Thoughts On A Fourth Straight Central Title

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

There will be time for more specific analysis and commentary in the weeks ahead but with a win on Sunday, the Tigers secured their fourth straight American League Central crown. It wasn’t as easy as 2011 or 2013 and it wasn’t as spirited as 2012, but they saw it through to the end. The Tigers are going back to the postseason, starting Thursday in Baltimore.

It was certainly a year of transition for the proud franchise with a new manager and a few new cogs in the machine. Some of the changes worked, others didn’t, but the team on balance was always destined for this. A Central Division crown and a shot at a pennant. And a World Series, the goal that’s escaped them for three decades.

Three long decades.

It’s easy to be swept up in the Royals return to prominence but they actually have a more recent championship than the Tigers by a season. The playoffs are a regular event in the Motor City these days, but winning it all is not. They still haven’t won those extra eleven games.

In other words, today’s clincher is a rebirth of sorts. The bottles of champagne will wash away the doubts of the regular season, the consternation over the choices of the front office and the manager, and the general sense of panic to which we’re all accustomed. Man, your college lit professor would eat this up. They’d probably die if it started raining because the symbolism would be too much.

They avoided the coin-flip game and found their way to the ALDS. Sure they could have home-field advantage, but other than that the slate is wiped clean. It’s a chance for this team, this group of players, to make their mark on Tigers history. Only three of them have a ring, so they’re plenty hungry, even if the fans are starving.

I think it’s natural that the fan base in general was a little less happy with these Tigers than the 2011, 2012, or 2013 versions. Change is difficult and accepting a new cast of characters during a less than stellar summer isn’t the easiest thing to do. It certainly didn’t help that the guy we hoped might bring new thinking to the bench turned out to be more reactionary than his one-million year old, cigarette smoking predecessor. It also didn’t help that Nathan acted like a jerk while also pitching like a Double A nobody.

It didn’t help that Cabrera was hurt and Verlander never really got going. There were bright spots, for sure. But on their own, the 2014 Tigers don’t seem destined for a place in the team’s oral tradition. There were some big moments, but not ones I expect to carry with me forever. Yet.

The playoffs are a fresh start and a chance for that all to change. That’s the magic of the high leverage nature of postseason baseball. Everything can become that moment or “The Moment” as we call it at New English D.

The Tigers are eleven wins away, even if it felt at times like a million. It hasn’t been pretty, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to work.

How Was The Game? (September 28, 2014)

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Excruciating.

Tigers 3, Twins 0

David Price (34 GS, 248.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, 2.78 FIP, 6.1 fWAR)

Max Scherzer (33 GS, 220.1 IP, 3.19 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 5.6 fWAR)

Justin Verlander (32 GS, 206 IP, 4.54 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 3.3 fWAR)

The Moment: Joe Nathan gets the biggest three outs of the season.

How Was The Game? (September 27, 2014)

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A missed opportunity.

Twins 12, Tigers 3

Kyle Lobstein (6 GS, 39.1 IP, 4.35 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 0.5 fWAR) got Twins hit to death on Saturday night, the bullpen didn’t slam the door (and left it wide open), and bats failed to claw back. With the season on the line, they missed a chance to put this thing to bed as the Sox led the Royals when this game wrapped. It will be David Price (33 GS, 241 IP, 3.36 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 5.8 fWAR) for all the marbles on Sunday.

The Moment: Castellanos offers an early lead with a solo shot.

How Was The Game? (September 26, 2014)

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Pretty disappointing.

Twins 11, Tigers 4

It wasn’t a very impressive ending to a very solid season from Rick Porcello (31 GS, 204.2 IP, 3.43 ERA, 3.67 FIP, 3.2 fWAR) but he will hopefully get at least one more start in the postseason to wash away the memory of this 3.2 innings of 6 run baseball in which he threw some really good pitches and some really horrible ones. The bats fought back a little in the 4th and 5th and Cabrera homered in the 7th but the deficit was too steep to overcome. On the bright side, we got to see Sanchez throw a sharp inning in a postseason tune up. Assuming the Royals hang on, the Tigers will be two up with two to play. Kyle Lobstein (5 GS, 34.2 IP, 3.38 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 0.4 fWAR) gets the ball Saturday.

The Moment: Sanchez showed he wasn’t very rusty at all.

How Was The Game? (September 25, 2014)

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Tigers baseball.

