2012 Top 10 Stories: #2 – Tigers Win the Pennant

Given how the Tigers’ 2012 season went, months of frustration and a division title that came at the 11th hour, a trip to the World Series was far from assured. Far.

As dominoes fell late in the year, the Tigers ALDS opponent depended on which team, the A’s or Rangers, won the A.L. West. They might play the Orioles. Or the A’s. Or the Yankees. No matter which club they played in the first round, a bad match up could’ve been awaiting the Tigers.

In the end, it was the red-hot A’s which vanquished the Rangers in a stunning sweep to end the season. The good news was that the series, thanks to baseball’s new two-three scheduling, started at Comerica Park and not in Oakland where the A’s had mixed up an amazing collection of comeback wins in 2012. Even with Justin Verlander starting Game 1 against rookie Jarrod Parker, the A’s had a kind of juju that made Tigers fans (at least this one) nervous.

A leadoff  home run by Coco Crisp didn’t help. But the Tigers cobbled together enough offense to take the game 3-1. (And who knew we’d witnessed Jose Valverde‘s final save as Tigers closer. More on that in a moment.)

Game 2 featured shaky relief work by Joaquin Benoit and walkoff heroics by Don Kelly to secure a 5-4 win and a 2-0 series lead. Out in Oakland, the series tightened after the A’s won Game 3 and mounted a late comeback in Game 4 to force a winner-take-all Game 5. Thankfully, Verlander was locked in and the Tigers offense gave him plenty of support to send Detroit to the ALCS for the second consecutive year – but this time against the Yankees.

Was I alone in thinking the Tigers were due for the Yankees to exact revenge for New York’s 2006 and 2011 exits? No? Well, I prepared myself for that possibility.

The ALCS got off to a tremendous start in Game 1 with the Tigers leading 4-0 heading to the bottom of the ninth. That’s when Valverde brought to life the worst-case scenario – one like fans witnessed in Game 4 of the ALDS when he surrendered three runs to give the A’s a walkoff win. This time, Valverde gave up four runs on a pair of two-run shots, the first by Ichiro and then one by Raul Ibanez.

In the top of the 12th a Jhonny Peralta ground ball to Derek Jeter changed the series dramatically and for good. Jeter landed awkwardly and saw his season end with a broken ankle. The Tigers scored two in the inning and Drew Smyly shut down New York in the bottom half to earn Detroit an exhausting 1-0 series lead.

The rest of the series was filled with intriguing story lines: Phil Coke‘s emergence as closer, Anibal Sanchez‘s brilliant Game 2 shutout, the Yankees’ offensive drought.

Even though the series ended in a sweep,  it wasn’t completely dominant. Other than in the 8-1 Game 4 win, the Tigers didn’t pile on the runs. Sure, they scored six in Game 1 but only because Valverde didn’t allow the first four runs to stand up. In Games 2 and 3 they scored a combined five runs. But the Yankees scored six in the entire series – and who saw that coming?

The same people who predicted a Tigers sweep of the Yankees to with the American League pennant.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

2012 Top 10 Stories: #3 – Max Scherzer Arrives

Three years ago, the Tigers acquired Max Scherzer in a megatrade and the club envisioned him as part of a high-octane one-two punch with Justin Verlander. Scherzer displayed flashes of his potential with the Diamondbacks in 2008 and ’09 and observers in the desert thought that Scherzer would be part of a lethal rotation combo, but with Brandon Webb.

He appeared in 16 games (seven starts) in his rookie season and though he didn’t earn a win, he posted a solid 3.05 ERA and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. In ’09, he made 30 starts on his way to a 9-11 record with a 4.12 ERA and fanned 9.2 batters per nine innings.

ScherzerHead.jpgScherzer was an unknown quantity for most Tigers fans when he came to Detroit with Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth in the three-team trade with the D-backs and Yankees. But the promise – oh, the promise! – was tantalizing.

And before long it was baffling.

Here’s part of what I wrote on the SweetSpot blog about six weeks into the 2010 season:

After a dazzling debut on April 7 in which he held the Royals to one hit over six innings in a no-decision, Scherzer has been nothing but a question mark in Detroit’s rotation. He hasn’t won in nearly a month, he’s given up 48 hits in 37 innings so far, and in his last two starts alone he allowed 15 earned runs in 9.1 IP.

Scherzer enters his Friday start against the Red Sox with a 1-3 record and a bulky 6.81 ERA. He’s also been a major contributor to the number of innings the Tigers bullpen has pitched in the first six weeks of the season: Scherzer averages barely five innings of work.

After a dominant two-start demotion to Toledo, Scherzer returned to the Tigers for good on May 30 and finished the year at 12-11, 3.50 ERA in 195.2 innings.

He took a step forward in some areas during the 2011 season but still showed a frustrating inconsistency, often dazzling in one start, imploding in the next. In virtually the same number of innings pitched as in ’10 – 195.0 – Scherzer saw his ERA jump almost a full run, but his walks and strikeouts both decreased. And, he surrendered 20 more earned runs and 33 more hits from the year before.

