Anatomy of a Playoff Run

I have to admit, I didn't believe the Tigers would win their first AL Central title this season. After watching them flirt with the feat in 2006 and '09 only to see them give it away, I was expecting another collapse this time. But several things happened in 2011 that enabled them to not only WIN the division, but bury everyone else in it. Here's my take on how they did it:

  1. Veni, vidi, Victor: General Manager Dave Dombrowski signed veteran slugger Victor Martinez as a free agent over the winter. "V-Mart" was considered perhaps the best hitter available on the market, with a career batting average right around .300. The Tigers were up front with Martinez about the role he would play here--as the primary designated hitter, and part-time catcher behind third-year player Alex Avila (more on him later). There was concern that Martinez would be reluctant to accept being mostly a DH, but Dombrowski made it worth his while by signing him to a four-year contract worth about $50 million. Not only has Martinez embraced the DH position, he has put up some impressive numbers--11 homeruns, 94 runs batted in, and a .325 average--the fourth best average in the AL. Most importantly, Martinez has provided protection for clean-up hitter Miguel Cabrera, who led the league in intentional walks in 2010. Managers could no longer put Cabrera on expecting to get the next hitter out. In fact, Martinez has made opposing teams pay dearly for walking Cabrera by hitting .383 with runners in scoring position, and driving in 74 runs in that situation.

  2. Must See JV: Justin Verlander was already one of the best pitchers in baseball when the season began, but I wonder if even he could have foreseen the kind of year he's had in 2011. 23 wins, including 11 straight, his second career no-hitter, two near no-nos, and a little help from his friends (namely Victor Martinez) have made the tall right-hander the likely Cy Young Award winner, and generated a lot of support for a Most Valuable Player nomination. I don't have a vote, but if I did, JV would be my MVP hands-down. No other playoff contender owes its success to any one player as much as the Tigers owe theirs to Verlander (By the way--I coined "Must See JV" on the Craig Fahle Show weeks before the Free Press used it as a headline).

  3. Avila's Ascension: The Tigers took a big gamble by making Alex Avila their everyday starting catcher before the season started. The 24-year-old had not played a full season in the majors before this year, and batted just .228 in 104 games last season. But Avila found his swing early in 2011, hitting around .300 most of the year, with impressive power (19 hr, 77rbi to date), good enough to earn a starting job with the American League All-Star team.

  4. Fist-Jab: The Tigers upgraded their pitching rotation by sending four young players to the Seattle Mariners for another tall right-hander, Doug Fister. The move raised a few eyebrows (well, mine anyway) because of Fister's record--three wins, 12 losses. A big reason for his apparent lack of success in the Northwest was the lack of run support he got from the woefully impotent M's offense. But he brought a solid 3.33 earned run average to Detroit, and a hunger to prove that he's a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Color me convinced. In nine starts for the Tigers, Fister is 6-1 with a 2.12 ERA, five walks and 46 strikeouts (including a career high 13 against Cleveland on Labor Day). This trade is reminiscent of the Doyle Alexander deal that helped the Tigers win their last division title in 1987. Let's just hope Charlie Furbush isn't the new John Smoltz!

  5. Breaking with the past, part I: Perhaps no roster move had as much impact on the Tigers' division title run is this one--the demotion of Brandon Inge in July. The slick-fielding third baseman has always struggled at the plate, but this year was especially bad. He was hitting just .177 when GM Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland had a choice to make--keep playing Inge, hoping he could break out of his slump, or find someone else to play the hot corner. Wisely, they chose the latter, designating Inge for assignment, and ultimately shipping him to the minor leagues and my beloved Toledo Mud Hens. This move showed that the front office clearly understood the urgency of winning now. No longer would someone have a job just because they were a veteran or a fan favorite. The Tigers were fortunate enough to acquire a decent player in Wilson Betemit, who had no real future with the Kansas City Royals, and didn't cost the Tigers much in the way of prospects. The trade also showed that Dombrowski was willing to trade within the division--something most GMs are loath to do--to make his team better. He did this again when he stole Delmon Young from the Minnesota Twins in August (Young is hitting .294 with 5 hr and 21 rbi in 30 games with the Tigers).

  6. Breaking with the past, part II: I already mentioned the Tigers' history of fading in the second half of the season. Forget that. Since the All-Star break, they've gone from six games over .500 to 25 games over...a whopping .661 winning percentage in 59 games. Even more impressive--a 31-12 record in August and September (.721!) and a 12-game winning streak--their longest since 1934. In addition to putting their second half woes to bed, they have also buried the two teams that have dominated them over the years--the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins. The Tigers went 13-5 against the rudderless Sox, 14-4 against the injury-plagued Twins.

The Tigers still have a lot to play for. As of this writing, they are just three games behind the New York Yankees for the best record in the American League, which puts them in position to win home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. Justin Verlander has a shot at becoming the first 25-game winner since Bob Welch in 1990 (27), and Miguel Cabrera could win his first AL batting title (his .335 average is second behind Boston's Adrian Gonzalez, who's hitting .337).

Should be a fun finish.