What the Deuce: Oh Those Tigers

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Oh Those Tigers

The Tigers need to start winning, now. Considered the best team in baseball going into the All-Star break, the Tigers have one of the worst second half records in baseball (10-22) and have not won a series since the middle of July. After losing to Cleveland yesterday, the Tigers are 2.5 games out of first in the AL Central and 5 behind the Mariners for the Wild Card.

It's been a rough season in Detroit, especially after an unexpected World Series berth in 2006. All the things that fell into place last year aren't this year and that's the biggest difference between the two seasons. Sean Baligian of WDFN said it best: Last year you expected the Tigers to win a close game. This year you expect them to lose. The bullpen that was an asset in 2006 is potential liability. Same for the starting pitching. Injuries to key players - Zumaya, Rogers, and Sheffield - have also taken a toll. I also think the is something to be said about the inflated expectations thrust upon such a young team.

The Tigers making the World Series last year was both a gift and a curse. It was a gift for obvious reasons: the first winning record since 1993, postseason appearance since 1987, and pennant since 1984. Nobody expected a year like that, especially only 2 years removed from losing 119 games. It is a curse because it created, in my mind, unrealistic expectations for this year's team.

Going into 2006, I think most fans expected, and would have been happy with a .500 finish or better. Maybe some flirting for the AL Central title but nothing more. This year would the expectations would have been slightly higher - a postseason berth and actually contending for the division crown. That progression was abandoned after last year's surprise finish and it was the worst thing that could have happened to the 2007 Tigers.

Compare this scenario to one where a NFL star rushes back from a major injury. There are countless stories about a guy coming back faster than expected only to play at a level lower than before the injury (see Daunte Culpepper circa 2006). Inevitably, it comes out later, that the guy probably was not ready to play and would have been better off coming back a little bit later. Similarly, here, I think expectations should have been tempered even after what happened last year for a number of reasons.

First, this team is still young and learning how to win. They made huge strides last year under Jim Leyland but still ended the season on a slide. In fact, Minnesota, a team that had been the class of the AL Central early in the decade, got on hot streak, took the season ending series from the Tigers to win the AL Central - after the Tigers had led the division for the majority of the year.

Second, the pitching last year was better than expected. Kenny Rogers had a stellar season along with guys like Verlander, Bonderman, Zumaya, and Todd Jones. This year, it appears if these guys have been injured, regressed, or just gone back to being the players they were pre 2006. Mathematically, this makes sense - if you are a .300 career hitter, you may hit higher or lower in a given part of a season, but more than likely, you're going to end around .300. Also, I think last year's postseason run has fatigued the Tiger staff, similar to what happened with the White Sox after they won the World Series. This has probably also contributed to the injuries to both the pitchers and position players.

Finally, the Tigers aren't a disciplined team at the plate. The media constantly harped on this last year but not so much this year (primarily because of the injuries to the pitching staff). Brandon Inge is struggling at the plate like he always has. Pudge has 5 walks all season. The only consistent batter has been Ordonez. When the pitching isn't coming through, the offense has to, but with no plate discipline, this has rarely happened this year. Yesterday, the Tigers had 12 runner LOB. Even Leyland said that one hit would have made a difference.

With about a month and a half to go in the season, I don't think the Tigers will make the playoffs. If they do, it's because Cleveland doesn't play well during this span - which wouldn't be a stretch given they way the Indians have played so far this year. Realistically, I think the Tigers need a winter off to get rest and get stronger. If they can do that, I think they will seriously contend for the World Series in 2008.


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