Tigers 3, Twins 2

Max Scherzer (33 GS, 220.1 IP, 3.19 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 5.7 fWAR) wasn’t efficient, but he was effective over six innings of two run baseball that featured a bunch of walks and nine strikeouts. VMart hit a two run blast and Miguel Cabrera launched a no doubter of his own to give the Tigers all the runs they would need because the bullpen (??!!) was lights out for the final three innings. We didn’t get to see Sanchez, but Soria-Joba-Nathan did the trick and locked the magic number down to two with the Royals still playing. On Friday, it’s our final regular season Rick Porcello (30 GS, 201 IP, 3.31 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 3.4 fWAR) Night in America with a shot to clinch. Giddy up.

The Moment: Cabrera launches a no doubt blast for what proves to be the decisive run.

Let’s Talk About Verlander’s 2014 Season

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It was August 11th and Verlander had just allowed five runs in the first inning. He didn’t look right and he was mulling around in the dugout holding a bat. They were going to send him up there to bunt, presumably, and he was going to try and stay in the game. Dickerson and Price opined that they thought he had the flu. It had been a trying summer for the erstwhile ace and he didn’t look right at all.

He bunted and then he came out of the game. The shortest start of his career. His contract had five more years and he was, by one definition, looking like one of the worst regular starting pitchers in baseball. The Justin Verlander who made opposing hitters reconsider their choice of career was gone.

And then it got worse. It wasn’t a stomach bug, but rather right shoulder soreness. If you follow baseball injuries close enough, that’s just about the worst initial diagnosis you can hear about a pitcher. This wasn’t just a downturn, we were looking at a career altering injury. Everything was about to change in Detroit.

But it didn’t. Verlander got a full exam that showed no structural damage. He missed a start, his first, but didn’t go on the disabled list. He came back and mixed in three very good starts among his final seven with decent signs of life in parts of the other four, including two excellent outings to end the 2014 regular season.

For a time, the playoff bullpen was a real possibility. With the injury to Sanchez and some signs of recovery, that talk has dampened. Verlander will get a chance to make his mark in October like he did in each of the past two seasons. Maybe he’ll shine. Maybe he’ll struggle. It’s hard to say at this point. His superhuman days are gone, but that doesn’t mean his valuable days are as well.

If you look at the body of work this year, it’s 206 innings, a 4.54 ERA, and a 3.74 FIP. That’s a lousy ERA and an average FIP but 200 average innings aren’t anything at which to sneeze. He didn’t have a good year, but he didn’t ruin everything either. His home run rate and walk rate were fine, but his strikeouts were way down (about 6%). His BABIP was up. His pitches were more hittable than ever.

There are a lot of reasons, but mostly we can circle back to the offseason surgery and his inability to devote enough time to strength training. Some of it’s probably age and normal decline, but he never really had the endurance to match his previous performances. It was a weaker Verlander. More contact. Better results against him. Less heat.

We’ve chronicled the problems. He didn’t have command. His secondary stuff was hit and miss. He couldn’t dial it up and blow it past anyone. He couldn’t put guys away and as a result they put more balls in play and his defense wasn’t exactly going to save the day.

It was a bad season by his standards, but what does it tell us about the future?

It’s rare for a pitcher to sustain greatness well into their thirties, but you also don’t expect steep decline. At the end of the line, he posted a 3.74 FIP which was his worst since 2008. You’re willing to accept some of that as injury driven, even if you don’t want to give him too much of a break. That’s a high ERA, but ERA is silly because earned runs and unearned runs are an arbitrary distinction. In total, he posted a 4.98 RA9. That’s not very good at all, but he was certainly the victim of bad defense. Also, he was the victim of a bullpen that allowed a ton of his inherited runners to score. Instead of charging him for every runner they allowed to score, let’s charge him for the run expectancy. In other words, if he leaves the bases loaded, charge him with 2.2 runs (roughly) instead of 3 if they score and 0 if they don’t.

Using that method, his RE24/9 was 4.41. Think about that. His runs allowed per 9 (using run expectancy, which charges for all of his full runs and the right share of his left runners) was lower than his ERA (not just his RA9) even after you park adjust. Not only was Verlander’s FIP telling you he pitched a little better than his ERA, but you can make that point even if you don’t assume average results on balls in play. You just have to look at how poorly his pen performed.

None of this absolves Verlander, it just softens the blow. He was really more of a slightly below average pitcher in 2014 than a terrible one. Given the injury, you can live with that. His days of running ERA- and FIP- around 70 are done, but he could easily be an 85 or so guy going forward. He has a diverse arsenal and the stuff is still good enough to get hitters out.

