Flying Tigers: Waiting for Takeoff

A month into the season, the Detroit Tigers sit atop the tightly bunched AL Central with a tenuous 12-9 record. The team, guided by first-time manager Brad Ausmus, looks and feels much different than it did over the last two years. Whether due to the change at the helm or a not-quite-coherent set of offseason moves, the 2014 Tigers appear to have traded identity for tactics and strategy. Thus begins Flying Tigers,* our third Detroit baseball series.

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When Jim Leyland announced his retirement following the end of the 2013 season, we knew Motor City baseball would be different in 2014, but we didn’t realize just how different it would be.     Continue reading

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Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One

baseball notesWhen it comes to baseball pitchers, most fans focus on pitch speed. This makes sense. The 100-mph-fastball is a pop culture/athletic touchstone, and who hasn’t been to a carnival in central Ontario and tried to throw three hard pitches at the same velocity while your ten-year-old brain realizes the km/h readings on the gun have little meaning to your life? But in general, if you throw the ball faster, it’s harder to hit, right?

One of the biggest baseball stories through the first half of the season is the noticeable (and noticed, obviously) drop in pitch velocity for flamethrower Justin Verlander. Coupled with middling success (when compared with recent, historic-level years), falling pitch speed is the ready response for writers attempting diagnoses of Verlander’s struggles. (C.C. Sabathia has fallen under similarly themed scrutiny.)

While the real reason for Verlander’s struggles likely exists within a more complex mix of factors, the popular focus on pitch speed provides a good entry point for introducing two other pitching components that probably are more important than velocity alone and that are easy for casual fans to understand and track. (That’s the whole point of this series of posts, after all.)

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Bay of Cigs: April in the D

As briefly mentioned at the end of the last post, ALDLAND will have a presence in Detroit this weekend, where the Tigers will host the Atlanta Braves for three games, beginning tonight.

After twenty games, the Tigers can’t seem to get themselves above .500, and the early ride has been bumpy.

Yesterday afternoon’s game was particularly rough. After allowing just one earned run, starter Justin Verlander left the game with a lead on the scoreboard and a sore throwing-hand thumb. Rookie reliever Bruce Rondon, making his first major-league appearance, promptly gave up that lead, and then the ball. Phil Coke entered and, through a series of walks of varying intentionalities, put Detroit behind. Darin Downs relieved Coke and immediately gave up a grand slam. The supposedly hard-hitting Tigers, who have a way of not scoring late, plated no runs from the fifth inning on through the tenth, when they lost.

As anyone reading Upton Abbey knows, the Braves are red-hot. The consensus best team in baseball, Atlanta is off to a 15-6 start, and they’re hitting home runs like crazy. I haven’t taken a close look at their runs/inning distribution, but it sure seems like they can hit for power both early and late.  Keep reading…

Bay of Cigs: Jet Set (Sigh?)

papa jetAirships are away in the Detroit Tigers empire as I write. After a crash landing at the final destination of the team’s only West Coast trip, the Tigers limped back to the Motor City, and promptly (indeed, retroactively) placed Octavio Dotel, who has been pitching without a functioning elbow since Oakland, on the disabled list. In immediate need of bullpen reinforcements, GM Dave Dombrowski & Co., air traffic controller furloughs be damned, revved up the sky fleet. The first move was to bring the franchise’s top relief prospect, Bruce Rondon, in from Toledo, something that admittedly is unlikely to require the services of a jet airliner. But then! Wheels up! Jose Valverde is on a flight to Detroit RIGHT NOW! The town and team turned on the once-perfect (49-0!) reliever after a down year last season, but now, in their need, redemption? The front office is mum for now, but the implication from Valverde’s comments this evening is that, at the end of his short-term minor league contract, he will sign a one-year contract with the club in Detroit.

What does all of this mean for a should-be frontrunner floundering in third place in the weak AL Central with a .500 record? Even though it’s early, and fans of baseball teams that struggle early love to rail against “small sample sizes,” we can set aside results and other numbers and acknowledge that the bullpen was working way too hard this month, and two fresh, if unsteady, arms are sure to provide at least temporary relief for a staff that seems like it could use a collective deep breath. For Rondon, my hope is that he’s ready for the big leagues. For Valverde, I just hope he has enough left to allow the coaches to use him in a way that helps the team. That may be ending this jet-set flourish with something of a sigh, but let it be, in part, a sigh of relief as you remind yourself that at least it wasn’t Brennan Boesch’s birthday flight that landed at DTW this evening.

Keep reading to find out who else will be on a flight to Detroit this week…

Bay of Cigs: A Tiger is a Tiger is a Tiger

Buster Olney reports:

Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers have reached agreement on a new contract that could exceed $202 million, sources told ESPN’s Buster Olney.

Verlander’s deal, which would make him the highest-paid pitcher in the game, is for seven years and worth $180 million, sources said. A vesting option for an eighth year could push the deal to $202 million.

Verlander, who would have been eligible to become a free agent after the 2014 season, had recently said he wouldn’t discuss a new contract if a deal didn’t get done by the end of spring training.

Verlander celebrated with a baby tiger (above). Additional details are not known.

In other pitching news, the team sent relief prospect Bruce Rondon back to the minors and announced they’ll begin the season with a “closer-by-committee” approach. The seven-member committee reportedly does not include Rick Porcello, who was listed as part of Detroit’s starting rotation. As mentioned last time, I was a bit concerned that management might give him the relief job, but since then, Jonah Keri assuaged my fears about that prospect,

and yesterday’s announcement makes it look like that possibility will not come to pass. Still, it would be nice to have one go-to guy who is reliable, even if he isn’t quite the unicorn on a waterslide that was 2011 Jose Valverde. Look to people far more qualified than I to say whether GM Dave Dombrowski, a personnel master of the first order, can bring in someone capable of holding down the job. For now, though, I think Dombrowski has earned a weekend off after locking up Verlander for the meaningful future.

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Previously
Bay of Cigs: The Departed – 3/14

Bay of Cigs: The Departed

Last baseball season, I kept a Detroit Tigers diary here called “The DET Offensive,” a nod to all of the offensive firepower Detroit added in the offseason, primarily in the form of Prince Fielder. This season, the return of Victor Martinez and the acquisition of Torii Hunter make the Tigers even more of a threat with the bat. Their biggest question headed into the year is at the closer position. Jose Valverde had a perfect season two years ago, but he dropped off significantly last year, and GM Dave Dombrowski sent him packing as a result. Phil Coke filled in at that position quite admirably during the playoffs, but for whatever reason, he isn’t being considered for it as we head into the 2013 season. Instead, management seems to be waffling between minor league sensation Bruce Rondon (intriguing) and Rick Porcello (GAHHHHH!).      Continue reading