The Purgatory of Competitiveness

Oh hai, a new post, first since 2013!

Right now, the Tigers are in purgatory.

The purgatory of competitive, but not championship quality, baseball.

Looking at this roster from top to bottom, we see a team that has enough talent to win on any given day. The aging sluggers could mash, Verlander/Fulmer could be dealing, or a decent, recently constructed back end bullpen could nail down a solid victory.

Unfortunately, on any other given day, the following could happen:

  1. The non-“Ver-ulmer” starters could be giving up tons of runs.
  2. We might have to use the members of our bullpen that aren’t Wilsons/Shane Green.
  3. Our aging sluggers aren’t mashing.

We certainly aren’t going to manufacture wins based on stealing bases/smart baserunning and playing great defense, qualities that have eluded the Tigers since 2006, with the exception of the Kinsler/Iglesias double play combination. Basically I see the 2017 Tigers as an amalgam of all the past big slugging/no baserunning teams of Jim Leyland’s time, but without the insanely dominant starting rotation.

So it’s hard for me to view the Tigers with a lot of optimism lately. Of course, a nice come from behind victory has me feeling a little bit better. But is this team good enough to pull off consistent 4,5, 6+ game winning streaks that are going to be necessary to stay afloat in the division race?

Maybe.

Fulmer looks like the real deal and that makes me happy. Verlander is walking too many guys but his stuff seems fine (I don’t worry about him too much, tbh). Norris I think is in the “Scherzer/Porcello pre Cy-Young” period of his career, where he will be mostly solid, bad sometimes, while showing frontline potential. I’m terrified of Zimmerman who looks bad, despite Tiger Twitter’s constant refrain of “his stuff looks good!” Sometimes you have to stop giving up homeruns all the time. And Boyd, who started the season fine, but has struggled, is a #5, and you are always going to need to have correct expectations for a #5.

Really, this whole thing rests on the Zimmerman signing. An effective Zimmerman gives the Tigers something resembling an elite rotation. Without that, it’s average-to-middling, which is exactly where they are headed if they don’t right the ship with him.

The offense will remain the usual feast-or-famine three run homer type. It is clear, though, that JD Martinez makes a huge difference in just the tenor and tone of the lineup. And why is he cleanup, instead of the rapidly aging Victor Martinez? Feelings? Contract?

I feel pretty so-so about Brad Ausmus as manager. He seems to have earned his stripes by being a fine developer of young players, but outside of Fulmer, which of the younger players are outperforming expectations? Yet, I think it is all too easy to blame him when the team’s problems are structural, caused by a combination of Dombrowski, Mike Illitch sentimentality, and Avila as GM.

Without Zimmerman returning to form (and perhaps improvements from Norris and more consistency from Verlander), we’ll putter along around .500, which is not good enough to attain a wildcard or division title. The best thing to do, if this is the case by the end of June, is to sell. I hate saying that, as I was on team NO SELL back in 2015, but it was easy to see how wrong I was then (Fulmer and Boyd, among others, being products of that selling).

What I do not want is the Tigers becoming the Red Wings, without the glory of actual championships: a wonderful team hanging on for sentimentality (and short term ticket sales and TV ratings). I went from a huge Red Wings “super fan” to a guy who barely knows the roster, partially due to business and family life (and moving around a lot), but also because they just weren’t interesting enough to devote time to follow (makes me sound like a terrible fan!).

This purgatory of competitiveness is purgatory because it is the most boring narrative. When your team is bad, every win feels delicious, and every sign that you are on the upswing feels awesome. Remember 2006? That was magical, and we were even mostly OK with the final result of that year. Remember 2003? Not quite magical, but do you remember the late season winning streak that allowed us to avoid having the worst season in MLB history? I do, quite vividly. It’s fun to be a scrappy underdog, and it’s fun to draft talented players (remember drafting Justin Verlander, and remember seeing his first MLB starts? I sure do!).

So whatever happens this season, I hope we either win enough to be competitive, or lose enough to clean house and start the rebuild. Let’s avoid purgatory and make baseball fun again.

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Reflections From Sunday: The Return of Barry Sanders

I’m still processing the Lions 31-30 win over the Cowboys on Sunday. I had a friend over, in the genre of “first time over at the house,” so the first half of the game was spent in that “don’t want to freak the guy out over my sports fandom*” zone. Discussions about kids, mundane life stuff, etc.

