Leyland supposed to turn lifelong minor leaguers and low level prospects into productive MLB players? He hasn’t been given depth, but yet is at the front of the fire from fans and media alike. To Leyland’s credit he continues to handle it like a leader would, taking it all and protecting his players. Leyland is highly regarded and respected in baseball circles, and former players glow when speaking of their former manager. Players love him and he loves his players. Leyland isn’t the one committing 40 errors (higher then league average), showing limited range in the field (defensive efficiency rating of .671, 3rd worst in baseball) or grounding into double plays (60, also third worst). Changes need to be made (trades, getting players back) but the change shouldn’t be with the manager. Real good baseball men are hard to find (Mike Scioscia, Tony LaRussa, Joe Maddon), and good team hold onto their good managers. The Tigers, though disappointing thus far, are only 5GB and should still considered the favorite to win the Central.
When a team is struggling, fans are always looking for that “moment” to turn the season around. The first one was Verlander’s gem against Pittsburgh, but they then went to Cleveland and got swept. Then, they went into Minnesoda and swept 3, and Tiger fans were saying, “This is it! The sweep we needed to get things going!” That sweep carried them to Boston and losing 3 of 4 at Fenway Park. Now fans are tying their wagon to the improbable win Sunday off of the dominant Aroldis Chapman. There is no way to predict when that moment comes- there just isn’t. It’s something at the end of the season you can look back and pick a moment, but rarely can you do it in the moment. But that’s what makes baseball fans great; we try to microcosm a season that is 6 months long, and pick apart each game like it’s the last. Its the gift and the curse of baseball, but it’s all part of the ride.