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Panic Time in Detroit

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If you think it’s premature to push the proverbial panic button in Detroit you are sadly mistaken. A popular preseason pick to go to and, by many estimations, win the World Series, the much hyped Detroit squad has scored less and been scored upon more than any team in Major League Baseball. Compounding upon this stark reality, their vaunted lineup has been shut out four times already this year and to date is showing only minimal signs of offensive life.

The reality is, one would have been completely in the right had they pushed said button before a single game was played this season. Sounds like revisionist history doesn’t it? I can hear the volleys now, singing of the ease of perspective when viewed in retrospect.

Truthfully, the signs that this team would struggle were all present long before the first Tiger pitch cut through the frigid Midwest winds in ‘08. Lost in the delirium and delusions that the euphoria from one’s team spending money can create were obvious weaknesses bubbling right at the surface of the Detroit roster like a boil on the landscape of blind optimism.

A valid starting point, the Tigers bullpen is – even on paper – atrocious. During their World Series season of 2006 it was already shaky; easily the weakest facet of a talented team. Now their bullpen is down right decrepit; completely ineffective and without the forward looking potential of the ’06 squad. Leading the charge for this stable of misfits, Detroit began yet another year with Todd Jones as their closer.

As any Tiger fan – or anyone who regularly watches the games — can attest, a save situation involving Jones is a nerve rattling and abrasive experience. Balls pounded to the farthest reaches of cavernous Comerica Park, the bases seemingly constantly loaded with runners awaiting a go ahead, clutch stroke, chomping at the bit to reach home plate; these are regular staples of a Jones save situation – and those are on the good days.

At his worst Jones is a highly hittable pitcher with an unspectacular repertoire that has only been dulled by his advanced years. In the game today – where starters are on stringent pitch counts and rarely hurl complete games — a dominate closer is a vital piece of a championship ball club. While Jones can, at times, somehow get people out he is a far cry from the likes of Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Paplebon.

Bridging the gap between the starters and Jones, there are no signs of hope. With former phenom set up man Joel Zumaya on the shelf with a bad shoulder — struck down by another ever so common tale of box moving gone horribly wrong – and serviceable Fernando Rodney out with shoulder tendinitis, the Tigers find themselves turning to the likes of legacy Tiger Jason Grilli and the terrible trio of Bobby Seay, Zach Miner, and Aquilino Lopez. This lack of depth in itself should have been enough to set off some major alarms in Tigertown.

When the Yankees made their championship run in the 90s many a critic focused on the large money spent on various free agents like Roger Clemens and David Justice. While those high profile players figured prominently in their success, at the heart of that dynasty was a consistently outstanding bullpen.

From the historic combination of Rivera to Wetteland in 1996 through the line of effective pieces like Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, and Ramiro Mendoza leading to Rivera in the latter championship years, the Yankees’ greatest advantage was their ability to reduce the number of innings in which a team could feasibly beat them.

Likewise, the most recent run of success by the Boston Red Sox has been similarly solidified by stellar bullpen pawns like the aforementioned Papelbon as well as Keith Foulke, Mike Timlin, and Hideki Okajima, to name a few. Without this arsenal of arms, the efforts of the high priced headliners like Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling would have gone for naught. Who would remember Schilling’s infamous sock if Foulke had come in and blown the save?

Even before Rodney went down, the Tigers bullpen was highly questionable. Without him the outlook is completely dismal. While Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski deserves his due credit for returning legitimacy to the proud franchise in Detroit, one must question his ease in trading for a pitcher like Dontrelle Willis while totally neglecting the Tiger’s long standing and glaringly obvious need for bullpen help.

Knowing that Jones successor in waiting Joel Zumaya would miss a good deal of time, why would Dombrowski not make some effort to shore up this crippling weakness? It’s a testament to the seductive influence of star power and large home run totals that fans and analysis alike would think that a powerful lineup would supplement the damage inflicted by this massive deficiency.

Also shrouded by the power charged ballyhoo surrounding the team was the Tigers’ obvious lack of starting pitching. Detroit fans need only reminisce back to the era of Fielder, Fryman, Tettleton, and Deer, to remember how ineffective home run power can be in masking a weak starting rotation.

Barring a career altering injury, Justin Verlander will be, at the very least, one of the best pitchers of his era. Beyond that, the cupboard is deceptively bare in the Tigers rotation. The Detroit faithful has pinned much hope on the eventual breakout of Jeremy Bonderman. While Bonderman has, at times, shown top tier stuff, going into his 6th season he has still never posted an ERA under 4.00 nor has he won 15 games.

While Jeremy has recorded respectable WHIP numbers due to his low walk totals, his penchant for tiring in the second half of the season has proved troubling for the Tigers, to say the least. For the team to be successful Bonderman must perfect the changeup he has been working on and the Tigers must find a way to solve the second half swoon syndrome he seems to be afflicted with.