He needs a healthy core and lower half and he needs to get a little smarter. His days of winning Cy Young awards are probably over but his days of being effective aren’t. Maybe he’ll shine in October, but the overall body of work suggests he should at least be a good pitcher again next year. Probably not the $180 million ace, but a guy who could play the role of #2 on most teams is totally plausible.

It was a rough year for Verlander, but it wasn’t the fatal blow it appeared to be that August night in the Steel City.

How Was The Game? (September 24, 2014)

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An awakening?

Tigers 6, White Sox 1

Justin Verlander (32 GS, 206 IP, 4.54 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 3.4 fWAR), in his final outing of the regular season, showed up to stake his claim in the postseason rotation with 8 innings of 7 hit, 1 run, 0 walk, and 6 strikeout baseball. He allowed some base runners but he pitched like he was gearing up for a pennant run rather than a long walk to the bullpen. The bats took a while to get going but Sale hit VMart and the Tigers pushed a run across in the 6th before unloading in the 7th and 8th inning to set up a clean 9th from Soria, who of course, only pitched because the save situation vanished. The win drops the magic number to 4 with four left against Minnesota. Max Scherzer (32 GS, 214.1 IP, 3.19 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 5.4 fWAR) gets the call.

The Moment: Verlander pumps his first after finishing the 8th, and really, a very challenging year.

How Was The Game? (September 23, 2014)

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Nearly disastrous.

Tigers 4, White Sox 3

It took a while for the Tigers offense to gather their first three runs today after a nasty stretch of silent bats, but David Price (33 GS, 241 IP, 3.36 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 5.9 fWAR) was the story of this game. After a few less than stellar starts in his two months in Detroit, Price made his final or second to last start this year count. He nearly went the distance, allowing 8 hits, three runs, no walks, and 8 strikeouts while pretty much cruising from start to almost finish, as he surrendered three 9th inning runs. He’s met the bullpen and the manager and figured he’d make this one easy on all of us and nearly did the trick. His late inning issues forced the Tigers to play out the 9th and a hit, walk, and hit before there was an out. Cabrera saved the day.The Royals did their thing too, so the win sets the magic number at 5 with 5 to play, although the are all but assured a spot in the play-in game if the division doesn’t pan out. Justin Verlander (31 GS, 198 IP, 4.68 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 3.0 fWAR) will make his final start of a forgettable season on Wednesday.

The Moment: Cabrera finishes off the 9th inning rally to avoid utter despair.

How Was The Game? (September 22, 2014)

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Uneventful.

White Sox 2, Tigers 0

Kyle Lobstein (5 GS, 34.2 IP, 3.38 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 0.4 fWAR) looked as if he was a batter or two from the brink early in this one after three extra base hits in a row that plated two runs, but he turned around and marched through seven innings of work without further incident. It was a big start for Lobstein, but despite a few threats, the Tigers couldn’t get to the Sox starter and were left with four outs with which to work against their pen and could not deliver. Joba and Soria gave the Tigers two good relief innings but it was to no avail. The Royals dropped the completion of their suspended game, so the Tigers did manage to shrink the magic number, but they’ll have to get to work Tuesday with David Price (32 GS, 232.1 IP, 3.37 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 5.5 fWAR) on the mound if they want to tie this up.

The Moment: Lobstein recovers, and pitches deep into the game.

Joakim Soria and Not Repeating Mistakes

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I’m not typically one to lecture about the “lessons” of individual games or series, but the 2013 postseason should have taught major league managers one important thing: Don’t lose with your best guys on the sidelines. We can debate “roles” all we want and argue that Joe Nathan shouldn’t be serving as the team’s “closer,” but that’s a second order conversation. I don’t really care about roles as much as I care about how often your get your pitchers into games.

In the National League Wild Card game last year, Dusty Baker didn’t use Aroldis Chapman. I’m not just saying he didn’t use him when I would have used him. He literally didn’t pitch. There wasn’t a save situation and Baker let him wait in the bullpen just in case it happened. It didn’t and the Reds lost with their most deadly reliever doing nothing.

In the division series, Fredi Gonzalez let a lesser reliever pitch in the 8th inning with the season on the line while Craig Kimbrel stood in the bullpen, ready to roll. Uribe homered and Kimbrel never got the chance to save the Braves season.

In the NLCS, Don Mattingly let Kenley Jansen wait in the pen until the 12th inning of a game because he was waiting for a save chance that never came.

In the World Series, while on the ropes in the deciding game, Mike Matheny let Trevor Rosenthal wait in the bullpen until things were out of reach.

