Giving the Tigers another look

After 32 years, you’d think I’d have learned to keep my mouth shut before I said something that made me look foolish, but my May 22nd column, “Tigers Primed for Magic Season,” illustrated my eternal skill at never knowing when to quit when I’m ahead.

For those of you who may not have read that column, I boldly predicted the Tigers would have a 100-win season and strongly hinted that they would, once again, be potential World Series contenders.

It’s amazing how much things can change in just six weeks: the Tigers, who started the season 27-12, put up a truly detestable 9-20 record as everything about the team seemed to fall apart.

The bullpen suddenly seemed unable to strike out Little Leaguers; batters went to the box with paper fans; and opponent’s rocketed up scores like 12-1 on a routine basis.

Even more shocking, the Tigers briefly fell to second place in the terrible AL Central for the first time in nearly a year.

That’s when I found out that, with some mashed potatoes and a heavy dosing of thick gravy, crow is nearly edible.

Thankfully, the Tigers have since rebounded enough since then to earn a 50-37 record and a .575 winning percentage.

However, the Tigers’ amazing ability to alternate stunning winning streaks with complete team collapses remains fully intact.

That’s why I’m going to examine why the Tigers have such problems with consistency and hopefully find a soda that can wash down the bitter taste of my all-you-can-eat crow buffet.

Management

All last season, the phrase “Fire Leyland!” rang through the newsroom, usually as a sad, yet jovial joke (me) and sometimes in red-faced fan-rage sincerity (Steve Schulwitz).

Sadly, those days are behind us and “Fire Ausmus!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, even as the team struggles and keeps throwing Phil Coke.

But, is it really fair to want to fire Ausmus so soon? Can the Tigers’ problems be laid at his feet?

I don’t think so, or at least not most of them.

Jim Leyland is a hard act to follow and while he had many good-to-great tendencies, he definitely had a tendency to over manage, operate on hunches or on misguided loyalty to players to whom he was personally close.

Ausmus is a bit more cool headed and calculated in his approach. He doesn’t shun sabermetrics like a vampire munching on garlic and is working well with what he has available.

I mean, Phil Coke may be a terrible pitcher, but they can’t just let him sit. After all, he’s paid to play baseball. So play baseball he must.

I think more managerial blame can be laid at the feet of Dave Dombrowski, even after I excessively praised him in my first column for his seemingly magical trades.

While I do believe he normally has an almost magical skill to find a talent, it’s become clear to me that some of his gambles didn’t pay off this year. His attempt to shift to small ball style was inspired, but it hasn’t been 100 percent successful. Nor was his much maligned Doug Fister trade.

Hey, speaking of hurlers…

Pitching

Oh, woe is the Tigers pitching staff. Its problems are deeper than Death Valley and wider than the Pacific Ocean.

I mean, how can a staff with two Cy Young winners fall apart so regularly? How is Justin Verlander 8-7 with a 4.84 ERA? And why didn’t he win a game in June?

Even more baffling, why is Rick Porcello the Tigers’ best pitcher with an 11-5 record and a 3.5 ERA? Where did Max Scherzer’s 2013 magic go?

And can anybody please explain to me why Phil Coke gets paid to play baseball?

These questions, and many others continue to plague the Tigers’ bullpen, especially in its motley crew of wildly inconsistent relievers and closers.

Did you know that there are only two Detroit relievers with winning records? Al Alburquerque is currently 2-1 while Joe Nathan is 4-2. The rest of the relief core is .500 at best, including Joba Chamberlain’s 1-3 mark.

Okay, so win-loss records can be rather low and sporadic for relief pitchers, even this late in the season. And the Tigers’ relief hurlers have a reasonably decent 23 saves this season…with 18 of them belonging to Joe Nathan.

Things look up for the Tigers bullpen when you consider it has 46 holds, with Chamberlain leading with 15 and Alburquerque adding 11 and Ian Krol 10.

However, the fear that grips a Detroit fan whenever Phil Coke steps to the mound is never going to abate this season.

But, what about the starters? Aren’t the Tigers renowned for the best starting crew in baseball?

How come they’ve only combined for 35 wins this season?

Aren’t, like, Verlander and Scherzer baseball demi-gods?

Hasn’t Porcello always been a promising young thrower?

Isn’t Anibal Sanchez terrifying?

I’m no pitching expert, so I don’t know why Verlander’s yearly “mechanics issues” occur. Nor, do I know why Porcello gave up three runs in one inning after throwing two back-to-back complete game shutouts.

Oddly, the most promising statistic is the starters’ loss record: they only have 18 losses between the four of them. That’s a 35-18 record or a .660 winning percentage.

So, once again, most of the blame falls on the shoulders of the relievers who have a record of 15-19 or .384.

Still, you can’t just blame the pitchers for such a strange season as a pitcher can throw a no-hitter and lose without any offense behind him.

Hitting

Hey, did you know that Justin Verlander leads the Tigers as a hitter? It’s true! He’s hitting .667 this season, after going 2-for-3 against the Padres in April, for a career total of 2-for-28.

You know it’s a weird season when Verlander’s batting average is higher than his winning percentage.

Bad jokes aside, Detroit’s lineup has been consistently good. But, rarely great. Not terrible. But not great.

A big part of this seems to be because Miguel Cabrera seems to have lost a touch from last season. Thankfully, he hasn’t lost much as he has 103 hits, 32 doubles, one triple, 14 home runs and 70 RBIs and a .328 batting average.

However, the big success of the season has been Victor Martinez with 99 hits, 19 doubles, 21 home runs, 55 RBI and a .328 batting average. His numbers were good enough to earn him a DH position in the All-Star Game, with Cabrera taking up a spot at first base.

And Ian Kinsler, who remains everybody’s favorite Tiger, has remained vital to Detroit’s offensive arsenal. He leads the Tigers with 110 hits and also has 26 doubles, two triples, 11 home runs, 47 RBIs and a batting average of .312.

J.D. Martinez has also been a nice surprise with a .320 batting average and 12 home runs while Rajai Davis got into the act with that dramatic game winning grand slam last week.

As good as these numbers are, it’s still frustrating to see the Tigers nearly get swept by Tampa Bay or to watch Alex Avila whiff pitch after pitch.

Much of this inconsistency comes with a team that is still adjusting to small ball. Last year, it tended to rely on Cabrera’s home run heroics to win games. This year, scoring is spread more evenly among the team.

Which is definitely a good thing, because when Prince Fielder collapsed in the playoffs last year, the Tigers couldn’t win. Nobody but Miggy and Fielder could hit.

Now, you have Victor, J.D., Miggy and Ian hitting. There are even occasional signs of greatness from the ailing Torii Hunter and Austin Jackson.

Honestly, I feel like the Tigers have shown their true colors by this point in the season: a team that wins more than they lose, but also has serious problems and inconsistencies that will continue to plague it all season.

However, I’m trying to avoid any grandiose, sweeping statements this time. After all, even with gravy, crow just ain’t no good.

Eric Benac can be reached via email at ebenac@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.