Bonderman’s outing in the Detroit win on Monday is a perfect illustration of both his and the Tigers continual struggles, even in victory. While the Tigers were able to slug their way to a win against a mediocre Twins team led by converted reliever Nick Blackburn on the mound, they needed a massive offensive output to supplement their disastrous pitching.

Jeremy surrendered 7 runs on 8 hits (4 earned) in only 6.1 innings. Following that sub par outing Seay came in to surrender another 2 runs, not even able to complete a full inning.

While Beltran and Jones were able to stop the bleeding in this wild game, the Tigers were still unable to find any effectiveness out of their rotation. If the boys in Detroit could regularly post 11 runs a game this might not be an issue but the realism in that idea is nonexistent.

Kenny Rogers’ days as a semi-effective hurler are past him. He has not posted respectable numbers since 2006 and even previous to that charmed season in Detroit, he has shown a pattern for flare up seasons surrounded by a commonality of mediocrity. Rogers is 43 years old and no longer effective, especially against the potent lineups that are prevalent everywhere in the American League.

At one time Nate Robertson looked like he would develop into an effective pitcher, and successor to Rogers as the staff’s resident lefty. Murdering left handed batters and posting low walk totals, there is still a great deal of hope in Detroit that Robertson will finally come into his own and stop giving up 200 hits a season, but this doesn’t seem to be likely. He has consistently surrendered more hits then innings pitched and has never posted a WHIP under 1.3.

And finally we come to the now injured Dontrelle Willis. Every single statistical indicator available to analyze pitchers, points to the conclusion that Willis’ career was over long before he donned the Olde’ English D. That didn’t stop Dombrowski from dealing for him and promptly bestowing upon him a contract extension worth 3 years and $29 million.

Willis was absolutely lit up his last two seasons in South Beach. While the National League East is by no means a weak division when considered in comparison with the rest of the NL, there is a huge discrepancy between the offensive prowess of the two leagues that has been well documented and is statistically supported.

There is no possibility that a pitcher who gave up over 230 hits in each of his last two seasons in the National League, and posted WHIPs of 1.41 and 1.59, can successfully navigate his way through the likes of the Cleveland Indians or the Chicago White Sox, never mind the juggernauts of the American League East.

Willis is the classic example of a talented pitcher burnt out by massive overuse early in his career. In his first five seasons he averaged 204.34 innings a season including a 236 inning output in his best season, 2005.

From that point – as the stats clearly illustrate – Willis’ career went into a free fall. Riddled by various aliments, his fastball slowed down, his control vanished, and his effectiveness became non-existent, seemingly over night.

It seems — one can conclude — that Dombrowski and the Tigers’ brass were entranced by the name power Dontrelle once possessed. This is clearly an expensive mistake that leaves a hole in an already thin rotation that will be hard to fill given all of the young arms the Tigers surrendered in the offseason.

The criticalness of an effective starting rotation is an axiom that cannot be ignored. The Yankees won more games then any other franchise in the 1980s and yet it is the only decade that they did not win a championship in the live ball era. All the money in the world couldn’t transform a rotation consisting of players like Ed Whitson and Rick Rhoden into a championship caliber unit and it won’t work for the Tigers either.

Finally there is that highly touted lineup that has been so universally lauded by the baseball world. Featuring newly acquired centerpiece Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers modern take on Murderer’s Row was billed as a manifestation of dominance, so packed with run producing power that it would score enough runs to make up for the pitching staff’s “possible” shortcomings.

Upon closer inspection, power is literally the only thing this squad possesses in any real quantity (contrary to what they’ve shown so far).

The one exclusion from this paradigm, Curtis Granderson is definitely a realistic talent at the top of the lineup. A less powerful Rickey Henderson facsimile, Granderson is a five-tool force that can set the table for the big boppers and generate production with his bat and his legs. If he can learn to walk more and subsequently increase his .OBP, Granderson will be a vital feature piece on the Tigers for many years to come.

With his injury though, the Tigers are left without anyone who consistently reaches base. While many may site Polanco as a prototypical singles hitter who gets on base the reality is far less encouraging. He has never walked 50 times in a season and his .OBP has never reached .400.

“Table setters” are so scarce on this team that Leyland actually bats Ivan Rodriguez in the leadoff spot against lefties. While there is no doubt that Pudge is one of the best catchers who has ever lived, batting him in the leadoff spot is a farce. In 502 at bats last season Pudge walked 9 times. That is not a typo. His OBP was a paltry .281 and it regularly hovers in the low .300’s. A Hall of Famer? Yes. A leadoff hitter? No way.

The Yankees had Knoblauch and Jeter, the Red Sox Damon and latter Pedroia. Without this essential style of player, consistently on base and providing ample RBI opportunities for the sluggers in a given lineup, the Tigers are doomed to live and die by the long ball – a methodology that provides neither consistency nor a history of successful implementation.

While Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and Gary Sheffield (if his shoulder doesn’t fall off) may hit a great number of solo shots, this production will not result in victories, especially taking into account the fallibility of their pitching and their excessive need for a multitude of runs.

