The Detroit Tigers are atop the Central Division, fifth overall in the American League and boast arguably the best hitter in the game with Miguel Cabrera. However, they fall just short of being the most complete baseball team.
They easily have the most dominant starting rotation, a daunting batting order and are the reigning American League champions. Nevertheless, looking good on paper does not always transfer to the field of play.
Justin Verlander is the ace of the staff and decorated with nearly every award a pitcher can receive—AL Rookie of the Year in 2006, AL Cy Young and AL MVP in 2011 and two career no-hitters.
Max Scherzer started the year 8-0 with 100 strikeouts; Anibal Sanchez sports a 2.65 ERA; Doug Fister has issued just 12 walks in 77 innings pitched; Rick Porcello has shown improvement and is still just 24 years old. As a unit, Detroit starters lead the AL with a 3.54 ERA and MLB-best 404 strikeouts. They have also earned 29 wins, second only to the St. Louis Cardinals with 35.
The top of the batting order is just as dominant. After a rough sophomore season, Austin Jackson developed into a prototypical leadoff hitter last season and kept it up this year—until he hit the DL with a strained hamstring. The addition of Torii Hunter solidifies right field as well as the number two spot in the lineup. The heart of the order starts with the reigning Triple Crown-winner Miguel Cabrera. Prince Fielder in the clean-up spot followed by Victor Martinez is quite formidable, as well.
The last half of the batting order is an issue and consistently leaves much to be desired. The Tigers really needed something from Jhonny Peralta this year and so far he’s delivered with 30 runs and a .335 average. Unfortunately he could face a 50-game suspension in wake of the Biogenesis PED scandal. Omar Infante in the ninth spot has been terrific with a .296 average and 61 hits to only 21 strikeouts.
Alex Avila’s start to the season has been abysmal, hitting just .182 with 49 strikeouts to his 26 hits. Backup catcher Brayan Pena has lessened the workload by hitting .289 in 22 games played.
The left field rotation has seen contributions from Andy Dirks, Matt Tuiasosopo, Don Kelly and Avisail Garcia. The platoon has allowed young talent to see the field, but have produced a mediocre combined .254 average.
The Tigers’ bullpen struggled mightily out of the gate and was responsible for five of the team’s 10 April losses—three for Phil Coke, two for Bryan Villarreal. The team also had four blown saves from four different relievers before re-signing Jose Valverde—who has blown two saves himself while posting a less-than stellar 4.30 ERA.
The explosiveness of the lineup cannot be ignored, but the Tigers seem to run cold just as often as they are hot. Manager Jim Leyland's job only gets more difficult when his lineup can't support the pitching. Detroit is second in the majors in runs, RBI and on base percentage and first in total hits and team average. However, they have been shutout six times and grounded into 48 double-plays. In their 26 losses they have averaged a mere 2.57 runs per game.
Detroit’s projected biggest Achilles’ heel heading into the year was their fielding. Left field was in question with a number of options, as was the range of their middle infield. In response, Detroit has posted some impressive numbers.
As a team, the Tigers have committed only 21 errors, good for second lowest in the league behind the Baltimore Orioles (20). They’re also fourth with a .990 fielding percentage with 1,618 putouts on the year.
Detroit is very much a World Series contender, having represented the American League in the World Series twice in six years. Nothing will fuel the hunger for victory more than the agony of defeat, and they are poised to make a return to the fall classic.
Any team that takes the field is built first on paper; let’s hope Detroit doesn't finish as paper Tigers.