Despite a 53-38 mark at the All-Star break, the Detroit Tigers had a topsy-turvy first half of the season, one that saw them win 27 of their first 39 games then drop 20 of their next 29. However, Detroit is well-positioned to win the American League Central for the fourth consecutive season and advance deep into the playoffs.
In a year that has been fraught with drama, the Tigers' biggest highlight occurred on June 30 courtesy of Rajai Davis' bat. Down 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Oakland A's and their fire-breathing closer Sean Doolittle, Detroit loaded the bases with one out before Davis launched a projectile toward the left field bleachers and the Tigers completed an improbable four-run comeback.
In addition to the thrilling nature of Davis' grand slam, the victory came at a crucial point for Detroit.
The team was not even two weeks removed from emerging from a 9-20 stretch, one which saw manager Brad Ausmus' squad briefly relinquish its hold on first place to the Kansas City Royals. The Tigers rode the wave of ecstasy from this hard-fought win to sweep the A's and cement their AL Central lead. Since this victory, Detroit has remained atop the division.
The aforementioned 9-20 stretch was easily the Tigers' worst in the first half and was punctuated by a 11-4 loss to the Royals on June 17. In the blowout, Kansas City roughed up ace Max Scherzer for 10 hits and 10 earned runs in just four innings to move into first place, albeit temporarily.
Many analysts thought Detroit's hold on first place was history. In fact, just two days before this thrashing, David Schoenfield of ESPN.com stressed the importance of this series and chimed in that the Royals had the wherewithal to hang with the Tigers all season.
On a $164 million roster filled with superstars and established veterans, it was rookie shortstop Eugenio Suarez who helped right the Tigers' ship.
Called up to the parent club on June 4, Suarez's ascension to The Show marked general manager Dave Dombrowski's most recent attempt to plug Detroit's gaping hole at shortstop. Suarez's bat (an above-league-average 103 OPS+) and glove (an outstanding per-game range factor of 4.33, per Baseball-Reference.com) represent an enormous improvement from the players who manned the left side of the keystone before his arrival.
Suarez seems more mature than his 23 years would suggest. In a recent interview with Lynn Henning of The Detroit News, he cited the importance of staying relaxed and not trying to overswing at the plate—a tough mantra to follow during your first stint in the majors.
Alex Gonzalez, 37, was acquired from the Baltimore Orioles in the waning days of spring training when it became apparent that 24-year-old incumbent and defensive whiz Jose Iglesias would miss significant time with stress fractures in both shins. Gonzalez, however, quickly became an ex-Tiger after he proved to be a mere shell of his former self with a .452 OPS and severely diminished range.
The same week he traded for Gonzalez, Dombrowski swung a deal with the Los Angeles Angels for Andrew Romine. Despite an excellent glove, Romine has struggled mightily at the plate, which should come as no surprise considering his .212/.287/.252 career slash line. Organizational soldier Danny Worth also saw time in the lineup, but like Romine, his offense was far below major league-caliber.
Most of the Tigers' top players lived up to expectations during the season's first half with two notable exceptions.
Justin Verlander, long a bastion of stability in Detroit's rotation, was having his worst big league season. Prior to the start of 2014, Verlander boasted a sub-3.50 ERA, sub-1.20 WHIP and struck out about 8.5 batters for every nine innings he pitched. However, in the first half these numbers atrophied to 4.88/1.46/6.7.
On the flip side, designated hitter Victor Martinez has enjoyed a tremendous resurgence. From his first full big league season in 2004 through last year, the Venezuelan slugger averaged about 17 home runs a year with a slugging percentage under .470. This year, the 35-year-old had hit 21 dingers in the first half alone and was slugging .599.
Detroit was lucky with injuries during the first half of 2014.
In addition to shortstop Iglesias, who we mentioned above, reliever Bruce Rondon and outfielder Andy Dirks were the only players of note to miss significant playing time.
Rondon, a young fireballer, needed Tommy John surgery prior to the season and will miss all of 2014, and Dirks, a solid hitter who can play anywhere in the outfield, required back surgery but should return in August. His lefty bat should help a team whose .758 OPS against righties was 32 points lower than it is against southpaws.
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