When Spring Training broke 40 days ago, I was convinced this incarnation of the Tigers mirrored the wire-to-wire ’84 squad in enough ways to expect the same cavalcade to the World Series. The everyday lineup is anchored at the corners of the infield, instead of the middle; but with a talented and savvy starting staff; a bevy of strong arms in the bullpen, and a crusty, cliche-spouting skipper that fans love to second-guess.
1. The bullpen. The relief corps has been shaky at it’s best, disastrous at it’s worst. No one outside of Drew Smyly has pitched to their capabilities, compounding the Skipper’s headaches of mixing and matching.
Looking at ’84 as a comparison, Sparky managed his ‘pen “by committee” for the first two months of the season. The 18 wins in games 1-20 required just 2 saves each from Willie Hernandez and Aurelio Lopez, and one from forgettable corner-nibbler Doug Bair. The mix-and-match persisted through May, with Lopez/Bair picking up back-to-back saves as late as June 1. From that point, Hernandez settled in as the primary ninth-inning option, and his baffling screwball carried him to Cy Young and MVP honors.
Digging into the numbers, this may be sorting itself out. Most of the damage has been done by the banished Brayan Villareal, and the injured Octavio Dotel and Phil Coke. The quintet of Smyly, Al-Al, Benoit, Downs, and Valverde have a stellar 1.89 ERA. Get Coke straightened out, and/or limit him to left-handed batters only, and this unit might exceed expectations.
2. Adding Torii Hunter, and sandwiching him between AJax and Miggy, was supposed to lengthen the lineup. Darrell Evans was a 37-year old veteran (and UFO hunter) that the ’84 Tigers brought in for the same reason – in fact, it allowed Sparky to slot Kirk Gibson 8th vs. left-handed starters. So far, the top 4 in the Tigers’ order is carrying the lions share of the production – and the lineup is downright frightening when Omar Infante is raking in the 9-hole.
The soft underbelly is spots 5 – 8; Victor Martinez has had enough quality at bats to believe he will come around. Jhonny Peralta will sandwich RBI-doubles around double play grounders. Andy Dirks needs to get healthy and stay healthy; Alex Avila’s struggles at the plate were examined here recently; he needs to announce his presence with authority, and heed the advice of Crash Davis.
3. An underwhelming supporting cast on the bench, and the Skipper’s determination to get them regular at-bats. A quick peek back at ’84 reveals Sparky was even more liberal mixing-and-matching his bench than Jim Leyland. He started four different first basemen, five different third baseman and right fielders, and six different left fielders. Considering the the Opening Day bench consisted of: Tom Brookens, Dwight Lowry, Rusty Kuntz, Johnny Grubb, Barbaro Garbey, and Rod Allen (yes, that Rod Allen), one can wonder what Sparky’s hurry was to find platoon time over Evans, Dave Bergman, Howard Johnson and Larry Herndon.
By comparison, Leyland sends his bookends out to the corners every day, plants Jackson in center, and mostly sticks with Peralta and Infante up the middle. The bench whipping boy, Don Kelly, is on pace for about 230 plate appearances; Tuiasosopo and Pena roughly the same, and Ramon Santiago just 150. Extrapolating over the rest of the season, the Tigers at current pace will send 5680 batters to the plate; nearly 5000 of those appearances will be made by batters not named Kelly, Santiago, Tuiasosopo or Pena. Clearly, the run production burden rests on the shoulders of the big boys.
4. Those craggy, gravel-voiced managers share many similarities: supremely confident to the point of arrogance; never hesitant about yanking a starter out of the game; accused of playing favorites (ask Howard Johnson). Leyland’s winning percentage with Detroit is .537 vs. Sparky’s .516; Sparky’s overall career mark is higher. Like him or not, if this season culminates as we all expect – with a World Series victory – you can make room in Cooperstown for a bust of ‘ol Smoky. And I bet he goes in with a Detroit Tigers cap on.
After 30 games, the 1984 World Champions were 26-4; it took a 4-game sweep of the quadruple-A Astros to get this year’s squad to 19-11. Despite some early-season hiccups, the Tigers remain poised to win the AL Central and are equipped to run deep into the postseason – just have a little faith and enjoy the ride.