Jim Leyland still isn’t buying media narratives

leyland-heat

If you’ve missed hearing Jim Leyland’s gravely voice churning up prefabricated media narratives like rocks in a cement mixer, then do not miss the MLB Network special on Leyland, which airs tonight at 9:00 Eastern.

In advance of the program, Leyland appeared today on MLB Network’s High Heat, refusing to take the bait as host Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo persistently and loudly (as expected) ran Leyland through some of the tougher moments in his more than twenty years as a major-league manager.

For me, Leyland, with his lovable disdain for the media, memorable battles with umpires, smoking of Marlboro Reds, and the mutual affection between him and his players and assistant coaches, is an essential part of the recent stretch of Detroit Tigers success, and he means a lot to the Marlins and Pirates communities too. The mere mention of a Jim Leyland special probably is enough to send most baseball fans to their televisions or DVRs, but if you’re on the fence, here’s the preview video, which includes this shot:

leyland-costas

Plus this guy(!):

gene-leyland

This is going to be a good show no matter what, but I will be a little disappointed if we don’t get to see Leyland singing (or not singing) or talking about his sweet pre-game ritual or post-game dancing.

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Shane Greene Outduels A.J. Burnett as Tigers Hurdle Pirates to Avenge Only Loss

hurdle

After the Pittsburgh Pirates handed the Detroit Tigers their only loss of the 2015 season on Monday afternoon, Detroit sought and found revenge against Pittsburgh Tuesday night. The Tigers’ first seven games were marked by nearly unbridled offense (+32 run differential, second only to Kansas City and, excluding third-best Oakland (+28), not close to anyone else), but they looked to their defense for a bounceback win in game eight. Starting pitcher Shane Greene, making his second start for the Tigers after his acquisition from the Yankees during the offsesason, was excellent. In particular, Greene was highly efficient, averaging just over ten pitches per inning for eight innings of three-hit, no-walk, shutout baseball. Not-insubstantial credit for his performance is due to key defensive plays by Jose Iglesias, Ian Kinsler, and J.D. Martinez. (Greene, who was making his first-ever plate appearances as a major leaguer, was generally ineffective with his brand-new Louisville Sluggers, but no one should care because this from his mother was adorable.)

Pittsburgh starter A.J. Burnett also had a strong outing, but he could not keep the Tigers at bay forever. The visitors broke through with one run in the seventh and, thanks to some heads-up baserunning by Iglesias, an insurance run in the ninth. Joakim Soria retired the Pirates side in the bottom of the ninth to seal the win.

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A minor subplot during this pitchers’ duel was the seemingly vertically compressed strike zone of home-plate umpire David Rackley, who had little interest in labeling anything up in the zone a strike. I was watching the Pittsburgh broadcast via MLB Network, but even I had to agree with the Pirate faithful that Rackley was robbing Burnett, who was throwing plenty down and away, when he even tried to go up in the zone. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle certainly thought so, and after Rackley sided with the batter on a second or third Burnett pitch that really appeared to be in the zone, Hurdle started hollering at Rackley from the dugout, and Rackley tossed him as Jim Leyland watched from the front row.

Taking a fresh look at last night’s pitches this morning, it appears that my eyes did not deceive me, and Hurdle et al. were justified in their complaining:

burnettpitchplotI’ve circled in blue what I believe to be the Burnett pitch that immediately preceded the Hurdle ejection. Looked like a strike last night, and it looks like one today too. In Rackley’s limited defense, he wasn’t really calling any high strikes, but that defense isn’t much of a defense at all in the broader scheme of things. Consistency is important, but an umpire’s imposition of his own personal, deviant strike zone really isn’t.

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Our 2015 Tigers series, Window Shopping, will begin in earnest very soon. Consider this post a prequel, and until I can get the engine revved up, I encourage you to enjoy this 2015 Tigers season preview to which I contributed in significant part.

