On September 23, 1908, a 19-year-old rookie for the New York Giants named Fred
Merkle committed the most famous baserunning mistake in major league
history. In the bottom of the ninth inning against the Chicago Cubs, Merkle, who was on first, failed to touch second base on a walk-off single. Fans assumed the Giants had won and rushed the field, but amid the surrounding chaos Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers stepped on second base with the ball (it remains uncertain if Evers had the same ball that was actually in play). The umpires, who should be exceedingly grateful that Twitter was not yet invented, called Merkle out and turned a Giants win into a tie. In a rematch two weeks later, the Giants lost.
As a result of Merkle’s Boner, still the most famous of its kind in baseball history,1 the Giants would finish one game behind the Cubs for the NL pennant, depriving them of the chance to face the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
One hundred and four years later, these two franchises square off in the Fall Classic. This is the Giants’ 19th appearance in the World Series and the Tigers’ 11th, but never in the same year. Until now.
The Tigers won only 88 games this season, ranking seventh in the American League in wins. Only three teams in history (the 1987 Twins, the 2000 Yankees, and the 2006 Cardinals) have won a World Series with a lower regular-season winning percentage. But while the Giants finished 94-68 and they have home-field advantage in the series, the consensus among baseball experts and Vegas oddsmakers has the Tigers favored to win.
In this case, the conventional wisdom is correct. For the first time since 1984, the year that Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo hit theaters, the Detroit Tigers should win the World Series. Here’s why.
1. The Tigers were built for the playoffs.
General manager Dave Dombrowski didn’t build the Tigers’ roster for regular-season dominance. Playing in the weak AL Central, he figured he didn’t have to. The Tigers almost took the division too much for granted — they trailed the White Sox by three games with just two weeks left, before the Sox lost 11 of their last 15 games. But once the playoffs started, Detroit’s master plan kicked in.
It’s a simple plan: Grab three superstars and ride them as hard as you can. As we wrote about here, even by the standards of world championship teams, the Tigers have an unusual amount of top-tier talent. Justin Verlander is the league’s reigning MVP, and the favorite to win his second straight Cy Young. Miguel Cabrera accomplished the first Triple Crown in 45 years.
In the first year of his nine-year, $214 million contract, Prince Fielder hit .313/.412/.528 with 30 homers and more walks (85) than strikeouts (84). And by advanced metrics, Fielder wasn’t even the third-best player on the team — that would be Austin Jackson, who hit .300/.377/.479 and played the hell out of center field. That gives the Tigers four players who were worth more than four Wins Above Replacement this season. The Giants have one on their roster — Buster Posey.
The plentiful off-days in the postseason makes it possible for one pitcher to have an outsize impact on a series, and everything is set up for Verlander to do just that. He’ll start two of the first five games in the World Series, and he will be directly behind the emergency glass for Games 6 and 7. He’s the best pitcher on earth for the second straight year, and so far this postseason he has allowed two runs in 24 innings. I think it’s reasonable to suggest that he might be the tipping point in this series.
2. The Tigers have an enormous edge in starting pitching.
When it comes to starters, the Tigers are much more than just Justin. If you compare the Detroit and San Francisco starters, the Tigers have the better pitcher all the way down the list.
Justin Verlander or Matt Cain? Cain’s a great pitcher, but this isn’t a question.
Max Scherzer or Madison Bumgarner? Scherzer had more value during the regular season, and Bumgarner was so bad in his first two playoff starts (eight innings, 10 runs allowed) that the Giants skipped his scheduled start in Game 5 of the NLCS.
Doug Fister or Ryan Vogelsong? Fister (3.45 ERA) and Vogelsong (3.37 ERA) had almost identical results this year, but Fister pitches in the AL, faces the DH, and plays in a much less pitcher-friendly park.
Anibal Sanchez or … Barry Zito? Tim Lincecum? Yeah.
By Wins Above Replacement, of the eight starting pitchers who will likely pitch in the series, the Tigers’ starters rank nos. 1, 2, 4, and 5. And they’re peaking at precisely the right time; so far this postseason, the Tigers’ four starters have allowed seven runs in 60-plus innings.