All four teams lost, obviously, with their best guy doing nothing or coming in after it was too late for it to matter. Brad Ausmus looks like a manager who will follow this tradition. He can’t. He absolutely can’t. It will end the Tigers season and if it means we have to strap him to a chair and play the 2013 playoffs on a loop for the next week, then we should do it.

We all know the problem. Brad Ausmus has a really good reliever in his bullpen, Joakim Soria, whom he doesn’t want to use in big moments. Ausmus has settled on Chamberlain and Nathan as his high leverage, 8th and 9th inning relievers and he isn’t budging. If it’s a save situation in the 8th, Joba gets the ball. Save situation in the 9th? Nathan. It’s automatic as long as one of them isn’t overworked. I derisively call Ausmus “flowchart” for this reason. He has a predetermined path for the final innings from which he will not budge no matter how many harrowing rides he takes.

This would be easier to forgive if Chamberlain and Nathan were rock solid. If you believe that knowing “your inning” matters, then perhaps you could make a case for this behavior. I don’t, but I’ll leave that point uncontested. If you believe in roles, you still have to assign them properly. I don’t mind that Ausmus wants to tell his pitchers which inning they are likely to pitch during, I mind that he seems unwilling to adjust his strategy when the stakes get higher.

Joakim Soria is his best reliever. The Tigers paid a king’s ransom to get him and he’s pitching in the 7th inning of games and often while behind. Neither of those things bother me inherently. I’m fine using relievers at the moment you feel they are needed, but I’m not fine with what happened on Saturday. What happened on Saturday was a joke and it cannot happen again.

During the highest leverage moments of the highest leverage game of the 2014 season, Brad Ausmus left Soria in the pen. Scherzer got through 7 with Soria warming up. Then Joba got the 8th inning and allowed a run with Soria warming. Then Soria sat down and Nathan got up. Nathan got in trouble, so Soria got back up again before Nathan escaped. By the end, Soria was squatting on the bullpen mound just waiting for the call. He was so loose, he didn’t even bother throwing anymore. He was ready. His manager wasn’t.

We can debate the “role” all we want, but Ausmus knew he was going to need two relievers when Scherzer exited that game and for some reason, he decided that Soria wasn’t going to be one of them. With the game on the line, potentially the season, he went with Joba and Joe. It worked, because the Royals aren’t great hitters, but it just barely worked.

That won’t happen against the Orioles or the Angels or the Nats. They will eat the Tigers bullpen alive in those situations. You can’t lose with your best guy on the bench.

It’s one thing if he wants to use Soria in the 8th and Nathan in the 9th because he wants them to plan for the inning (that’s silly, but I’ll allow it here), but he absolutely, 100% cannot fail to use his best reliever. Use him early, use him late, whatever. But you have to use him. You have to. That’s why he’s on the team. Could you imagine not using your best pinch hitter in the 6th inning with the bases loaded just because you might need him later? Can you imagine not using him at all just because you have another pinch hitter you like to use?

And what’s really worrying me is Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez, assuming he goes to the bullpen and not the rotation, immediately becomes the Tigers best reliever. It’s not even close. I’m terrified that Ausmus is going to use him in long relief rather than in high leverage moments. We’ve seen this before. Leyland made this mistake in 2012. Others have made it too. Sanchez is a top flight starter, if you ask him to throw one or two innings, he becomes one of the best dozen relievers in baseball. You don’t save him for a four inning stint, you use him and you use him as much as he can handle in the biggest spots.

In a perfect world, Ausmus would use his best guys in the biggest moments and he’d play the platoon matchups perfectly and not worry about innings as much as he worried about outs, but I just want one simple thing from him with respect to the bullpen: Use your best relievers.

That’s it. Just make sure that if you use relief pitchers in a game that you use Soria and Sanchez if they are available. Nathan and Joba and Coke can pitch too, but you should never use them in a game in which your best pair doesn’t pitch, unless it’s a blowout.

What happened Saturday can’t happen again. I understand that during the regular season, you have to manage differently or you’ll burn your relievers out. But this weekend was basically a postseason series and Ausmus didn’t display good judgement. I’ve certainly been one of his harshest critics, but I don’t think I’ve been unfair. He’s made some repeated mistakes and they’re mistakes that amplify in the postseason.

With the season on the line, he has to make sure he’s not getting beat with his best on the bench. You can get away with it on occasion, but it always catches up with you in the end. The playoffs are a crapshoot, as they say, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fire the right bullets at the right time and tip the scales in your favor.

Ausmus is running out of time to learn the lesson learned by many eleven months ago, in the dugouts in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Boston while the Reds, Braves, Dodgers, and Cardinals watched their seasons slip away.

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