You’re going to be hearing a lot over the next few days about how the Tigers just weren’t quite as good as the Boston Red Sox. About how the Tigers weaknesses were exposed in the ALCS. About how the Tigers bullpen is crap and the Tigers can’t manufacture runs and – particularly – about the Tigers need to make changes this offseason to bring their game to Boston’s level.
You’re likely to hear one retort to this negative arguments “Yeah, but if Cabrera was healthy….” and those people have a point. Bear these things in mind: this was a good team, with strengths that more than balanced their weaknesses. It was not, however, a team at it’s best all-around in September & October. The other powerhouse not quite at it’s best in October was LA, and they also lost in 6 in their own series.
What we’re all going to be doing this week, here on MCB and everywhere on the internet and in the press is conducting post-mortems on the Tigers season. We had very high expectations for this team – and as is usually the case in baseball they weren’t quite met. There are a handful of things we could blame this on, above and beyond Miguel Cabrera’s injuries, some fair and some unfair.
Drew Sharp at the Detroit Free Press beat us all to one key point – the Tigers baserunning IS a liability and definitely hurt them in the ALCS. The conclusions aren’t necessarily accurate, though, that the Tigers would benefit from being able to create runs like the Red Sox can. “Creating runs” tends to be short-hand for stealing bases when everyone expects you to steal bases. This requires a willingness to take risks as well as speed and ability. The Tigers coaches don’t have the willingness to take risks – nor typically should they – and the Tigers batters don’t have the speed and basestealing ability. If you take a look at these advanced baserunning stats on Fangraphs, the ones that are scaled to fit the number of extra runs you’re producing with your legs, the Tigers are indeed way down at the bottom in terms of wSB the scaled stolen base stat. They’re near the bottom of the league (but not at the bottom) in the SPD “speed” statistic.
The key to look at is the other baserunning stat called UBR, that factors in all the other things that guys do on the basepaths besides stealing bases and scales it to a number of runs. The Tigers are far and away the worst in baseball here, the worst at things like going first-to-third on a single. The Twins are rated even lower than the Tigers in terms of “SPD” and also terrible at stealing bases. But… unlike the Tigers the Twins are about average in UBR. We are unlikely to see significant changes in the Tigers lineup next season – we’ll probably get a full season of Iglesias at short and, more likely than not, a lot of Nick Castellanos in left. If we’re very unlucky, we’ll see somebody other than Omar Infante at second. Castellanos is a downgrade from Dirks in left (on the basepaths), and though Iglesias is definitely faster than Peralta, Jhonny Peralta was never an incompetent baserunner. Even if you ignore the fact that other Tigers are getting a year older and a year slower, the only way we’re likely to see a significant change in raw baserunning ability from the Tigers lineup is if the Tigers are unable to resign Infante and hand the job to Hernan Perez or if something (named Ilitch) possesses Dave Dombrowski to make massive roster-shaking moves.
That might not be necessary at all… The Tigers problem wasn’t that they weren’t “manufacturing runs” it was that they were running themselves out of big innings or scoring chances. A lot of that might be attributable to the coaching staff – something Dombrowski and Leyland need to take a long, hard look at. Some of that might be attributable to injuries and/or offseason conditioning. Some of it might be things they need to work on in practices or in camp, but haven’t been emphasizing. Remember that not every slow player or slow team is going to kill itself on the basepaths, but the Tigers have. Gerald Laird is not a fast man, but he was canny on the bases – Alex Avila isn’t too bad either. The Tigers terrible UBR score is the result of having 4 of the 17 guys with UBR scores between -4 (poor) and -6+ (awful) including the second worst in the game in Victor Martinez. The other three would be Brayan Pena, Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. We should only have hope for Cabrera to bounce back a bit on his own when he isn’t hurt. This was actually one of Fielder’s better years in terms of UBR, but the impression that I get is that he’s a guy that runs hard but has tremendous inertia to overcome. He’s not going to be able to accelerate or decelerate quickly. We can hope that VMart is able to strengthen his legs a bit this offseason and be a little less lead-footed, but we shouldn’t expect too much. If I’m not mistaken Pena will be a free agent – so it should be possible for the Tigers to pursue a backup catcher
The Tigers defense isn’t that bad, and didn’t exactly cost the team the ALCS.
It was a very tightly fought series, and in such a series there are a number of tiny turning points that would have meant everything. For the Tigers, some of those (Cabrera’s ball-between-legs in game 5, Iglesias’ bobbled double play in game 6, etc…) were defensive. But, the Tigers also made some great defensive plays in the ALCS and the Red Sox also made gaffes that contributed to the Tigers big innings. We’d prefer to see flawless D, but the big reason that these plays stand out is the lack of O.
The Tigers bullpen isn’t that bad, and didn’t exactly cost the team the ALCS.
To say that the Tigers relief pitching corps is just no good and that they were “exposed” in the ALDS would be incorrect. The Red Sox bullpen was stellar. The Tigers bullpen was normal – with a 4.07 ERA not honestly all that much higher than their regular season ERA. Benoit was the best, but got hit the hardest. All they needed was a few good defensive plays that they didn’t get or a few strike calls that they didn’t get and everything would have been turned around. What is undoubtedly true is that in terms of “clutch pitching” the Tigers bullpen did not get it done when it counted against the Red Sox. On the other hand, to say that the Tigers “couldn’t win with a bullpen like that” just isn’t fair.
The Tigers offense DID cost the team the ALCS.
The Tigers O is basically a bunch of decent singles hitters, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. If you took out Fielder and Cabrera and replaced them with another Torii Hunter and another Victor Martinez the Tigers would probably have among the worst offenses in the league – despite a pretty high team batting average. When Cabrera and Fielder aren’t hitting well, the team is going to need to string a bunch of hits together to get anything going. That is, by and large, what we saw in the ALCS and it wasn’t pretty. Going forward we should be aware that the Tigers need a full recover by Cabrera AND a full recovery from whatever has ailed Prince Fielder in order to be an offensive powerhouse in 2014 and not a team scraping for runs.
The Tigers rotation almost propelled the team to the World Series.
We almost take this rotation for granted by now, but we shouldn’t. They aren’t just very good, they were clicking (especially Justin Verlander) against the best offenses in the game in the postseason. The Tigers rotation posted a 2.39 postseason ERA, were never driven from a game early and struck out 94 in 71 2/3 innings. While we obviously hoped for and required more from the offense, we also got more than we should have expected from the rotation.
I’ll wrap up with one suggestion for the offseason that has sadly now begun… Consider it a warmup for the roster fun to come.
Brayan Pena hit better than expected, but he also contributed to the Tigers poor performance on the basepaths and did nothing to help with their inability to throw out basestealers. I think one year was enough. Alex Avila takes a beating behind the plate and cannot hit lefties to save his life. Tigers pitchers, with the stuff that they have, seem prone to pitches in the dirt. The Tigers need a veteran right-handed catcher who knows how to run the bases and has defensive skills. They should plan to split time behind the plate more or less evenly (partly by being willing to switch catchers in mid-game) and be willing to pay for a catcher of that caliber.
The guy the Tigers should be pursuing is John Buck, who will likely be getting a lot of offers to be second catcher (from good teams) and one or a few to start (for bad teams). Buck was best among major league catchers this season in UBR, the stat that measures how well he goes from first-to-third or whether he’s able to score from second, as well as being that veteran righty and above average defensive catcher.