Given how his regular season played out, it came as no surprise that Scherzer sparkled against the Yankees in the ALDS and, equally unsurprising, he collapsed in two ALCS starts against the Rangers.

The 2012 season was a entirely different story and an entirely different Max Scherzer. In his third season with the Tigers her set career highs with 16 wins and 231 strikeouts.

He led the league with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, finished second with 231 strikeouts and tied for sixth in wins.

Untouchable for stretches, he struck out nine-or-more batters in 13 of his starts during the season – tops in the majors. These marked the most by a Tigers pitcher since Mickey Lolich posted 15 games with nine-or-more strikeouts in 1971.

In his May 20 start against the Pirates, he struck out 15, all swinging.

Of course, Scherzer’s breakthrough season was all the more remarkable to watch after a devastating personal tragedy. As Jason Beck wrote this week:

Alex Scherzer wasn’t just Max’s little brother, he was his best friend and confidant. It was Alex’s skill with numbers that fostered Max’s fascination with statistics as he blossomed into a Major League pitcher. When Alex died without warning in June, Max contemplated the best way to honor his brother’s memory. In the end, the mound became a haven for the right-hander, and baseball was a way for him to put smiles on people’s faces. It was a new appreciation for life while he found the kind of on-field success that had driven Scherzer for years.

Scherzer led the Majors in strikeouts for most of the summer before a muscular issue in his right shoulder cost him a couple of starts. His postseason performances through that adversity earned Scherzer respect from teammates and opponents alike.

He made three postseason starts, one each in the ALDS, ALCS and World Series, allowing 12 hits and four earned runs in 17.1 innings pitched. Against the Yankees in the pennant-clinching LCS Game 4, carved up Joe Girardi‘s lineup: 5.2 IP, one earned run, two walks, a pair of hits and 10 strikeouts.

In Game 4 of the World Series, Scherzer dealt a quality start against the Giants – 6.1 IP, three runs, seven hits, and eight strikeouts. Given how the Giants offense constructed runs, and how punchless the Tigers’ lineup had become, he really had no chance to earn a win.

But that exemplifies the difference between Max Scherzer in 2102 from the one we watched in 2010 and ’11. In those first seasons in Detroit, he often failed to give his team a chance to win.

If we’re to believe what we saw this past season, those days just might be a thing of the past.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

What They’re Saying About Game 1

Cruising around the Web, here are some more notable points on the Tigers’ Game 1 win:

On Jose Valverde

“I don’t think so,” Valverde said early Sunday when asked if he thought he would lose his role. “I’ve been doing my job for a long time. I think I can do it. There’s nothing you can do. It’s in the past, it’s over. You have to get ready for tomorrow. – Valverde’s Struggles Continue With a Collapse in The New York Times

“If anybody is happy with Jose Valverde at this point, raise your hand. Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? No, I didn’t think so.” – Jim Caple, Tigers must avoid using Valverde, ESPN.com

“Eight innings of shutout artistry against the Yankees was wiped away because of Valverde’s disintegration.

It leaves the Tigers in crisis at the very point they can taste a shot at the world championship. It leaves Leyland a target for second-guessers, which might include his bosses.

It leaves them in a collective mess. In essence, the Tigers have no closer.” – Lynn Henning, Jose Valverde’s implosion leaves Tigers bullpen a mess

“Valverde’s been so awful in his last two outings, first against the A’s and now against the Yankees, that Leyland might finally make a move. And it’s not like he doesn’t have any options. The obvious choice to replace Valverde as closer is Dotel. He’s old, but you might also say he’s experienced, and does have 109 career saves. More to the point, he’s pitched better than Valverde in each of the last two seasons. And if Leyland really wants to get radical, he could also dump Benoit as his eighth-inning guy, and let Coke and Al Alburquerque take some of those setup innings.” – Rob Neyer, After Game 1, Joe Girardi and Jim Leyland both face agonizing choices

On Derek Jeter’s Injury

“They still have a chance for a glorious final image from this season. But unless they win eight more games, the Yankees of 2012 will be defined by two portraits of pain, flashing neon reminders of the subtler message the game tells its fans every year. We are all getting older, even the players who seem eternally young. And the end often comes without warning.” – Tyler Kepner, The New York Times.

On Delmon Young‘s Game 1 heroics:

“I just went completely blind,” he said. “It kind of handcuffed me, but I didn’t see for the last 5 or 10 feet.” — Nick Swisher.

An Inexplicable Post about an Inexplicable Game

Ok. Let’s think about this.

Jim Leyland said in his post-game interview that he and his coaching staff will discuss the closer situation. Yeah, I’m sure they’ll discuss it and I’d love to hear someone say this: “Describe an ideal scenario for us to bring Jose Valverde into a game.” If we’re lucky, the answer is followed by a long, long, crickets-filled pause.

And then another.

I can’t imagine such a scenario. Maybe in a blow out – with the Tigers way behind. I guess.

But wait, the Tigers won this game, people – 6-4 in 12 innings.

Unlike Wednesday’s crushing Game 4 loss to the A’s, they escaped the opponent’s half of the ninth and were able to hang on with some stellar relief from Drew Smyly, whose first career win came at Yankee Stadium and now the same can be said his first post-season win.