Flying Tigers: Closing the Book on 2013

Rock and Roll never forgets, and neither does ALDLAND. Last season, I took a look at whether the Tigers struggled to score later in games, a trend that, if shown and in combination with the team’s bullpen woes, would make comeback wins less likely. While the preliminary numbers suggested I was onto something, the trend appeared even more pronounced with one-hundred games’ worth of data. The purpose of this post is to make good on the promise implicit in that last one by completing the full season’s worth of data.

First, an aside on data collection. I previously gathered and organized these inning-by-inning run totals by hand because I didn’t realize Baseball Reference actually tracks that information. In order to maintain the same error potential, and because B-R doesn’t separate the runs/inning between wins and losses, I’ve updated (a simplified version of) my chart as I did before.

r-in 2013

Continue reading

The Forgettable Gene Lamont

These days, Gene Lamont is known, if at all, as one of the holdover members of Jim Leyland’s merry band of ice-cream-nibbling baseball veterans, now filling the role of bench coach for rookie Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. Attentive fans might know that he, along with former first base coach Andy Van Slyke, were together with Leyland in Pittsburgh when the skipper managed the Pirates, and even that Lamont himself managed those Pirates when Leyland left Pittsburgh to manage the Marlins and Rockies. If the Tigers fan we’re describing is me, then that’s pretty much the extent of common Gene Lamont knowledge.

As I wrote last month, if baseball fans think of one thing when they think of 1994, they think of the Montreal Expos. Everyone agrees they had the best team in baseball during that shortened season and would’ve won the franchise’s only World Series had it not been cancelled due to a labor dispute, potentially changing the course of baseball history in the process. Everyone, that is, except for Gene Lamont.

On Sunday, FanGraphs posted an interview with Lamont, who was the manager of the Chicago White Sox from 1992-95. Excerpts from that post follow:    Continue reading

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

Bay of Cigs: Shutting it Down

jimmysmokes

More on this season may or may not follow.

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Previously
Playoff Prelude – 10/4
Playoff Time – 9/30
Heeeeeere’s Jhonny?
– 9/12
Crime & Punishment – 8/7
Trader Jose(s) – 7/31
100 days of summer run distribution – 7/25
Are the Tigers the unluckiest team in baseball? – 6/28
Forget what you know
 – 6/25
History and Revision – 6/12
Tigers beat Braves 7-4 as part of series sweep of visiting Atlanta
 – 5/7
April in the D – 4/26
Jet Set (Sigh?)
 – 4/23
Run distribution, science, and the likelihood of a Detroit comeback – 4/15
WSJ throws a wet newspaper on the Tigers’ 2013 chances
 – 4/3
A Tiger is a Tiger is a Tiger – 3/29

The Departed – 3/14

Bay of Cigs: Playoff Time

The regular season is (basically) over. October begins tomorrow. The Tigers are in the playoffs. All of this is good news, and the AL Central-clinching game– Jim Leyland’s emotional 700th win with the Tigers– was worth celebrating.

These Tigers are built to contend for and win a World Series championship, so, for Detroit, the real action begins in Oakland on Friday.

Unlike the A’s, the Tigers are entering the playoffs cold and disjointed. First and foremost, Miguel Cabrera’s abdomen/groin injury/ies appear anything but resolved. There’s no question that he’ll be in the lineup for every game this month, but I have plenty of questions about how productive he can be. Without his consistent hitting power, together with a serviceable level of capability on the basepaths and on defense, it’s difficult to see how Detroit can defend its American League championship and make a return to the World Series. Little is publicly known about Cabrera’s current health aside from what can be gleaned from watching him play, but I’m worried about the signals the visuals and the team’s silence are sending.

Second, the bullpen continues to be a serious weakness for Detroit. This has been an issue since day one of this season, and while it seems like there’s been some progress on that front, I don’t feel a lot more confident in the middle relief after 162 games than I did in March. There’s help here, though. Because the playoff schedule is such that a team only needs, at most, four starting pitchers, the Tigers can move Rick Porcello into the bullpen. Kid Rick is pitching very well right now, and he should be able to fill most of the middle relief gaps.