While Detroit is easily better then their dismal record, the fundamental baseball indicators are pointing towards unfulfilled expectation. Time after time throughout baseball history, big market teams like the Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox have proven that simply spending money – when done in an unfocused and illogical way – will not bring the ultimate success that is their goal. Nevertheless, every time a franchise dolls out big cash to bring high profile players into their clubhouse, the preseason hype machine will always anoint the unworthy.

The great thing about baseball is that, through all its changes and evolutions, the fundamental principles that govern its laws and probabilities remain the same. While in recent years the Bill James school of writers has quantified these variables with mathematical illustrations they are the same conventionalities (with the obvious exception of the new emphasis on a quality bullpen) that rang true when Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner roamed the diamond and Christy Mathewson dominated hitters with his fade ball.

Teams that pitch well and get on base frequently win championships. The numbers and the history thoroughly back this thesis, and the thesis thoroughly exposes the vulnerability of the Tigers and the reality of their struggles.

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About Anthony Tobis

  • Matthew T. Sussman

    Well, it’s a two-game winning streak later, and while I thought any winning streak would be the result of bashing and no bullpen relief, consider:

    • Aquilino Lopez, horrible? His ERA is 0.73 — One run allowed in 12 innings.
    • Todd Jones gave up his first run tonight in six games, moving his ERA to 1.50.

    Also, Clete Thomas is filling in nicely for Curtis Granderson. He’s hitting over .300 in his absence.

    They’ve got holes, but when nothing was working in the first two weeks, it’s really hard to gauge exactly what their problem is. Maybe their bullpen will actually be very good and the starting pitching will be horrible.

  • Tony

    Totally valid points.

    In the case of Lopez he has definately put up good numbers. From a pure talent evaluation standpoint (however qualified I am to make one of those) he reminds me of Matt Anderson or, at best, Kyle Farnsworthless. You need more then just a fastball once the league gets a book on you, but we’ll have to wait and see if he can develope a second pitch to offset his speed.

    As for Jonsey, yeah he’s kept it together thus far but seriously, does any Tiger fan really feel good about that guy closing ball game? He gave up 64 hits in 61.3 innings last year and in 06 he gave up 70 in 64. That’s a little much.

    Clete is awesome but what does his success say about the Tigers’ offense? With a guy nearly replicating Granderson-like stats they still can’t generate any offensive fluency. Maybe when Curtis comes back they can find a place for Clete in left, giving them something to work with at the top, but that’s up to Leyland.

    Forgive my skepticism on his long term prospects but the Tigers have definately had their share of Chris Sheltons and Ryan Rayburns, as have all teams.

    If Clete can keep it up they really could have something nice with the two of them.

  • Matthew T. Sussman

    “You need more then just a fastball once the league gets a book on you, but we’ll have to wait and see if he can develope a second pitch to offset his speed.”

    You don’t necessarily need to change speeds, but a breaking pitch can be just as effective. I looked at Aquilino’s pitching splits on ESPN, and it looks like his out pitch is actually a slider. Fastball and slider — those were Zumaya’s pitches too. (Now, Lopez is 32, so he’s not exactly a budding phenom.)

    “As for Jonsey, yeah he’s kept it together thus far but seriously, does any Tiger fan really feel good about that guy closing ball game?”

    Even though one needs more than the prescribed dosage of Maalox while watching him … at least I do. At face value, when you hear about a closer who allows a lot of baserunners and is probably last among closers in strikeouts, you’d think he’s horrible. But he blew six games last year. 13 other closers blew more than that, some with fewer saves. It’s at this point that you basically have to throw out the stats and numbers and just concede that Todd Jones is an old, old man with a slow, slow fastball, and somehow does the job good enough.

    Of course the other edge to that sword is that he’ll have the job until he blows three straight games with a 7-run lead. But this won’t be until he’s 53 years old.

    “Forgive my skepticism on his long term prospects but the Tigers have definately had their share of Chris Sheltons and Ryan Rayburns, as have all teams.”

    Understood, but Granderson will be back soon, and Thomas did his job as a replacement player. Furthermore … Raburn was certainly a shot of Red Bull for them in the second half last year but … is he really a Shelton-y flameout already? He’s still with the team. Shelton never even made it back to the majors a few months after The April To Remember.

  • Tony

    You can definately make that assertion about Jones, and there are definately are a good deal of closers who are far worse then him, that goes without saying.

    Jones just isnt championship caliber and neither is the rest of their pen.

    My point was never that the Tigers are a horrible team. Like I said in the piece, the Yanks of the 1980’s won more games than any other franchise in that decade. They just didn’t have the pieces in their rotation or their bullpen to bring it home.

    The team is good, they just aren’t championship caliber as they were projected to be. They will crush some teams like they did last night but in the end I don’t predict that to be enough.

  • RJ Elliott

    Brandon Inge is still the messiah.