The Detroit Tigers are having quite the season, at 61-50 coming into tonight’s game against the Mariners. We asked Rob Rogacki, editor of sister site Bless You Boys, how in the hecking hell they’re doing it.
(LL) Fans of ruin porn have circled around the Tigers for years, awaiting the moment when the weight of the contracts handed out to players like Verlander, Zimmerman, Upton, Cabrera, Martinez, and others will finally come crashing down and turn the Tigers into a hollow shambleman. Yet, here they are, currently in 2nd Wild Card position. What is holding this team together, and is this something that you think will hold beyond 2016?
(RR) For the most part, the very players you mentioned are the ones that have kept the Tigers in the playoff hunt. Justin Verlander had a red-hot month in July, and has a 2.65 ERA over the past three months. Miguel Cabrera was a tick off his usual super-human self during the first half, but still made the AL All-Star team and now has a 145 wRC+. Jordan Zimmermann has fallen off lately, but was the Tigers' best pitcher in April and May. Justin Upton has done the opposite, picking up his production after an awful April.
And then there are the role players. Michael Fulmer has blown away all expectations and become the Tigers' best pitcher this year. Cameron Maybin is still defying the BABIP gods whenever the injury gods don't smite him (he's currently on his third wrist injury of the year). Nick Castellanos is finally reaching his potential as a hitter, Shane Greene became a bullpen ace, and Matt Boyd had a 2.21 ERA for the month. Even Anibal Sanchez might be coming back from the dead.
Which is to say 2016 might be their year, and we are all willfully ignoring what happens in future seasons.
(LL) I, like many baseball fans, have taken great joy in making fun of Brad Ausmus and his, erm, creative managerial techniques. At times it has felt like he was days from being fired. But he's now got this team in playoff position. Has he changed in any appreciable way, or has the team simply just started playing better?
(RR) A lot of it comes down to the team staying healthy and playing better, but Ausmus has improved as a manager in 2016. He still has his faults -- he's about as by-the-book as you can imagine when it comes to bullpen management -- but his aggressive use of Shane Greene and Justin Wilson is a nice improvement. He has also been quicker to pull struggling starters out of games, a necessity when Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez are taking the ball every fifth day.
Ausmus has also been more willing to use pinch hitters this year, though this could also be due to an improved roster. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, in particular, has been used quite frequently in pinch-hit situations, and J.D. Martinez's pinch-hit blast last week was the difference in a crucial game.
Overall, fans are still very neutral when it comes to their manager, but the torches and pitchforks are no longer visible.
(LL) Miguel Cabrera is very quietly triple-slahing .311/.385/.552 in his ninth year in Detroit. His career wRC+ over thirteen+ seasons is 152. Clearly Ty Cobb is the greatest Detroit Tiger of all time, but outside of that where does Cabrera end up in the pantheon of Tiger greats?
(RR) Many fans already view Cabrera among the top five Tigers of all-time, and he may find himself a clear No. 2 to Cobb when all is said and done. Cabrera's stats compare favorably to slugger Hank Greenberg, but like so many stars of Hammerin' Hank's era, he lost a few of his prime seasons to World War II. Second baseman Charlie Gehringer is also in the conversation, along with outfielder Al Kaline, who is known as "Mr. Tiger" around these parts. Where Cabrera ranks on this list will vary from person to person, but he's already in very select company.
(LL) A friend and I have jokingly referred to Justin Upton in the past as the most disappointing star player in baseball. Clearly Upton's 2016 isn't anything like what the team was hoping for when he was signed. What has been the cause of his struggles, and what is the projection for him moving forward, into the second year of a six (!) year deal?
(RR) Upton's struggles have been somewhat of a mystery. He had an abysmal April, hitting just .221/.242/.326. He wasn't much better in May, with a .612 OPS. All of his peripherals lined up with these poor numbers -- he was swinging at more bad pitches, whiffing more on pitches in the zone, you name it -- but there was never any mention of why.
Luckily, Upton has broken out. He hit .278/.320/.522 in July, and his June numbers were passable as well. There was no word of any sort of injury in the first half, so my theory is that he took longer than usual to adjust to AL pitching. The power has been there all along -- his few homers in April and May still went a long, long way -- and he's finally starting to put it to good use. So long as he exercises that opt-out clause after year two (pretty please?), the Tigers should be in business.
(LL) Does Mike Ilitch sign so many 30+ players to feel young, and/or what are the health restorative properties of a $5 Hot N' Ready?
(RR) I don't know about restorative properties, but those pizzas are certainly good for frequent (if not regular or healthy) digestive movement.
We are grateful to Rob for his time, and wish him all the best beginning Thursday.