Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 29, 2006
BASEBALL: Big Cats
The 35-15 Detroit Tigers have been baseball's biggest surprise team thus far, burying the more highly-regarded Indians and Twins in a double-digit early hole and even outdistancing the Thome-powered White Sox.
Globally, Jim Leyland of course deserves credit for finally lighting a fire under this long-dormant predator. But how are they doing it? The first and obvious answer would seem to be: pitching. The American League as a whole has an unsightly 4.75 league ERA, which if continued over a full season would be its highest since 2000, and 7th highest of all time:
(Hey, somebody check that DiMaggio kid for steroids!)
Anyway, even in this most inhospitable climate, Tigers pitchers are posting a sparkling 3.36 ERA, running away from the #2 White Sox at 4.13 and the #3 & 4 Yankees and Red Sox at 4.28 and 4.47. But while Detroit has some good young or young-ish arms like Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya, the fact is that most of them are overachieving the ERAs they should have based on their K/BB and HR rates, with the significant exception of Bonderman. Look at the K/9 figures for the rotation: Bonderman's at 7.57, but he's the only one striking out a significant number of batters; the others are at 5.73 for Nate Robertson, 5.24 for Verlander, 4.41 for Kenny Rogers, and 4.12 for Mike Maroth (although they do throw strikes - Robertson's at 3.47 BB/9, but the others are all down between 2.14 and 2.81).
The real answer is defense: both the Hardball Times and the Baseball Prospectus have Detroit rated above the Cardinals as the best defensive team in baseball this season in terms of turning balls in play into outs. As Bill James used to say, "much of what we perceive as pitching is in fact defense." Then again, give the Detroit staff credit for throwing enough strikes to let the fielders do their jobs.
There's also POWER. The Tigers' .336 team OBP is a bit below the league average of .339 (Curtis Granderson's doing his bit and is on pace for 87 walks, but nobody else is on pace to draw 70), but they are slugging .474 as a team; as I discussed here, the all time record is .491 by the 2003 Red Sox, followed by .489 for the 1927 Yankees (the 1953 Dodgers slugged .474). Given the .431 mark for the AL as a whole, that slugging average isn't of historic proportions (in fact, the Blue Jays lead the league at .490) and isn't as impressive as the team's ERA, but it's enough to put plenty of runs on the board even in the absence of a surfeit of baserunners. Detroit has mainly done this with 1977 Red Sox-style depth and Chris Shelton's hot start (Shelton's now at .603 and the rejuvenated Magglio Ordonez, who may earn his big contract if he can stay healthy all this year, at .571, while Marcus Thames steams along at his Toledo pace at .707. But like I said: the bats may be carrying their weight, but it's the gloves that are making the difference.