The pitching-first Tigers

Alex Trautwig

The Detroit Tigers are one win away from the pennant, but they didn't mash their way there as expected.

It's always worth revisiting how odd the Tigers' offseason was. When their DH and part-time catcher Victor Martinez broke in the offseason, they did what any team would do: They went out and bought the most expensive replacement they could find, and they shifted Miguel Cabrera to third, even though there was technically a DH spot open.

It was all done in the name of slugging. Mashing. Bludgeoning the other team. With Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila, the Tigers were getting power from positions that other teams weren't. Cabrera is one of the greatest hitters to ever live, and he's still just 29. Prince Fielder was the best temp-to-hire masher they could find. Heck, even Delmon Young … I don't know … had tools, or some such. The Tigers were going to hit. That was the offseason plan.

Peralta and Avila regressed. Delmon Young's tools are apparently in a time-lock safe that opens in October. The Tigers scored five more runs than the American League average. They weren't the '27 Yankees. They weren't even the '11 Tigers.

Now we can fast-forward to the postseason. The Tigers are in the American League Championship Series for the second straight year. They're a win away from the World Series. And they're doing it by … aping the 2010 Giants and 2005 White Sox?

Runs scored per game, 2012 postseason

Runs allowed per game, 2012 postseason

The amazing run of the 2005 White Sox isn't a good comp, though, as they averaged over 5.5 runs per game during their 12-game postseason. Even the 2010 Giants scored almost four runs per game in the playoffs. There isn't really a good comparison in recent history for what the Tigers are doing, and they got here by following a three-point plan:

Refusing to release Justin Verlander during the offseason
It must have been tough. And I'm sure pitching coach Jeff Jones frequently works with Verlander on his delivery, but it's funnier to think of the Tigers' involvement with Verlander's success being limited to leaving him raw steak every fifth day.

Max Scherzer is 28. It feels like he'll forever be the young fireballer who is one mechanical tweak away from stardom*, but this is his fifth year in the majors. And at the All-Star Break, Scherzer had an ERA around 5.00, a season after he had a 4.43 ERA. I'm not saying another team would have traded or released him, but they might have started messing with him, tweaking his delivery or putting him in the bullpen.

The Tigers waited and worked with him like they'd work with any pitcher. The analytical community figured he was unlucky with balls in play, and any minute now, the combination of strikeout stuff and control was going to pay off. The Tigers were in that line. And, shoulder tenderness aside, they were right. In the second half, Scherzer was one of the very best pitchers in the majors.

Well-timed trades
I'm not going to suggest the Anibal Sanchez trade was a hot-dog-no-doubt-about-it-win of a deal because a) Omar Infante hasn't hit a lick, and he was a big part of the deal, b) Sanchez is a pending free agent, and c) the Tigers gave up Jacob Turner, who had a nice finish with the Marlins, and who could be a fantastic, cheap pitcher for the next five years.

But it was certainly a well-timed trade. And if it leads to the Tigers getting their first championship since 1984, it'll have been worth it.

The Doug Fister trade is more of a clear win. Even if he remained the cheap, effective innings-eater that he was in Seattle, it would have been a win. But the Tigers saw something untapped in Fister. It could have been someone in the front office, or it could have been someone on the coaching staff. Fister is throwing his curveball more now, and he's throwing it with more break. He's striking out over two batters more for every nine innings he pitches with the Tigers that he did with the Mariners. Whatever changed, it happened as soon as he got to Detroit.

That trade was also exceptionally well-timed, a salve for a playoff-bound rotation that was messing around with Brad Penny and a 20-year-old Turner.

The Tigers spent the offseason moving a slugger to a position he didn't play so they could buy a slugger to replace the broken slugger and keep all of the sluggers in the same lineup when everyone was healthy. And now they're in the ALCS, mowing through the competition because of their pitching, and it's not just Justin Verlander. I mean, it's a lot of Justin Verlander. He's kind of the best. But Dave Dombrowski has done a pretty sweet job putting together a playoff-worthy rotation, even if that might have seemed like the secondary goal in March.

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