That was a long sentence. But after a five-hour game, what else do you expect? This game was long on everything, from terrific pitching by Doug Fister to solid defense to the mystifying Delmon Young.

So, yeah. The Tigers won. But they lost a closer (we think/hope) and now have to think quickly about to do about the ninth inning in Game 2 … and every other game in which they need a closer*. For me the answer is Joaquin Benoit in the seventh, Al Alburquerque in the eighth and Octavio Dotel in the ninth. Or maybe you use Dotel in the eighth and Alburquerque in the ninth.

*Mitch Williams on MLB Network says he thinks Leyland will go with matchups from now on in the ninth inning. Coke and Smyly versus lefties, Dotel and Alburquerque versus righties.

Either way, I don’t see Valverde getting meaningful innings anymore with the Tigers. Like never.

For me this is the bottom line on Game 1: The Tigers toughed out a game that so easily could’ve slipped away in extra innings and would’ve made Game 2 more pressure-packed than it needed to be.

Now they can go into Sunday’s game with even more confidence they can win in New York and make a dream scenario of coming back to Detroit up two games to none a reality.

Tigers’ 2011 X Factor: Phil Coke

In Phil Coke’s three-year major-league career, he’s finished 31 games and he’s started just one — the Tigers’ final game of the 2010 season. That outing could best be described as abbreviated; he threw 1.2 innings, allowing five hits, a walk and two runs.

What conclusions can we draw from this micro-sample size? Less than nothing.

That’s part of the reason Tigers fans are interested to see how Coke performs in 2011 now that he’s a member of the rotation, slotted neatly behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. That’s not to say Coke has no experience as a starter. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Coming up through the Yankees’ system in the mid-2000s, he worked predominately as a starter. From 2005-08, Coke started 77 games.

At Double-A Trenton in 2008, he started 20 games and posted a 2.51 ERA to go with his 9-4 record. That earned him a call-up to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre where he was turned into a reliever.

Go figure.

Year Age Team Lg Lev W L W-L% ERA G GS CG IP
2005 22 Charleston SALL A 8 11 .421 5.42 24 18 0 103.0
2006 23 2 Teams 2 Lgs A+-A 5 8 .385 3.19 27 20 1 127.0
2006 23 Charleston SALL A 0 1 .000 0.53 5 2 0 17.0
2006 23 Tampa FLOR A+ 5 7 .417 3.60 22 18 1 110.0
2007 24 Tampa FLOR A+ 7 3 .700 3.09 17 16 1 99.0
2008 25 2 Teams 2 Lgs AA-AAA 11 6 .647 2.79 37 21 1 135.2
2008 25 Trenton EL AA 9 4 .692 2.51 23 20 1 118.1
2008 25 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre IL AAA 2 2 .500 4.67 14 1 0 17.1
6 Seasons 31 29 .517 3.61 125 77 3 496.0
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table | Generated 3/28/2011.

 

With his return to the rotation this spring, Coke posted a 3-2 record with a 2.49 ERA in 21.2 innings. Not shabby, but how will it play out over the long season? Lynn Henning today provided this assessment of Coke:

He looked good for much of the spring, but took some knocks late. The switch to starting is still in progress. If things don’t work out, he goes back to the bullpen, Andy Oliver moves in, and the Tigers probably strengthen their seventh-inning options. But they’ll give this experiment a full and necessary opportunity to work.

We’ll have to see what “a full and necessary opportunity” means. If Coke lasts as a starter, what’s the impact on the bullpen? Or, does it mean he’s more valuable in relief compared to the young arms the Tigers can summon to the rotation, such as Andy Oliver and/or Jacob Turner?

And it all hinges on Phil Coke. What do you think?

2010: The Year in Lists

2011Calendar.jpgA year ago, we were still stinging from Game 163 and not certain how the Tigers would respond to a crushing end to the 2009 season. Would they regress to 2008’s disappointment or regroup to erase the memory of the ’09 collapse?

The answer was: they’d be relevant. And that, ladies in gentlemen, is the extent of the analysis in this post. Instead of a deep dive into 2010, let’s look at the year in the form of randomly selected lists:

2010 At A Glance*

  • Record: 81-81, 3rd in American League Central, 13 games back of Minnesota
  • Days in First: 13, the last on July 10
  • Biggest Lead: 1, last on July 7
  • Farthest Behind: 15.5 on Sept. 15
  • Most Games over .500: 11, last on July 10
  • Most Games under .500: 5, last on Aug. 19
  • Longest Winning Streak: 7, June 11-18
  • Longest Losing Streak: 7, July 11-20
  • Most Runs Allowed: 15, June 9
  • Most Runs Scored: 13, Aug. 15
  • Longest Game (innings): 14, July 19
  • Times Shutout by Opponent: 10
  • Times Opponent Shutout: 5

Continue reading “2010: The Year in Lists”

Tuesday Tananas: Fred Lynn, Ted Power and Don Draper

bananas.jpgIs it just me or were there a lot of Aug. 31 trades made back in the day? Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s it seemed that Oakland was always adding a big name at the deadline — Willie McGee, Ruben Sierra, Harold Baines. Just asking.