But as the game went on, we were drawn in by one player: Calvin. Now, I’d seen multiple 200 yard + games by Megatron. It’s bizarre when a player is so great that spectacular performances are actually trivial. But our appreciation was muted: the performance, 329 yards, the *real* NFL record (Flipper Anderson got 30 of his yards in overtime, so in reality, Calvin has the record) for yards by a receiver in one game, was about to be spoiled by a Lions loss.

Then, “The Comeback of 2013″ happened. I let out a whoop so loud that I scared the poor girl that is living in our home to study english, who has no idea about football or even ridiculous sports fandom (she thought they had lost, and had to be told later that they had in fact won, based on my battle cry at the end).

But the comeback was special, beyond getting us a needed win, because it allowed Calvin’s historic day to actually be appreciated sans any caveats. Frankly, the Lions, as a team, didn’t deserve to win, but Calvin Johnson, the player, did.

And Monday, as I sit and read Grantland and other various sports media, and how they gush and gawk about our brilliant receiver, and I see famous athlete twitter accounts like Lebron James shout out praise of the highest order, it struck me:

He’s back. Barry Sanders.

No, not literally. But I mean, the PHENOMENON, the thrill of having a player that is on another level from everyone else, that is back.

If you remember watching Sanders, you remember how every game was a potential thrill, because he was probably going to do something you hadn’t seen before. With Sanders, it was those brilliant runs, the type you see Reggie Bush do now, but with even more skill. With Calvin, it’s those giant hands, leaping, impossibly high, clutching, grabbing, snagging, with perfect timing, footballs out of the sky, defenders all around. The catches Calvin makes are works of art. The lob to the middle of the field with 6 minutes left in the 4th quarter, when the Lions were down ten points and looking defeated, was probably the prettiest catch of the day. Two defenders on each side, everything had to work in perfect order for the catch to happen. The leap. The extension of the arms. The catch itself. Pulling the ball in. It’s a machine of irreducible complexity, right down to how both defenders bounced off the 6’5” frame like pinballs.

Calvin’s growth into this extremely rare, once in a generation status was slower than Barry’s. Barry was pretty much instantly Barry. Literally from carry number one. Calvin showed his talent early, too, but the Lions were so bad, with quarterback play so hideous, that even his considerable raw talent wasn’t enough.

Megatron made “the leap” in 2011, when the Lions had a magical year. In particular, games against the Vikings and.. you guessed it, the Cowboys (after a similar “bulletin board” type incident occurred: Rob Ryan saying Johnson would be the #3 receiver for Dallas) would open people’s eyes beyond Detroit. And he proved it wasn’t a one season fluke last year, having an eye-popping season of over 1900 yards receiving.

One can only hope the Lions continue to have success this year, and take their solid 5-3 record into a playoff berth. Sports fans deserve to see this man play in bigger and better games. Think about the thrill of seeing Justin Verlander toe the slab in huge playoff games this past three years. We’ve only seen Megatron in one playoff game so far.

Let’s hope that, unlike the player I am now comparing him too, Johnson has more playoff opportunities.

*which, to be fair, is a borderline mental illness.

A Season In Review: 2013

Well, that sucks.

Ok, a lot didn’t. The fine folks at Bless You Boys are fighting the good optimistic fight and I love that about them, but deep down everyone is feeling the same way: bummed out.

And that is a good thing.

Let’s remember that Tiger baseball used to mean trying to hold off 100 losses, not trying to hold off resurgent east coast playoff teams. So yeah, we’ve risen the bar, and with the good comes the bad.

Predictions:

I didn’t really make any per se, but I did make a post lashing out at the Papa Grande experiment. Then Rob over at ByB posted a good rebuttal, and I sheepishly had to eat some crow when he initially performed well, and I even wrote a post owning up to it.

Except, I was right. All along.

The wheels came off for Papa, and we definitely squandered a few games while we figured out our bullpen situation. Enough to secure homefield advantage and therefore perhaps prevent the Ortiz grand slam? Maybe not, but it is this kind of “in the box” thinking (we MUST have an experienced closer(tm)) that bugged me about Jim Leyland in his latter years with the Tigers.