It’s actually worse than that for the Giants, because while the Tigers had plenty of time to set up their World Series rotation after sweeping the Yankees, the Giants’ seven-game NLCS battle with St. Louis has completely scrambled their plans. Zito is your Game 1 starter. The Giants have decided to start Bumgarner in Game 2 rather than bring Vogelsong back on three days’ rest. While the Giants hope that 10 days of rest will bring back the velocity that’s gone missing on Bumgarner’s fastball this month, the result of this decision is that Matt Cain — the Giants’ best starter — won’t pitch until Game 4, and he is scheduled to start only once in the entire series.
The Giants could bring back Cain for a Game 7 on three days’ rest, but in that case he’d be taking the place of Vogelsong, who along with Cain is currently the Giants’ only reliable starter. In essence, the Giants have decided that their two best starting pitchers will only make three starts in the series. The other four will go to a junkball left-hander who signed one of the most infamous contracts in baseball history, a 23-year-old pitcher with a tender wing, and (if they get creative) a two-time Cy Young winner in Tim Lincecum, who lost 2 mph on his fastball this year and finished with a 5.18 ERA.
You don’t need to have the better starting pitcher to win on any given night. But when you don’t have the better starting pitcher on every given night, well, that’s a tough hill to climb.
3. Justin Verlander vs. Barry Zito. Twice.
No, please. Read that again. Wednesday night, the Giants will send Barry Zito to the mound to duel against Justin Verlander.
Zito’s fastball averaged 83.7 mph this season. Verlander breaks 100 on the gun, although he usually has to stretch his arm out past 120 pitches before he bothers.
Zito has spent six years with the Giants, playing in a pitchers’ park in the pitchers’ league, and has had an ERA over 4 every year. In his seven full years in the majors, Verlander has had an ERA over 3.66 just once.
Yes, Zito threw 7.2 shutout innings in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, one of the most unexpected and critical pitching performances in recent memory. But relax, people. It was one start. In his previous playoff start, Zito allowed as many baserunners (eight) as outs and had to be pulled in the third inning.
By any reasonable standard, Verlander vs. Zito has to be considered one of the most lopsided World Series pitching matchups in recent memory.
And then they’ll do it again in Game 5.
4. Jim Leyland knows how to get creative with his bullpen.
If there’s one weakness to the Tigers’ game, it’s their defense. But if there are two weaknesses to their game, it’s that they don’t have a real closer. If you’ve watched a baseball game at some point in the last 25 years or so, you might be inclined to see that as a problem.
In the Tigers’ case, however, not having a closer is actually preferable to their situation 10 days ago, when they did have a closer, and his name was Jose Valverde. Even last year, when Valverde didn’t blow a single save all season, he was a coronary waiting to happen, walking too many batters and putting too many guys on base. His margin for error disappeared this year; his ERA jumped from 2.24 to 3.78, he blew five saves during the regular season, and he was a human gas can during the first two rounds of the playoffs. He blew a two-run lead and took the loss in Game 4 of the ALDS against Oakland, and then blew a 4-0 lead to the Yankees in the ninth inning of Game 2. (In the other 38 innings of the ALCS, Tigers pitchers gave up two runs combined.)
But Valverde’s blowup against the Yankees might have been a blessing for the Tigers. It finally relieved manager Jim Leyland from having to follow the conventional wisdom of using a designated “closer” to pitch the ninth inning in save situations. In Game 3, with a run of left-handers coming up, Leyland turned to lefty specialist Phil Coke to close out a 2-1 game, and Coke did the job.
Tony La Russa was a big part of the Cardinals’ World Series victory over the Rangers last year, in large part because, having started his managerial career in the 1970s, La Russa hearkened back to a time when relievers weren’t straitjacketed into specific roles. La Russa used his bullpen early and often, and used specialty relievers like left-hander Marc Rzepczynski and right-hander Octavio Dotel to torture same-side hitters.
Jim Leyland started managing in the majors in 1986, and like La Russa, in the playoffs he uses his relievers like someone who remembers the days before paint-by-numbers bullpen management became the norm. Leyland also has a history of getting creative with his pitching staff in the playoffs — this is the same manager who once used a right-handed reliever (Ted Power) as his starting pitcher in Game 6 of the NLCS in 1990, and then after two innings switched to a left-handed starter (Zane Smith). He has his version of Rzepczynski in Phil Coke, and he has his version of Dotel in, um, Octavio Dotel. Al Alburquerque, who missed most of the season with a stress fracture in his elbow, has been nails since his return (15 innings, six hits, eight walks, 19 Ks). He could emerge as a secret weapon in this series.
