Unlikely Heroes Propel The Detroit Tigers To 1st Place

On the surface, this seems like a year where the Detroit Tigers haven’t seen things go their way. Justin Verlander is having a bad year—not just bad for him, but bad, period. Max Scherzer is pitching decently, but isn’t the Cy Young Award pitcher he was a year ago. Miguel Cabrera is swinging a good bat, but actually looks human after two straight surreal MVP years and a Triple Crown in 2012.



On top of all this, the Tigers are playing for a rookie manager in Brad Ausmus, with respected veteran Jim Leyland having retired after 2013. But it hasn’t slowed Detroit down.

Coming into Tuesday night, they’re 61-48, have a reasonably comfortable 4 ½ game cushion in the AL Central, and were one of the big winners at the trade deadline when they acquired Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price. So how has Detroit done it?

Detroit TigersThe success of 2014 begins and ends with offense. The Tigers are fourth in the American League in runs scored, while the staff ERA ranks 10th. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story—Comerica Park is a pure pitchers’ park, one of only two in the American League that can qualify as such (Oakland being the other). Which in practice means the Detroit offense is even better, and the pitching even worse.

Cabrera overcame a slow start and has a healthy .371 on-base percentage/.528 slugging percentage. Victor Martinez is having an even better year, at .383/.569. But the big surprise comes in left field.

J.D. Martinez has numbers of .360/.595 and has come out of nowhere to take a position that had been an offensive liability in recent years and made it a major strength. Another positive surprise has been Rajai Davis, with his .343/.432 stat line in center that gave the club the confidence to trade Austin Jackson to the Seattle Mariners. And shortstop Eugenio Suarez has at least been competent with the bat, with a .329 OBP, after taking over for incumbent Jose Iglesias who was lost for the season in spring training.

Detroit’s lineup has also benefitted from the offseason move to trade Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler. Fielder ended up with neck problems, started poorly and then hit the DL for the balance of the year. Kinsler’s .323/438 numbers aren’t earth-shattering, but are better than whomever the organization would have had to replace Fielder with. And come October, Fielder’s poor postseason performances won’t be missed.

The Kinsler deal also enabled the defense to fall into place. Cabrera returned to his natural position at first base, where his soft hands enable him to excel and his lack of range isn’t as problematic as it was at third base. I have to think playing first is easier on the groin problems that he developed toward the end of last season.

It’s all added up to a lineup that leads the American League in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, batting average and doubles. They’re only eighth in home runs, which likely explains why all that only translates into fourth in runs scored. But in this park, that’s still plenty.

If Martinez, Davis and Suarez were the pleasant surprises in the everyday lineup, then the pitching rotation was saved by an unlikely hero in Rick Porcello. The righthander has won 13 games and has a 3.18 ERA, the best on the staff prior to Price’s arrival. Anibal Sanchez, one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball is 8-5 with a 3.37 ERA.

The bullpen has the same kind of problems that bedeviled them all of last year and ultimately cost them Games 2 & 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox. But the Tigers are looking to fix them. They added Joakim Soria from Texas at the trade deadline. Between Soria and Joe Nathan, hopefully Ausmus can find a hot hand to handle the ninth. Joba Chamberlain and Al Albuquerque have pitched well in middle relief and setup.

That’s how Detroit kept themselves not only afloat, but thriving for four months of this season. The offense stepped up and an unlikely pitching hero was found. Now Price makes his first start as a Tiger tonight in Yankee Stadium. Perhaps Verlander can find his form. The role players have done their job, and the time for the stars to start shining is coming soon.