MLB: 5 Unexpected Strong Starts for the Detroit Tigers
It shouldn't come as a shock to anyone that the Detroit Tigers are smack dab in the middle of the AL Central race after a third of the season.
They've been competitive through the All-Star break for four of the past five seasons and were expected to do be in the hunt this year as well.
It's how the Tigers are competing that should be the most surprising.
Some players who were expected to be figureheads on this team have been supporting characters at best.
Magglio Ordonez has been on the DL for the last month and wasn't providing anything before being injured.
Ryan Raburn was expected to have a breakout year and—despite a moderately strong start—has been almost invisible the last two months.
Ryan Perry and Joel Zumaya were expected to be back-end bullpen players. Instead, Perry is a Mudhen and Zumaya is continuing to pile up the sick days for the Tigers after a season-ending surgery.
Sure Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer—despite his recent struggles—are mowing down opponents and Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are having their typical strong seasons, but it's these five unheralded guys who have really stepped up where others haven't.
5. Jhonny Peralta
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After acquiring Peralta mid-season in 2010, the Tigers declined his club option for 2011.
Instead, Dave Dombrowski resigned Peralta to an affordable two-year, $11.25 million contract.
The signing was met with jeers from the local media, but so far Dombrowski is the one laughing.
Peralta has been a consistent hitter all season for the team, and he's been serviceable in the field with a .985 fielding percentage.
Among AL shortstops, Peralta is leading the position in hitting and on-base percentage. He's second in home runs and RBIs.
He should be an All-Star but won't, thanks to Asdrubal Cabrera's breakout year and Derek Jeter and the legion of Yankees fans voting for him.
4. Al Alburquerque
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Al Alburquerque is another unheralded off-season signing that has paid huge dividends for Dave Dombrowski thus far.
Outside of closer José Valverde, Alburquerque has been the sole consistently good arm in the bullpen.
He leads the league in strikeouts per nine innings, thanks to a nasty slider that has made numerous hitters look foolish.
Alburquerque has only allowed a run in 3 of his 17 outings this year and has struck out an astounding 35 batters in 19.1 innings.
He's made the loss of Joel Zumaya and Ryan Perry meaningless and was leaned on heavily when set-up man Joaquin Benoit struggled.
The Tigers may have found their long-term candidate for closer once the Valverde era is over.
3. Brennan Boesch
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Tigers fans had a serious love affair with Brennan Boesch early last season, only to feel cheated on by him in the second half of the year.
Boesch fell off so deeply the second half of 2010 that it was in question whether or not he would even make the team this year.
Thankfully for Jim Leyland, Boesch did make the team.
Boesch has been a mainstay—albeit a streaky one—in the Tigers lineup this season.
He's adapted his approach to hitting and did something he never did last year—survived his first extended slump to heat up again recently.
Boesch is hitting a respectable .282, with eight home runs and 35 RBIs. He is providing the production that was expected from Magglio Ordonez.
While he'll probably only be a slightly above-average everyday player for his career, the Tigers need those players. Boesch seems to have a place in the organization for years to come.
2. Rick Porcello
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Probably tops among the players the Tigers needed to pull through this season is Rick Porcello.
After a solid rookie campaign, the 22-year-old starter regressed in 2010, leaving many to question where he fit in long term for the team.
Through 11 starts in 2011, Porcello has been as good as ever. He is the perfect change of pace pitcher when compared to the power arms of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
Although he's seen a slight rise in his K's per nine innings, the crafty right-hander is best when he attacks the bottom of the strike zone and induces ground balls. He's among the league leaders in ground ball to fly ball ratio.
It seems that Porcello is finally learning to pitch and settling into his role as a solid No. 3 starter.
1. Alex Avila
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Despite flashes of offensive ability during 2009, backstop Alex Avila was unspectacular at the plate while platooning with Gerald Laird during 2010.
When the Tigers signed Victor Martinez it was to be the offensive option to Avila's defensive option at catcher.
Two and a half months into the season, Avila is tied for the majors lead for catchers in home runs and RBIs.
In fact, he has a good shot of making the All-Star team this year. While Yankee Russell Martin will be voted in as the starter, Avila leads all AL catchers in virtually every offensive category.
Avila's contributions to the offense is amazing since most pundits believed him to be an offensive liability and it was just a matter of time before he was replaced by Victor Martinez as the everyday catcher.
The 24 year-old backstop not only looks like the catcher of the future for the Tiger but a future star for the Tigers.