So I’m relieved, but saddened, that the guy who I named this blog after is not the manager anymore. Of course we owe Leyland a great deal for restoring Tiger baseball. But I think he knew and recognized what some of us did: he was running out of energy to do the job. Kudos to Jim for knowing when to bow out. He did a great job. He’ll be a great help to the organization in whatever role they have for him.

Anyway, let’s hope that the future Tiger skipper isn’t afraid to pull the trigger quickly on certain roster decisions, even for a beloved, veteran player, and let’s hope whoever takes over can manage to inspire Prince Fielder.

Breaking Bambino: The 2006 ALDS

Note: I originally posted this as a fanpost over at Bless You Boys. Since I actually, you know, have my own blog, I thought it should also go here:

Deflation. Dejection. Depression. This was the end of the 2006 regular season for Detroit Tiger fans. A magical summer spoiled by a team that sleepwalked through a huge division lead, backing into the playoffs as a wildcard.

Granted, we were happy to be in the show at all. But due to our slide, our matchup wasn’t at all favorable. It was the mighty New York Yankees, the sultans of swat. Jim Leyland said it best when he described their lineup as “Murders Row and (Robinson) Cano.”

Indeed, the Tigers would be heavy underdogs, having lost five straight games at home to end the season, while the Yankees featured a lineup in which every player was a current of former all star. To make matters worse, the Tiger’s ace that year, Kenny Rogers, was well known for his post season struggles. In every way possible, whether you believe in advanced metrics, old fashioned scouting, or just “gut feelings,” the Tigers had almost no chance.

Game one of the series only served to prove the point, as the Tigers fell 8-4. With an easy victory flowing smoothly into the Tiger’s late season collapse, the mood of the fanbase was grim. Surely next year was being thought of, and the kind of moral victories one imagines for their team when doom is certain, which was easy to do for this Detroit club: after all, nobody expected them to be here.

Game two was different. Featuring a fireballing but still very raw Justin Verlander, who would win rookie of the year, the Tigers battled back to win 4-3 after falling behind 3-1 on future Tiger but current Yankee Johnny Damon’s three run blast. Hope was rekindled, but, at least for this author, it only ensured the series wouldn’t be a pathetic sweep. There might have been some fight in these Tigers, but the next pitcher to toe the slab would be a man famous for late season meltdowns. I, and the fanbase, would await game 3 with much apprehension.

I can clearly remember that cold, crisp Friday night. I was still living in Ohio, and I drove to my friend’s house near Perrysburg, hometown of manager Jim Leyland, to watch the game. An early omen? Listening to the radio broadcast and hearing our old friend Ernie Harwell call a few innings. I distinctly remember Ernie’s light southern accent, describing the “native of Georgia, Kenny…. Rogers.” Ernie’s words acting as a blessing from baseball royalty, Kenny responded by pitching a strong first few innings.

Settling in and watching the rest on my friend’s comically old television (it might have also displayed the 1987 playoff run, it was so old), it became clear that this was a different “Gambler.” Pumping his fists after key outs, Rogers and the fans were fired up, and he did not give up a single run. We’d win this one 6-0, but it felt like a tighter, 3-0 game, and Rogers would win his first postseason game in his long career.

Hope? Maybe. I can’t speak for all Tiger fans, but while I was excited that my team was up 2-1, it just didn’t seem real. This was the freaking New York Yankees. Remember: this was before Alex Rodriguez became a shell of himself, and a similar Yankee team would win a World Series in 2009.

I can remember pacing around my house, watching Jeremy Bonderman throw over five perfect innings while our offense chipped in with timely hits. Run after glorious run, the scales were falling off of my eyes: The Tigers were actually going to do it. They weren’t going to just make the postseason for the first time in my “sports” life (I was too young to remember or appreciate the 1984 and 1987 teams), but they were really going to win a series! Against the hated Yankees, no less!

And the Detroit fanbase felt the same way. I’m not sure I could ever recall a more delirious audience, and the energy was enough to power Comerica Park by itself. With each passing inning, the stone of our David was hurtling towards New York’s lumbering Goliath, and soon, with the 9th inning over, it struck. The giant fell. The Yankees were defeated. Our season, thought to be something of a cute joke now spoiled, was validated. And we, and the rest of the world, understood: Detroit baseball had changed.

