Red-hot Tigers proving to be more than the Justin Verlander Show
Detroit has won 12 straight games and has lowered its magic number to three
Alex Avila, Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera are powering the offense
Justin Verlander, who has won 23 games, is the likely AL Cy Young winner
The Detroit Tigers won their 11th straight game Tuesday night behind yet another gem from likely American League Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander, who pushed his record to 23-5 with seven scoreless innings against the White Sox.
With Verlander watching from the dugout on Wednesday, the Tigers pushed the streak to 12 in dramatic fashion, equaling the longest in franchise history since 1934. What that winning streak proves, however, is that the Tigers are more than a one-man show. In fact, their success has had more to do with scoring runs than preventing them, a fact that has been overshadowed by Verlander's award-worthy season.
The Tigers' hot streak also stretches back much further than the last 11 games. Entering play on Wednesday, Detroit had gone 29-11 (.725) over its last 40 games dating back to the beginning of August, the best record of any team in baseball over that time. Research has shown that coming into the playoffs hot is no guarantee of post-season success, but the Tiger's aren't just hot, they're very good. Detroit possesses a potent offense, an emerging No. 2 starter to complement Verlander and a bullpen that is anchored by closer Jose Valverde, who has yet to blow a save this season.
During their six weeks of red-hot play, only the Yankees and Rangers have out-scored the Tigers, who have averaged 5.7 runs per game over that span. Leading the Bengal Brigade of bats has been 24-year-old sophomore catcher Alex Avila, who has hit .348/.449/.636 with eight home runs over those last 40 games, .302/.392/.523 on the season, and deserves every bit as much attention as a serious Most Valuable Player candidate as Verlander. Avila could claim some small contribution to Verlander's success given that he has caught all but one of the Detroit ace's starts this season, including his no-hitter back in May, but he doesn't need the help. With the average major league catcher hitting .245/.314/.388 this year, Avila has been not just the best catcher in the majors (adding a 32 percent caught-stealing rate compared to a major league average of 28 percent to his hitting heroics), but the fifth most valuable non-pitcher in the majors according to Baseball Prospectus's WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), with only Jose Bautista and Jacoby Ellsbury out-ranking him in the AL.
Credit the Tigers for seeing past Avila's miserable rookie campaign, in which he hit just .228/.316/.340. When the Tigers signed Victor Martinez this winter only to make him a designated hitter with Avila, the son of the assistant general manager, installed behind the plate, it had a faint whiff of nepotism. No more. The arrangement has worked out beautifully for the Tigers, with Martinez also ranking among the team's top hitters and contributing a .340/.395/.500 performance and leading the team in RBIs over those last 40 games.
Indeed, general manager Dave Dombrowski has been as hot as his team of late. From July 20 to August 15, Dombrowski made three trades aimed at strengthening his team for the stretch run, and thus far all three have been tremendous successes. On July 20, he made a seemingly minor deal that sent a pair of non-prospect minor leaguers to the Royals for third baseman Wilson Betemit. The trade was an overdue admission that longtime Tiger and fan favorite Brandon Inge, who had hit .231/.314/.389 over the past four seasons as the team's starting third baseman, didn't have the bat to carry his position, something that had become clear with Inge hitting .177/.242/.242 on the eve of the trade. Betemit has since hit .286/.336/.476 as a Tiger, well above the standard for the position, with Inge now back in the fold as his defensive caddy.
The day before the trading deadline, Dombrowski made a six-player deal with the Mariners that brought 6-foot-8 righty starter Doug Fister to Detroit along with reliever Dave Pauley in exchange for four players including fourth-outfielder Casper Wells, rookie lefty starter Charlie Furbush, and righty relief prospect Chance Ruffin. Fister, 27, looked like a league-average control and contact-oriented righty in Seattle, but thus far in eight starts for Detroit he has spiked his strikeout rate, almost completely stopped walking batters altogether (five walks in 51 1/3 innings) and has gone 5-1 with a 2.28 ERA, including a 4-0 mark with a 0.75 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings over his last five starts, one of which saw him strikeout 13 Indians in eight very efficient innings. There's no telling whether or not the soft-tossing sinkerballer can keep it up, but if he can, even if just through the end of October, he'll give the Tigers a two-man rotation punch that could make them the American League team opponents least want to see in a short series.
Then, on August 15, Dombrowski reacted quickly to sophomore left fielder Brennan Boesch's thumb injury by sending a pair of minor league relievers to the division rival Twins for Delmon Young, who had been the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft. With Minnesota, Young had regressed into a disappointment, and an arbitration-eligible one at that. With Detroit, Young has rediscovered the form from his breakout season of a year ago, hitting .313/.331/.464 in 27 games for Detroit, a good match for what the rejuvenated Boesch had given the Tigers prior to what has since proven to be a season-ending ligament tear.
Detroit has also received strong production of late from their second-base/utility combination of Ryan Raburn (.329/.353/.549 over those last 40 games) and Ramon Santiago (.313/.362/.542 over the same stretch). Jhonny Peralta, despite an August slump, has been the third most valuable shortstop in baseball this year per WARP, hitting .306/.355/.487 with 19 homers on the season.
Then, as always, at the heart of the lineup has been the ceaseless run-production machine that is Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera may be a brutal first baseman, but limit the discussion to what he does with the bat and Baseball Prospectus's offense-only Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) lists him as the fifth most valuable hitter in baseball this season, and that's still relative to the standard of his position, which is the highest of any on the field. Treat first basemen and centerfielders the same, and only Jose Bautista has been more productive that Cabrera at the plate this year, so much so that Cabrera has still been walked intentionally 20 times despite having Martinez behind him in the lineup in the vast majority of his games. Cabrera is hitting .332/.435/.560 on the season and .384/.460/.576 over those last 40 games.
So the Tigers can hit a little, and that's the primary reason that they are winning. There's no guarantee that Betemit, Young, Raburn or Santiago will stay hot into October. In fact, it seems likely that at least one of them won't, but Cabrera and Martinez are just being themselves, and Avila and Peralta have been raking all season (save for Peralta's August). Combine that offensive firepower with the one-two punch of Verlander and Fister and a bullpen headed up by closer Jose Valverde, who has converted all 43 of his save chances this season (he got his 44th on Wednesday), and the solid set-up work of Joaquin Benoit, lefty Phil Coke and rookie strikeout artist Al Alburquerque (14.2 K/9, 0 HR), and the Tigers are dangerous.
By week's end, Detroit should have wrapped up its first division title since 1987, leaving them plenty of time to be rested and ready for a run in October.
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