2011 MLB Playoffs: Detroit Tigers Bred for a Championship
A Forecast of Things to Come
Tigers are some of nature's most efficient hunters. They know their prey, they know their weaknesses and they develop counter-measures based on those weaknesses in order to get as close to their enemies as possible.
And then they strike.
Tigers always remain up-wind from those they stalk, never revealing their position to the keen-smelling victim. Tigers use every inch of their backdrop to blend-in and disappear, always staying off the radar when others look in their direction. And the buffering pads below their paws let them walk right up behind you, unnoticed.
Fail to take notice of their presence, and all that stalking, preparation, and determination leads to an all-out mauling rarely equaled in Mother Nature.
The Yankees, often viewed as the King of the Beasts in baseball, endured this pain in this year's ALDS, but the true hunting game on the rest of Major League Baseball began many months ago.
And, now, the Tigers are poised, coming up-wind, out of hiding, right behind the Texas Rangers, and whoever awaits them in the World Series, ready to strike.
Sharing the Wealth: Mike Ilitch
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Unlike the Lion, male tigers are civil about sharing their kill with the rest of the pack. While the lion feeds on his own kill first, furthering his ego and own accomplishments, the tiger is selfless and works for the group.
It's no secret that in order to be consistently competitive you need to spend money. Of course, smaller market teams throughout history have had spells of greatness, but to maintain a level of visibility in the sporting world you need to ante up.
Mike Ilitch has been one of the few smaller market owners who has never shied away from making it possible for his team to do what they need in order to succeed. Granted, not all moves have paid off, but it goes a long way for a GM to know he has the backing of his owner to explore all available options. And such with the spoils of his success, Ilitch has claimed an equal amount of blame when things go wrong.
Since the '06 World Series appearance, the Tigers payroll has increased, but the success did not reflect that spending. This being the Tigers' first postseason appearance since that magical run, Ilitch never wavered from his befitting brace, Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland, recognizing all along that the trio shared a common vision from Day 1.
Lying in Wait: Dave Dombrowski
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As mentioned before, the tiger is the most patient of hunters, spending hours stalking and calculating before delivering the killer blow.
While others danced around in the public eye this past offseason, throwing around names like Adam Dunn, Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford. Dave Dombrowski told Mike Ilitch to keep his 6,000 lb. wallet in his master safe until the right player came along.
Dombrowski got things started early, immediately taking the bigger names out of deliberation, by signing the veteran C/DH/1B Victor Martinez to a 4-year, $50-million contract. While Boston, Washington, and rival White Sox spent bigger, and on younger assets, it was Martinez, 32, who proved to be the gold standard of offseason signings.
In his first season with the Tigers, Martinez batted .330 with 10 HRs and 103 RBI. Martinez also put up the leagues best numbers with two strikes, and with runners in scoring position. Most impressively, the ex-Red Sox catcher finally gave the Tigers a feared bat behind 2011 batting champ Miguel Cabrera. Though no hitter can truly protect the best bat in baseball, Martinez's presence discouraged intentional walks by batting nearly .400 during such occurrences when he batted after an IBB to Cabby.
Then, the July 31st trading deadline rolled around. Through 108 games, the Tigers held a 2.5 game lead but were far from comfortable.
Much like the previous offseason the trade deadline had some big names being bantered about: Ubaldo Jimenez, James Shields, Hiroki Kuroda, and everyone from GM to A-ball players from the Mets were all in high-demand. Instead, Dombrowksi secured the services of an underappreciated 3-12 pitcher from Seattle. Let's put this move in perspective:
Since the All-Star break, one Detroit pitcher posted an ERA of 1.80, an 8-1 record and walked only 5 batters in 70 and 1/3 innings. Who was this? That's right, it was the newly-acquired Doug Fister. Not Justin Verlander.
Not the Justin Verlander who is the hands-down, runaway, CY Young favorite, if not the MVP favorite. Since the All-Star break, in many aspects of the game, Justin Verlander was the second best pitcher on his own staff.
Doug Fister has been such a revelation since joining the Tigers. He almost single-handedly makes Tigers fans feel far more comfortable in a World Series matchup against the Pitching Pantheon that is the Philadelphia Phillies.
And if you think Dombrowski was done then, you are wrong. I won't even bore you with the addition of Wilson Betemit, who lengthened the Tigers lineup after Brandon Inge once again proved his ineptitude at the plate, by providing a much-needed switch hitter once lefty Brennan Boesch departed due to a season-ending injury.
No, it was the addition of a 25-year-old cast-off, and former number-one overall pick, Delmon Young that may prove to be the best move of the year.
The day the trade happened, I got a text from a buddy of mine simply saying: Delmon. I was confused at first. Then the possibilities ran through my head.