Sometimes it is a tricky thing to give credit where it is due in team sports. But there was no doubt in Detroit on that cold Saturday who was to be personally thanked for the Michigan baseball renaissance. Though he would laugh and scoff at this, the credit correctly went to Jim Leyland, the new Tiger manager, who turned, in his words, “talent into a team.” Whenever I think about that scene: Comerica rocking, the players going crazy, I think about who they turned to first: Jim. I think about how they hoisted him up on his shoulders, carrying him around. And isn’t it appropriate? Leyland IS David. He’s five foot nothing and weights not much more than the pack of marlboros he smokes. He had a ten minute professional baseball career, batting nothing. Leyland isn’t a great athlete, nor is he a stat crunching computer. Leyland’s like you. Like me. He’s us.

Yet I also think about myself: my parents were with us, in our house, and watching that game. The glorious Tiger baseball rebirth was all the more special because I was sharing it with my family, and especially my father, whom I have to “blame” for my Detroit sports fandom (for better or worse!). The energy in the ballpark transmitted precisely into my home. We were just as pumped, just as excited. We left the house immediately, headed to our favorite little Italian restaurant, and drank wine and pasta, toasting our beloved Tigers. It remains one of my most treasured baseball memories, and seeing Leyland hoisted on those shoulders would remain my favorite memory of him.

The Next Big Thing: A Tale of Tiger Starters Past

“Wait till you see this guy we got at Toledo,” Dad would say. “He throws a million miles an hour, he’s unhittable! Once we get him up to the show, we’ll be lights out!”

Growing up a Tigers fan in the miserable 90s, you had to hold on to any kind of hope you could, and a common hope was The Great Starting Pitcher To Come(tm). There seemed to be a slew of these, all the way until 2005 when Justin Verlander came on the scene (his stats weren’t great in his first stint, but everybody knew he’d be the man, and in 2006, his rookie year, he proved everyone right).

Let’s take a look at some of the great hopes of the past that didn’t quite work out.

*cue time machine*

1996: Justin Thompson

Justin Thompson

Young and innocent, but soon to be introduced to the joys of 100 loss seasons.

Thompson, at least to my memory, seemed the most “sure” of the bunch. He had good stuff, and went 15-11 with a ~3 ERA in 1997, and was well on his way to becoming at least a solid #3 or #2, if not an ace. But he virtually disappeared, first in a trade, then to injuries. He did, however, appear in the legendary Roger Clemens 20 strikeout game, called here on ye olde PASS by Ernie Harwell and Jim Price:

 

Just as Justin Thompson was beginning to flame out in 1999, the Tigers had their next “potential Ace.” Even though I have more fond memories of Justin Thompson as a sure thing, this pitcher actually did a bit more in his career as a Tiger. The problem, though, was that he was pretty unlikeable. His name, of course, was Jeff Weaver.

Jeff, later on as a Yankee.

In some ways, Weaver had some similarities to our actual, current ace. Weaver had a nasty, competitive attitude, and a real swagger. The problem, however, is while Verlander mostly keeps this bottled up, Weaver couldn’t seem to control his emotions. He’d get mad at umpires and show them up, and then the hits would start coming. He never achieved the consistency we’d see with Verlander, and he also had the ill fortune of playing on, of course, many awful Tiger teams in the Randy Smith era. Additionally, there was a nasty incident involving him and Matt Anderson, a relief pitcher, smoking weed on the Tiger’s chartered plane, in which both pitchers were accused of treating a flight attendant poorly.

All in all, it made perfect sense for new Tigers general manager and president Dave Dombrowski to use Weaver as a tool to help rebuild the Tigers, sending him off in a multiple team trade that would land the Tigers Jeremy Bonderman.

One sad post script for Tigers fans was seeing Weaver assist the Saint Louis Cardinals in winning the world series against the Tigers in 2006. He’d be out of baseball in just a couple of years, however, with his equally annoying but much better pitcher brother, Jered Weaver, anchoring the Anaheim Angels staff as their true ace.

Finally, we came to one, last, “next big thing.” No, not Jeremy Bonderman. I never really considered him a potential ace, and by the time “Bondo” was beginning to establish himself as a good starter, Verlander was well on his way to being an ace for real. Nope, we’re talking about…. Nate Cornejo.

I have nothing to add here.

