Because it seemed oh-so-clear that they had the necessary pieces, the Detroit Tigers entered 2013 as one of the more notable favorites to win the World Series. As the year went along, they never really fell out of that discussion.
No, we only went as far as to nitpick Detroit's status as an ironclad World Series favorite at certain times. And in our defense, we did so for good reasons.
Most notably, there was that time when Justin Verlander no longer seemed to be Justin Verlander. Then there was that time when Miguel Cabrera seemed to be in too much pain to hit for power. How could the Tigers ever expect to win the World Series with such horrors going on?
But then the American League Division Series happened. The Tigers needed all five games to win it, but their two most pressing concerns felt like ancient history by the time the last out was squeezed.
And as a result...yeah, they suddenly look like they might be the team to beat after all.
If you missed Game 5, the basic need-to-know information is that the Tigers beat the Oakland A's, 3-0, to punch their ticket to the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox. What was really interesting, however, was how closely this year's Game 5 adhered to the script of last year's Game 5, save for one notable twist.
Just as Verlander was the main hero in last year's iteration with a complete-game shutout, so was he the hero in this year's with eight shutout innings Thursday night. He took a perfect game into the sixth and a no-hitter into the seventh, but ultimately settled for a two-hit effort with one walk and 10 strikeouts.
As for the offense, it was Cabrera who took care of the big blow. After going hitless in last year's Game 5, he launched a two-run homer in the fourth inning gave that gave the Tigers a 2-0 lead and silenced the O.Co Coliseum crowd. For the Tigers, the game was rarely in doubt from then until Joaquin Benoit got Seth Smith to fly out to Torii Hunter for the last out.
All told, the ALDS made a few things clear enough: Verlander is back in the "best pitcher in baseball" discussion, the best hitter in baseball isn't broken, and the Tigers are all the more dangerous because of these things.
For lest the thought cross your mind, these shouldn't be the last of Verlander's and Cabrera's heroics.
There are certainly fewer questions where the Tigers ace is concerned right now. Dating back to his last two starts of the regular season, his last four outings have seen him pitch 27 scoreless innings with only 15 hits and six walks allowed, and a whopping 43 strikeouts on the side.
"I'm pitching the way I'm supposed to," he said with a chuckle when asked what's been going on lately. "I worked my butt off all year to try to get consistent and get myself where I needed to be. I feel like it finally paid off at the end of the year."
Verlander admitted that 2013 was a "battle" for him, but he chalked his recent improvement up to minor adjustments he's made. He made similar hints before Game 1, saying that he had been "tweaking stuff here and there" because he knew he wasn't right.
One of the noticeable adjustments Verlander was able to make late in the year—and I owe a tip of my hat to Eno Sarris of FanGraphs for pointing me in the right direction—concerned his release point. Using plots from TexasLeaguers.com, his release point looked like this between May and July:
In four words: all over the place. Verlander's release point was inconsistent for a period of several months, and this happened to coincide with a very un-Verlander-like 4.31 ERA and a 97/45 K/BB ratio.
But from the beginning of August through his start in Game 1 of the ALDS:
That nice, neat little cluster is what consistency looks like. The mechanics and release point were squared away, and it paid off.
Verlander's velocity has been better by a lot over the last couple months. Per Brooks Baseball, his average heater from April through July was 93.48 miles per hour. Since the beginning of August, his average heater has risen to 94.88 mph—a big jump.
Not surprisingly, the whiff/swing rate on Verlander's heater has risen from 16.75 percent to 27.51 since August. He's back to dominating with his fastball, and aside from that he still has his other three moneymakers: his changeup, slider and curveball. Those have also been more electric since Verlander has fixed himself.
That Justin Verlander suddenly looks like himself again is no fluke. He is himself again.
"It feels great," said Verlander about being back to his usual self. "Nothing in the back of my mind except making my pitches. It's a good feeling. That's what I've worked so hard for this year, is to be able to get to this point."
Now, as for Cabrera...
Miguel Cabrera's sudden and severe loss of power in recent weeks as he's battled a host of nagging injuries has been well documented. He hit 43 home runs through Aug. 26, but managed only one homer and one double in his last 25 regular-season games. In the first four games of the ALDS, it didn't look like the rest Cabrera had gotten at the end of the season had done him nearly enough good.
But then came his homer against Oakland starter Sonny Gray in Game 5, which Brooks Baseball says came on a 94.6 mph four-seam fastball up and in. Cabrera was able to turn on it.
After the game, Cabrera was asked if he had been sitting on that pitch or if he just reacted to it.
"No, no. React," he said. "I mean, you have to do what you can do."
Seemingly AWOL, it was a case of vintage Cabrera appearing again. Per Brooks Baseball, the A's gave Cabrera almost nothing to hit on the inside part of the plate in the first four games of the series. They had every reason to pitch him away given how much his opposite-field power seemed to be diminished by his injuries. And by extension, of course, Cabrera had every reason to keep looking away.
But then came that high and tight fastball, and Miggy's considerable hitting instincts kicked in.
"It looked like his approach the whole series was to hit the ball up the middle, and that he didn't have the leg drive that he normally does," said A's manager Bob Melvin. "So I was a little surprised he pulled [Gray's pitch] for a home run, yet I don't know how surprised you can be when Miguel Cabrera hits a home run."
That's scary for the Red Sox, and whoever else the Tigers might face in the World Series.
On hard stuff on the inside part of the plate, and even off the inside part of the plate, Cabrera did a ton of damage in all that action through Aug. 26, as Brooks Baseball's ISO Zone Profile can testify. Busting him inside didn't work when he was feeling good, and it's clear that it's still not a good idea.
And so, here at the end of our chat, there stand the Detroit Tigers. Locked, loaded and menacing.
Who's the team to beat as things stand now?
We already knew the Tigers had the likely Cy Young winner in Max Scherzer, the American League ERA champion in Anibal Sanchez, and one of the game's great control artists in Doug Fister in their starting rotation. We also knew they had a deep offense supported by the likes of Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez and the recently free-from-suspension Jhonny Peralta.
All of this was good enough to make the Tigers a legitimate threat to win it all, even if it meant having to go it without the usual contributions from Verlander and Cabrera. Now that the two of them are looking good again...
Well, let's put it this way: Other teams have great pitching, but only the Tigers have two elites who are flanked by two guys who could be No. 1s in quite a few other starting rotations. Other teams have great hitting, but only the Tigers have the guy who's almost universally considered the game's best hitter. Maybe he's not 100 percent, but he's clearly still better than 99 percent of the league's hitters even when he's not.
The Tigers aren't a lock to win the World Series. There's no such thing. But they were my pick to go all the way at the start of the postseason, a decision I made based on their potential to overwhelm teams with great pitching and at least one amazing hitter. Their formula to win it all struck me as the best for the job.
Five games in, that formula's looking pretty good.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and all quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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