Third is the issue of late-game run support. I first raised this issue early in the season, and when I checked in after 100 games, the numbers looked even worse. I’ll do one more check of these numbers, but  my sense is that this is an area where the Tigers have improved a little bit. If this remains a problem, the pressures of the playoffs may exacerbate it, however.

Fourth, as more of a note, Justin Verlander probably should be the team’s fourth starter in the playoffs. The question I have about him is not about the number of “smart,” “rational” Tigers fans you can whip into a rage by talking about Verlander’s struggles, but about whether Leyland really will use Verlander as the third or fourth starter in the playoffs. I believe he will. Max Scherzer and, increasingly, Anibal Sanchez have separated themselves as Detroit’s clear top two starters, and if the Tigers are to succeed this month, it will be on the strength of their arms.

Fifth, Jhonny Peralta’s back with the team, and not a moment too soon. It looks like Peralta will be taking over a weak left field for the Tigers in the playoffs. Detroit needed his bat in the lineup, and there isn’t anywhere else to put him. He rejoined the team for their last regular season series, and he had a double and an RBI in his first game back. He had two hits in the second game of the series, and none in three at bats in the third game. Being a shortstop, his fielding abilities in left, backing up Cabrera’s limited range at third, raises some concerns, particularly with starting shortstop Jose Iglesias’ recent case of bilateral shin splints, but, as stated, there aren’t any viable alternatives here.

As a final note, I think it’s the case that you know your own team, and therefore your own team’s weaknesses, better than you know anything about your team’s opponent. These Tigers are very good, and have been historically good at times this season. Starting Friday, we’ll find out whether they will be at their best when there’s no other option.

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Related
Full postseason schedule
Tigers-Athletics preview

Previously
Heeeeeere’s Jhonny? – 9/12
Crime & Punishment – 8/7
Trader Jose(s) – 7/31
100 days of summer run distribution – 7/25
Are the Tigers the unluckiest team in baseball? – 6/28
Forget what you know
 – 6/25
History and Revision – 6/12
Tigers beat Braves 7-4 as part of series sweep of visiting Atlanta
 – 5/7
April in the D – 4/26
Jet Set (Sigh?)
 – 4/23
Run distribution, science, and the likelihood of a Detroit comeback – 4/15
WSJ throws a wet newspaper on the Tigers’ 2013 chances
 – 4/3
A Tiger is a Tiger is a Tiger – 3/29

The Departed – 3/14

Bay of Cigs: Forget what you know

This year’s Detroit Tigers are far from perfect, but they’re off to a good start on the strength of their starting pitching and the bats of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, Torii Hunter, Omar Infante, (increasingly) Victor Martinez, and (once again) Austin Jackson.

The weak link– the bullpen– has been both very obvious and very weak. Hoping for some addition by subtraction, the club sent onetime-closer Jose Valverde down to the minors, and a more focused “closer-by-committee” approach has emerged, centering around Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly, with an emphasis on not misusing Phil Coke.

One of the criticisms of manager Jim Leyland is that he likes to have go-to players to fill defined roles, and nowhere is this more applicable than in his handling of relief pitching. In short, Leyland wants to have one guy be his guy when it comes to closing out games in the ninth inning. His unwillingness to deviate from that approach has had exceedingly frustrating consequences when The Closer is someone less effective than the likes of a Craig Kimbrel or, say, a 2011-vintage Valverde. (This is especially true because the Tigers have trouble scoring late in games. If the bullpen blows a lead late, this team is unlikely to mount a comeback.) Even though fans would like to see Leyland be a bit more nimble with the way he utilizes his personnel, some of his attitude surely has rubbed off on them. The fans want to have someone who can be The Closer too.

Buster Olney launched a thousand blog posts with his suggestion that current Philadelphia Phillies reliever Jonathan Papelbon might make a good fit in Detroit. Papelbon has a great reputation as a closer, and, as Buster writes, “there are no questions about whether he could handle October,” which is where the Tigers’ expectations reside.

Team owner Mike Ilitch has shown little resistance to spending money on this iteration of the team, which means that the large contract that’s scaring other teams away from Papelbon is unlikely to be an issue in Detroit.