The hardest part about Nate Cornejo is remembering that he was a next big thing at all. He never really established even a hint of dominance in the majors, his best year actually being the infamous 2003 campaign. He avoided losing 20 games like Mike Maroth (who deserved better), but had a strikeout rate so ludicrously low, that any sustained success in the majors would prove impossible. You don’t have to be Max Scherzer and K a bazillion guys per year to be successful, but you *do* have to miss *some* bats to succeed, and Nate just couldn’t do it. He’d wash out in 2005, and would soon be out of the majors entirely.

Finally, there are some “honorable mentions.” Remember Kenny Baugh? This was a Randy Smith pick that didn’t even make the major league club. A shoulder problem probably made Tiger brass cautious, and he was traded before he even got a shot despite solid minor league numbers. He’d injure his shoulder again, basically ruining his major league career.

As you can see, finding a true ace is very hard. The Tigers currently have four guys that could claim the “Ace” title, particularly Sanchez and Scherzer, but you have to remember that those guys, and of course Doug Fister, were all acquired by trades and not homegrown. And Rick Porcello, who has certainly proven himself to be a reliable major league starter, is yet another example of a guy thought to be the next “big thing” that is still trying to make that big leap, though Kid Rick is already doing better than most of the folks I mentioned in this article!

 

 

It’s OK To Be Wrong, If It Means the Tigers are Playing Well

So yeah, this is made worse by my infrequent posting here, but you’ll see just a post or two down from this one a post ridiculing Bless You Boys for suggesting bringing back Papa Grande. Which we did. To, so far, spectacular success. But, hey, who knew the guy had another 2-3 mph to add to his slowing fastball (losing some weight and adding a windup seemed to help), and he seems to have found his splitter. So great!

It’s totally OK to be wrong if it means the team we love is playing better, so it is all good. Heck, last year I wrote a post declaring this team to be, well, “not a good baseball team.”

Oddly enough, I was weirdly justified despite making it to the world series. Which sounds nuts, except:

1. Our division was awful.

2. Our playoff opponents were kinda weak sauce. The A’s were a scrappy bunch, but didn’t rate, while the Yankees were built with a bunch of aging parts- in some ways, the Yanks were like my old 2000 Ford Windstar van now: still hanging in there and performing well, but at *any point* the wheels could come off and the whole thing blows up.*

3. The Giants were the exact time the Tigers were not: a slick fielding, quick on their feet all around good *Baseball Team.* Of course, if Prince and Miggy hit tons of bombs and the starters pitch like they did, it wouldn’t matter (hence why I don’t entirely disagree with the Earl Weaver-esque construction of the current squad). But the bombs didn’t come, so we bombed.

Anyway, happy to be wrong, for now, about Papa. I always liked him anyway. And I certainly haven’t been wrong about other stuff I suspected would be the case, which is:

1. Anibal Sanchez being terrific. Look back a few more posts and you’ll see me get RIPPED by some internet yahoo over that Infante/Sanchez deal. If I can laugh at myself for getting some stuff wrong, I can pat myself back for being REALLY DARN RIGHT.

2. The offense is clearly better. Better production from the bottom. More consistent production from the top. Just a better offense. Sweep by Anaheim aside, we shouldn’t see too many long funks this year.

 

*let’s hope my car, while not my primary vehicle anymore, still has at least a year left in her!

 

 

A simple formula for why we (for now) stick with Rondon

Valverde = not super accurate, dead arm, doesn’t miss bats.

Rondon = not super accurate, live arm, misses bats.

Any questions?

 

In all seriousness, we are now going through the predictable exercise of “Rondon didn’t pitch perfect OH NO.” It is understandable and predictable (although the Lynn Henning HE IS FAT thing was not expected- Henning reminds me of my late grandmother, a lovely woman, but one who always seemed a little overly worried about people’s waistlines!). Let’s not freak out about Rondon just yet. It is still March 3, with plenty of spring training. Besides, I’m a true believer in the old “closers are overrated” anyway, as last year’s playoff run should have taught us.

Am I amenable to a veteran reliever being nabbed if Rondon does really really bad as March, um, “Marches” on? Sure. But now is not the time.

Sigh, and I see that Victor Martinez has become the Matthew Stafford of baseball for the Detroit fanbase: everyone worries about an injury. Tons of trolls on Detnews.com saying stuff like “it is all downhill from here” and the like.

Of course, I’m not one to bash fans to much- as I’ve said before on this blog- passionate fans are going to act like this and it is OK. But hopefully we can all take some chill pills and enjoy the return of “fake” baseball- we can act irrational all we want once the games count 🙂