Game of the Night: Tigers vs. Indians

Prince FielderSo many factors went into the Tigers running away with the AL Central last year, you couldn’t possibly track them all. Justin Verlander was the best pitcher in the league and Miguel Cabrera might’ve been the best hitter. Jose Valverde didn’t blow a save all year. Doug Fister was often unhittable after coming over in a deadline trade from Seattle. Breakout seasons for multiple supporting cast members and a down year for the rest of the division shoved Detroit to a 95-win season and a breezy division title.

That 95-win team goes into the offseason as prohibitive favorites to repeat as division champs. It spends $214 million on Prince Fielder to make absolutely sure. It’s a lock, right?

If only baseball math were that easy. The Tigers’ 2-1 loss to Cleveland Thursday dropped them to 20-24 for the year, six games behind the surprise Indians. The team many considered the biggest playoff lock of the 2012 season now needs a hot streak just to make it back to .500.

One of the biggest culprits for Detroit’s struggles has been the most predictable one: lousy team defense. Only the Mets have been worse defensively this season, per Ultimate Zone Rating. UZR is subject to a few problems, starting with making too big a deal out of a quarter-season’s worth of defensive results. Still, a roster full of no-glove options was rendered worse defensively when Jim Leyland curiously decided to play noted butchers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder every day as corner infielders. Cabrera hasn’t been quite as atrocious as you might have expected after converting back to third base following years away from the position, then taking a ground ball to the face early on (on a very sharply-hit ball, it should be noted). But both no-glove sluggers have still been bad enough, with the Tigers getting a collective sub-.600 OPS from its designated hitters thanks to Delmon Young’s lousy year and some curious choices to start at DH the rest of the time.

But there were plenty more reasons to fear regression for the Tigers, despite the 95 wins+Fielder=Profit(?) formula. Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta hit out of their minds last year, and were prime bets to pull back in 2012. Valverde going unblemished all year long in save opportunities wasn’t going to happen again even if the Tigers moved to the Sally League. Even the seemingly loaded 2011 Tigers weren’t necessarily 95-win quality by at least one metric: Their runs scored and runs allowed totals suggested an 89-win club.

The biggest surprise, though, has been Detroit’s shaky offense. The Tigers rank just ninth in the American League in runs scored, trailing Texas, every AL East team, and two clubs in their own division. There’s been plenty of suck to go around. Fielder’s hitting a very pedestrian (for him) .286/.349/.458. After an impressive outburst last postseason that suggested he might finally turn the corner, Delmon Young’s been a replacement-level player, hitting just .248/.302/.358. Peralta’s also slugging a Rey Sanchez-esque .358. Brennan Boesch has a .287 OBP. Avila’s hitting .225 with a .309 OBP. Tigers second basemen are collectively hitting about as well as a Deadball Era pitcher with gout, one good eye, and a candy cane for a bat.

The Tigers’ offensive ineptitude was on display in Cleveland all afternoon long. In the first, Detroit showed off its lack of speed, with Cabrera stopping at second first after a shot off the right field wall, then getting stranded after a would-be run-scoring single by Fielder merely advanced him to second before inning’s end. In the second, Boesch got to third with one out after a leadoff double and a groundout, then got gunned down at the plate when Peralta tried to pull a pitch off the outside corner and predictably rolled over to third. In the fifth, a missed balk call prevented recently-promoted leadoff hitter Quintin Berry from reaching second with nobody out, and led to an Andy Dirks popout that helped squelch a potential rally. In the seventh, the Tigers put their first two men on before Indians starter Justin Masterson punched out Dirks on a slider. Masterson’s day appeared done when Joe Smith then started trotting in from the bullpen … only to have Manny Acta wave him back off the field, to the amusement of everyone in the mound huddle. A Cabrera flyout and Fielder tap back to the mound extinguished that threat too, and the Indians went on to complete the three-game sweep over Detroit.

Some of this can’t help but turn in the Tigers’ favor. There’s a good chance they don’t have another series all year with as many squandered opportunities as they had against the Indians (3-for-29 with runners in scoring position). They’ll face very few other pitchers as dominant against right-handed hitters as Masterson is and was Thursday; righties went just 1-for-12 against Masterson for the day. And they likely won’t lose many more games in which Verlander goes eight innings, allows just seven baserunners, and ends his day by striking out the side with a 98-mph fastball, a 101-mph fastball, and a preposterous 83-mph looping curve.

But there are still reasons to worry. The Tigers’ best hitter this year, Austin Jackson, just hit the disabled list. They lack major league-ready impact prospects at their weakest positions. And perhaps most of all, they’re chasing a pretty good team. The Indians have reaped solid-to-great production from young stars Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, and Jason Kipnis, Travis Hafner’s healthy and getting on base a ton, and Shin-Soo Choo is finally returning to pre-2011, hitting a ton in his recent move to the leadoff spot. Cleveland’s Bullpen Mafia, led by strikeout machine Vinnie Pestano and whipping boy closer turned attendance complainer turned standing ovation receiver Chris Perez is pitching the best ball of his career, striking out nearly three men for every one walk, and yielding just three extra-base hits in 19 1/3 innings. A 10-2 record in one-run games and the run differential of a .500 club suggests the Indians might be a bit lucky to be sitting at 26-18, with the 5th-best record in baseball. But that six-game bulge over Detroit is banked, and the stars-and-scrubs Tigers roster might need multiple in-season moves to paper over their weaknesses.

Detroit stood six games back of Cleveland through 44 games last season too, before demolishing the league in the second half and cruising to the division title. The question is, does this year’s Tigers team match up with last year’s squad? And, will the Indians fall apart for the second year in a row? A quick and healthy return for Jackson and returns to normal levels for Cabrera and Fielder could lead a Tigers resurgence, and the Indians’ iffy starting rotation could pull Cleveland back toward the pack. Another 95-win season and a runaway AL Central title, though? That bet’s all but off the board.

Filed Under: Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, MLB

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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