My opinion is that, if the Phillies are willing to part with Papelbon without demanding much beyond the absorption of his contract, the Tigers should get him. If his steady hand can turn these cardiac kitties into some cool cats come playoff time, it’ll be worth it.

That said, it probably is worth taking a look at how Papelbon would stack up with his new teammates if he were to catch a ride to Motor City this season.  Continue reading

The DET Offensive: World Series Edition

The Tigers are in the World Series! As I wrote to reader and White Sox fan chikat this week, the AL Central ended the way we all thought it would, with Detroit in first place, and Chicago and the rest of the ragtag divisional band lining up behind them. The journey from game one to game 162, though, as documented here from the Tigers’ perspective, did much to raise doubts about what was once thought to be a foregone conclusion. When Detroit, after losing Victor Martinez– an offensive leader on the field and an emotional leader in the clubhouse– to a season-ending injury in the offseason, signed Prince Fielder, they had upped the ante in a big way. For reasons I explained at the time of the Fielder signing, the window on a Tiger World Series victory had been accelerated and focused on the immediate next few seasons, beginning with the present one. For a variety of reasons, enunciable and otherwise, I had pegged next year in my mind as the year this Detroit team would play for a world championship. But here they are, facing off against the San Francisco Giants, who are just a year removed from defending their own World Series title.

I don’t think the Tigers are a year early. I do think they have more confidence in themselves than I do, as evidenced by that prediction and by some of the things I’ve written about them this season. I also think that baseball, for all of its extended, plodding slowness, is a sport of fleeting opportunity at least as much as the other, faster-paced games we play on a major level. (Brendan and I criticized the Washington Nationals for ignoring this fundamental premise when they shut down their ace this season.) There’s no reason to shy away from this moment or otherwise treat it as a test run or bonus opportunity, and this Tiger team has a variety of means by which they can and should seize this opportunity to bring Detroit its first World Series championship since 1984 and its second since 1968.

Keep reading…

The DET Offensive: Playoffs?!? Playoffs.

Playoffs? Well yes, actually. The Tigers clinched the AL Central championship in game 160 of the season, thereby securing their position in the playoffs. Their first series opens tonight in Detroit. At the beginning of the season, everyone expected the Tigers to take this division and to take it handily. In the end (indeed, a few days before the end), they took it, but they certainly didn’t take it handily. In fact, as anyone tracking this feature (or, you know, watching the games) knows, this team has been down more than it’s been up this year, and it certainly has underachieved. Fortunately for Detroit, the White Sox, who led the division most of the year, were even worse down the stretch and allowed the Tigers to slip into the postseason.

The playoffs are a brand new season, though, and they start tonight, when the Tigers host the red-hot Oakland Athletics. (The ghost of Brandon Inge undoubtedly haunts this series.) There are some good points and some bad points for the Tigers as they enter the postseason. The regular season pretty well illuminated the bad parts. As for the good parts, the abbreviated nature of postseason series should allow Detroit to hide most of its weaknesses, which generally relate to depth. Pitching rotations and rhythms take on a whole new feel in the playoffs, which is a good thing for this Tiger team, which as a bullpen that is unreliable, to say the least. Local talk radio has been critical of manager Jim Leyland’s lineup decisions, but he seems very focused on putting his best offensive lineup on the field for the playoffs, and no longer appears interested in jockeying the batting order.

The first pitch of the A’s-Tigers series– a five-gamer– is just under an hour away, and Justin Verlander will be on the mound for the home team.

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Previously
You forgot about J(ustin Verlander) – 10/1
Get perspective
 – 9/12
Everybody knows this is nowhere – 8/31

Now it’s just offensive – 8/29
Explode! – 7/23
Halfway at the Half-way – 7/9

Interleague
 Play – 6/26
Call the Experts! 
 5/26
Recipe for a Slumpbuster
 – 5/2
Delmon Young Swings and Misses
 – 4/30
Brennan Boesch’s Birthday – 4/12
Tigers open 2012 season with Sawks sweep – 4/9