Can the Detroit Tigers Return to the MLB World Series?
There is no hiding it: The Detroit Tigers have had an up-and-down 2012 MLB season. In the end, they did reach their first goal, winning the American League Central Division title. While it was not always pretty, they were able to get it done. The back-to-back playoff appearances by the team mark the first time they have accomplished that since 1935.
Now, as we look ahead to the playoffs, it is time to figure out if the Tigers can win their first World Series since 1984. Pick whatever tired cliché you want, but you cannot win unless you are in the playoffs. The Tigers have made it, but how far can they go?
The Tigers have one of the most fearsome starting pitching rotations entering the playoffs. Their starting pitchers are second in the American League in ERA. Their entire pitching staff has gotten better as the 2012 season has gone on. Since the All-Star break, they have the second best ERA in the AL.
Of course Justin Verlander leads the charge. Many have thought that Verlander has had a "down" year. That is not the case; he just set the bar so high in 2011 that it is a difficult act to follow.
The big number people look at is win totals. He has dropped from 24 to 17 wins this season. However, he still ranks among the league leaders in several categories and will be in the running for a second Cy Young award.
Verlander on the mound definitely gets into opposing players' heads. The rotation goes well beyond him, though. Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez have stood up very well this season.
Scherzer has put together his best season ever. Something finally clicked with him, and he has been tearing it up. His 228 strikeouts are second in the league. If not for some late-season arm problems, he may have passed Verlander for the lead.
The concern with Scherzer will be that late-season injury to his arm. He seems to have come through it, but there is concern that will it flare up again. The key with Scherzer is his first inning. If he gets through it clean, then he is difficult to hit.
While having these two strikeout machines is imposing enough, the team also puts Fister and Sanchez on the mound. While Fister is not considered a strikeout pitcher, he just set the AL record after striking out nine players in a row.
He did have a rough June but really improved as the season went on. His ERA for the month of September was a 2.34 with a .89 WHIP.
Sanchez came to the team in a mid-season trade. While he had a rocky first couple of outings, he turned it around in the month of September. His 2.34 ERA for the month shows that not only has he found his stride in Detroit, he is also peaking as he enters the playoffs.
The team has a solid bullpen that helps to close out games. They have certainly had some ups and downs this season, but the late-season return of Al Alburquerque has given the bullpen a boost.
Detroit is the third best hitting team in the AL. As in other areas, it has improved as the season progressed. Since the All-Star break, it is second in batting average in the AL and first among playoff teams.
Despite their batting average, the Tigers have had a problem with double plays. They led the AL by hitting into 153 double plays this year. They also have gone through spells were they have just been lost at the plate.
They are ending the season stronger, though. Everyone knows the historic season that Miguel Cabrera has had. His Triple Crown effort has led the offensive charge for Detroit.
Beyond his heroics, Detroit has quality hitters in Prince Fielder, Andy Dirks and Austin Jackson, each of whom batted over .300 this season.
Omar Infante and Delmon Young can be dangerous weapons as well, although they have a tendency to be very streaky. Regardless, this can be a hot hitting team that can prove very troublesome for opposing pictures.
With the new extra wild card format this year, the league had to change the playing schedule as well. In order to fit the Wild Card play into the schedule, it was decided to make the higher seeded team go on the road for the first two games then head home for the final three of the series.
This means that, despite playing a team with a better record, the Tigers will get to start at home. They are tough to play at home. In the past four years, they have the second most wins at home and are one of only two teams with four straight 50-home-wins seasons.
The Tigers have been able to get their rotation ready for the postseason. Verlander gets to start at home on Saturday. He has been a beast at home in 2012. At Comerica Park, his numbers are a crazy good 1.67 ERA and 0.94 WHIP while only allowing opponents a.187 batting average.
The opposition in the 2012 MLB playoffs are not that imposing. While you do not want to discredit or overlook any playoff team, there is no team that really scares you.
Coming into the season, the Texas Rangers looked like the team to beat, and for the first half of the season, they were. In the second half, they have fallen apart. They allowed the Oakland Athletics to catch and pass them for the AL West crown.
The Rangers led the A’s by 13 games on June 30. They even had a five-game lead with nine to go, but their poor second half doomed them. After leading the AL with a blistering .280 team average before the All-Star break, they fell to the middle of the pack in the second half.
Their pitching followed their batting woes, as it also dropped in the second half of the season. This led to their playing one game under .500 from September on. They do still have a talented team, but the weight of the disappointing end to this season, combined with falling short in the World Series in 2011, will add even more pressure on them.
Oakland is a team that has you wondering how they do it. They come in as one of the hottest teams in baseball, but their roster is not impressive. They do not have any player with a .300 average. As a team, they rank 28th in batting average.
They do two things well. For starters, they are one of the most efficient teams at scoring. You would think, with their low batting average, that they would also be bad at scoring runs. In fact, they are 15th in runs scored. While not great, it does show that once they get players on base, they are able to get them in to score.
Their biggest weapon is the home run. Since the All-Star break, the A's have led the league in homers. Nine players have at least 11 home runs for the team. They also lead the AL in strikeouts, so they are very much a feast-or-famine team. Detroit is second in the league for strikeouts thrown.
Many of Oakland's pitchers are getting their first extended stay in the major leagues. While they have shown promise, it is hard to imagine all of them excelling under the pressure of the playoffs. While they keep winning without the gaudy stats, it is difficult to see them continuing.
The New York Yankees could be a good matchup. They operate much like Oakland. Although they do hit for a much better average than the A’s, they are also a home-run-or-strike-out team. On the pitching side, their starters have been shaky, as they have allowed over four runs a game.
The Baltimore Orioles are a mystery team. They do not really do anything well except win. They have only scored seven more wins than they have given up. Again, they are a home-run-or-strike-out team.
Having so many free-swinging teams works right into Detroit’s strength. They give up the third fewest home runs and strike out the second most batters. They should be able to use this strength to exploit these teams’ weaknesses.
In the end, things line up very well for the Tigers to make a return to the World Series. Their strong finish to the 2012 season will carry over into the playoffs. Better at bats and great pitching will help them make a World Series run that should make the Detroit faithful proud.
PJ Sapienza is a featured columnist covering the Detroit Red Wings as well as many other sports.
You can follow him on Twitter.
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