And unlike La Russa, Leyland’s starters are so good that he probably won’t need to call on his bullpen for five innings a game.
5. The Giants are playing with one arm tied behind their back. Voluntarily.
Melky Cabrera hit .346/.390/.516 for the Giants in 113 games this season, carrying the offense before Buster Posey went all Johnny Bench on the league. Cabrera was then suspended for 50 games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Cabrera’s suspension officially ended after the NLDS, allowing the Giants to add him back to their active roster. They have chosen not to.
It would be easy to admire the Giants for their principled stand against the use of PEDs, even going so far as to hurt their chances of winning a championship in order to prove their point. Unfortunately, the point they are proving isn’t “We won’t stand for cheaters.” Instead, it’s “We’ll welcome some cheaters back into our clubhouse with open arms, but not others.”
You see, Guillermo Mota was also suspended for PEDs this season. But when his suspension ended at the end of August, the Giants put him back on the mound as if nothing happened. And even though he struggled — he finished with a 5.23 ERA — he was placed on the Giants’ postseason roster (and has allowed four runs in two innings).
I suppose there are reasons why the Giants brought Mota back and not Melky. Mota denied knowingly using PEDs, and he didn’t set up a phony website in an attempt to skirt the suspension that has resulted in a federal investigation. But on the other hand, this is Mota’s second suspension for PED use. That’s why he was suspended for 100 games and not 50.
Maybe there’s some hidden wisdom in welcoming back a repeat offender who’s a crappy middle reliever, while shunning the guy who was your best hitter before he got popped for the first time. But the Giants’ double standard means that their starting left fielder will be Gregor Blanco, who hit .244/.333/.344 this season. And without Cabrera, the Giants don’t have a single competent hitter on their bench, which will leave them exposed when the series moves to Comerica Park and they need a DH. Their most likely candidate is Aubrey Huff, who batted 95 times all season and hit .192 with one homer.
Whatever point the Giants are trying to make by holding Cabrera out, the Tigers are happy they’re trying to make it.
6. The American League is better than the National League.
Not to belabor the obvious, but sometimes the obvious gets overlooked. In interleague play this season, the AL beat the NL 142-110, for a .563 winning percentage. That’s the ninth straight season that the AL has had the upper hand; in that time, they’ve won 55 percent of games against NL teams.
It’s a cute story that the Giants have home-field advantage because of the outcome of an All-Star Game in which Matt Cain got the victory and Justin Verlander got the loss. But while the All-Star Game may have decided who gets to host Game 7, it didn’t determine which league was better. For that, we have more than 2,200 games of evidence, and they state pretty clearly that the better league is the one the Tigers play in.
The series is hardly a mismatch. The Giants have an extremely underrated offense; like the Tigers, San Francisco finished sixth in their league in runs scored, but the same ballpark that makes their pitchers look so good disguises how effective their offense is. The Giants actually led the NL in runs scored on the road; no other team was within 40 runs of them.
Their offense is also well suited to face the Tigers, because unlike the A’s and Yankees before them, the Giants excel at making contact — only one NL team struck out fewer times than they did. The Tigers’ defense is their Achilles’ heel. Taking away the DH from the Tigers four times also benefits the Giants, particularly since the Tigers have decided to move DH Delmon Young to left field.
Young was the ALCS MVP, which doesn’t change the fact that he’s not very good — he had a .296 OBP this year, which sort of takes the “hitter” out of designated hitter. His defense also takes the “fielder” out of left fielder — he plays the position with the grace of Chris Farley trying out for Chippendales. It doesn’t help that a secret cabal of Swiss bankers works behind the scenes to make his defense look bad.
But in the end, the Tigers have too much star power, too much starting pitching, and too much Verlander. Tigers in seven, and fittingly, Verlander himself will come out of the bullpen on two days’ rest to close out the season. After 28 years of waiting, the roar in Detroit is restored.