Did the Tigers somehow just land a guy who had 20+ HRs last season and drive in over 100 RBIs? Who on Earth did we have to give up for this guy? Are the Minnesota Twins the new Cleveland Naps?
Now I'm not saying Delmon will be the next "Shoeless" Joe, but how could a team give up on a guy who is 25 yet already accomplished so much? Now, placed neatly before Cabrera and Martinez in the heart of the Tiger lineup, Young is seeing a lot of fastballs and making pitchers pay.
The best part of this deal, Dombrowski managed to get Young from a Division rival, and pay pennies on the dollar by way of two A-ball prospects. Since his arrival, Young went deep in his first-at-bat and hasn't stopped since, belting three longballs against the Yankees en route to sparking Detroit's ALDS victory.
All these moves added up to 95 wins and a 15 game runaway victory in the AL Central. Dombrowski may not have brought the biggest names to Detroit, but through calculation, preparation, and patience, the GM of the Tigers built himself a formidable pack capable of taking down even Lions.
Leader of the Pack: Jim Leyland
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The Chinese Zodiac labels the Tiger as the symbol of "born leaders."
Now, let me preface this portion of the article by saying that I haven't agreed with all the moves Jim deployed over the course of the regular season. I feel he rests his players too often, especially his younger stars (Alex Avila and Austin Jackson are both under 25 and do not need days off), he is loyal to a fault (Guillen, Inge, Ordonez), he smokes more than a string of seventh-inning Verlander fastballs, and 40 percent of what he says in post-game press conferences is in a made-up language.
But, since Game 1 of the ALDS he has pushed every right button. And, that's what matters.
He bumps Ramon Santiago up to the second-hole in Game 3; he gets two RBI off Sabathia. He bumps Don Kelly up to the second-hole in Game 5; he gets the game started with a solo HR in the top of the first. He stands firm on his decision to not let Verlander come out of the bullpen in Game 5, and instead brings in Max Scherzer; he pitches wonderfully for 1.1 innings. He starts Brandon Inge against Sabathia, who has historically owned the third baseman, and Inge gets two hits.
He stuck to his guns when it came to the pitching staff. He said Verlander would only start one game, and he did. He said Fister, Scherzer, Benoit and Valverde would be his guys in Game 5, and they were. His calmness, in contrast to Girardi's patchwork bullpen use, proved a source of consistency replicated by his players throughout the series.
And if you need a comparison against which to judge Leyland, look no further than Joe Girardi's decision to bring Sabathia out of the bullpen for Game 5. Sabathia, on two days rest, struck out four batters in 1.1 innings, yet gave up the game-winning run off a Victor Martinez single.
Best of the Beasts: Cabrera, Verlander, Valverde
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The tiger is the largest of the "four big cat" species on Earth. Though they are stealthy predators, when they reach their prey they are best suited for combat due to their combination of size and strength; once they get their paws on you there is no escape.
The Detroit Tigers have three players who are the best at what they do: they are the largest of their species.
Justin Verlander has not only been the best pitcher in baseball this season, he may well have completed the most dominating regular season in the past decade. His ERA isn't as low as the Bob Gibson's of old, but then again, the game has changed dramatically since then.
Justin won the Triple Crown of pitching (ERA, Wins, Ks) and posted the first 24-win season since Randy Johnson in 2002. He won 12-straight starts down the stretch before getting a no-decision against Baltimore in his final start of the season.
A microcosm of Justin's season may have best been captured during the top of the fifth inning in Game 3 against the Yankees. Verlander threw 10 pitches to Jorge Posada, Russell Martin, and Brett Gardner, striking all three batters out on pitches they had zero chance of hitting. The inning was reminiscent of Nolan Ryan–a rare performance where one inning of such utter dominance seemed to promise the entire crowd at Comerica Park that the game was over, and perhaps, the series.
Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball. This season, he won the batting title and posted another 30-HR, 100-RBI season to back it up. Cabrera is so fearsome that pitchers continue to find situations in which to intentionally walk him even while knowing Martinez, a .330 hitter and 100-RBI hitter in his own right, waits behind him. That's not a common power to have.
Fifty-one saves out of 51 chances. Jose Valverde may not record the prettiest saves, but he has never failed when relied upon. There has not been a more dependable arm in the league this season, and though the Yankees touched him up this series, he still got the job done against the most prolific offense...three times.
The Tigers are the best in the business in three of the most crucial aspects of baseball. People try to find any reason to give a certain team the edge come postseason play–this may be the most important stat of all.
Due to Jim Leyland's faith in his players not name Justin Verlander for Game 5, the Rangers are due to face Verlander at least twice this series, and whoever they play in the World Series will most likely have to face him three-times.
And with Cabrera mashing, and Valverde extending his streak, the Tigers look to be the favorites in what has already been a wild 2011 postseason.