Tigers Tale: Detroit Commanded By Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson

Detroit Tigers
One month into the season, the Tigers have a record of 14-9, which gives them the second-best winning percentage in the American League behind the Oakland A’s. Right now, Detroit is on top of the American League Central by two games over the 14-13 Kansas City Royals. However, the Tigers still have a fair share of question marks, but by command of Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson, among others, Detroit has solidified itself as the AL Central’s best team once again.

Last season, the Tigers were one of the best teams in baseball from multiple perspectives. On offense, Detroit finished first in batting average and second in on-base and slugging percentage. Their pitching was elite as well, finishing third in the American League in ERA and first in strikeouts. Miguel Cabrera won the MVP, making it the third consecutive season that a Tigers’ player won that award. Max Scherzer, who had not won more than 16 games in a season before last year, won the Cy Young after going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA. Still, the Tigers could not go all the way in October, as they lost to the Boston Red Sox a gut-wrenching American League Championship Series chock-full of grand slams and misery.

In the off-season, GM Dave Dombrowski made a few head-scratching moves. He let closer Joaquim Benoit leave for free agency while signing 39-year-old closer Joe Nathan to a two-year/$20 million contract with an option for 2016. Then, Dombrowski shipped starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray. This move received flak from the Tiger faithful, as Fister had gone 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA in two and a half seasons with Detroit. He was also clutch in October, as he has gone 3-2 with a 2.98 ERA in eight postseason appearances in his three season in Detroit. The Tigers also let shortstop Johnny Peralta leave to free agency, as they believed Jose Iglesias was sufficient as their everyday shortstop. The Tigers made few improvements to their roster in the off-season, but their amazing play in 2013 implies they really did not need to do so.

2014 started off rough for the Tigers, as they lost Iglesias for at least five months with stress fractures in both of his legs. All of the sudden, the Tigers did not have an MLB-level shortstop, and they tried to scramble to find one. On March 24, Detroit traded recently acquired Steve Lombardozzi for 37-year-old Alex Gonzalez, who had not played shortstop everyday since 2011. After playing in just nine regular season games, and making three errors, the Tigers released Gonzalez, making the Fister trade look even more foolish. Since then, Andrew Romine has been starting every day at shortstop, and while his 56 OPS+ in 15 games is sub-par, he has been an adequate defensive player. Especially for a team that expects to win the World Series this year, a question mark at the vital position of shortstop is extremely detrimental. There have been rumors that Detroit will sign Stephen Drew eventually, and through one month, that hypothetical is beginning to seem more necessary.

Even without Fister, the starting pitching has been outstanding through the first month. After establishing themselves as baseball’s best one-two punch last season, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander have practically matched each other start-for-start, as both have a 3-1 record in six outings. However, Scherzer’s 2.08 ERA and 51 strikeouts exceeds Verlander’s 2.48 clip and 31 punch-outs. Rick Porcello is also 3-1 in just four starts, and while he has not earned his first win, Anibal Sanchez has posted a 3.13 ERA in five starts while striking out 24 in 23 innings. Drew Smyly has made two starts, as the Tigers did not need a fifth starter until April 18 due to their schedule, and pitched poorly in one and well in the other. It will be hard to find a better rotation if Verlander and Scherzer could pitch to their ability in the same season, but the Fister move still makes little sense. Pitchers go down to injuries all the time, and Detroit could have a major problem in the back-end of their rotation if one of their starters gets hurt. Fister was a solid starting pitcher in Detroit, and with the scarcity of good pitching, it seems bone-headed to ship him away for little return.

The bullpen has had its fair share of struggles in the first month of 2014, to say the least. Joe Nathan has pitched better of late, but his 5.06 ERA and 1.406 WHIP are troublesome for a pitcher being trusted with the ninth inning. Joba Chamberlain, who the Tigers signed over the off-season as to be the set-up man, has a 4.35 ERA in 12 appearances, but his 12.2 K/9 rate is top-notch. Overall, the Tigers have a bullpen ERA of 5.37, which is No. 14 out of 15 teams in the American League. The fact that as a team, Detroit is fifth in team ERA proves that the starters have been carrying the load thus far. The Tigers recently signed late-inning reliever Joel Hanrahan, so the bullpen should improve, but the entire until will have to step it up quickly if the Tigers are championship-contenders. While Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson have commended the Tigers thus far, the entire team must follow suit for Detroit to accomplish what they intend to accomplish.

Offensively, the Tigers have been really good, but nothing compared to last season. They lead the American League with a .273 batting average, but their OPS of  .734 is just No. 5 out of 15 teams. While outfielders Austin Jackson and Rajai Davis have presently surprised, other players have disappointed the masses. Miguel Cabrera is finally beginning to look mortal, as his .277/.320/.415 line with just two home runs is nothing close to the type of production he showed in the past. Nevertheless, all players have bad months, and the back-to-back MVP winner should turn it around soon. Cabrera has not hit below .324 in a season since 2008, and it is only a matter of time before he returns to his old self. Catcher Alex Avila is once again proving that his 2011 season, when he had a 142 OPS+, was a fluke, by posting a .220/.339/.300 line and zero home runs in 19 games. The offense has been good enough, but, like the pitching, it has not been as elite as 2013.

Pitcher of the Month: Max Scherzer

The Tigers must have felt stupid for not offering Scherzer an extension before 2013 because his value rose exponentially after winning the Cy Young. With his contract set to expire after the 2014 season, Detroit offered Scherzer a six-year/$144 million contract, but the right-hander turned it down to test the market. When a player turns down $24 million per year, he must be damn sure that the best is yet to come. Through six starts, Max Scherzer has proven just that. His 11.77 K/9 rate is highest of any qualified American League starter, and he has five quality starts already. Verlander, who started Opening Day, has been outstanding as well as he has pitched at least seven innings in four of his six starts. Nevertheless, Verlander’s 7.0 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 rates suggest that Scherzer has been slightly better. Scherzer and Verlander have the potential to be baseball’s best two-headed ace since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, and both Tigers’ hurlers have been on another level in the first month of 2014.

Batter of the Month: Austin Jackson

Since making his debut in 2011, Austin Jackson has shown tremendous potential but has struggled to showcase his talent at times. Detroit hoped that Jackson had turned the corner in 2012 after posting a .300/.377/.479 line, which is good for a 129 OPS+, but he took a step back in 2013 and finished with just a 104 OPS+. However, Jackson has played tremendously through the first month of 2014, accumulating a .307/.391/.520 line with 10 extra-base hits in 22 games. Especially with a cold Miguel Cabrera, Jackson’s performance has been vital to the Tigers’ success in the early going. Another hitter who has destroyed for the Tigers is new acquisition Rajai Davis, who has posted a 130 OPS+ on the season. Although Davis has not posted an OPS+ over 100 since 2009 and his recent production seems unsustainable, he has also stolen eight bases in 2014. Davis’ greatest weapon is his speed, and in his career, he has 276 stolen bases in 840 games.

Luckily for the Tigers, players like Austin Jackson, Rajai Davis, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander have stepped up and commanded this team, Detroit has holes on their roster that need to be filled. This could finally be the year that the Detroit Tigers win the World Series, but changes must be made if that dream is to become a reality.

Commentary by Jough Brasch

Baseball Reference
The Detroit News
USA Today

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