How the 2011 Detroit Tigers Are Like the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies

As the 2011 season begins to wind down, the Detroit Tigers are perched atop the American League Central division, precariously some might say. Despite the fact that the division is one of the weakest in baseball.

The team seems to be pulling away from the pack these days, but it remains to be seen whether this year will bring another second-half collapse to go along with those of 2007, 2009, and 2010. Even in 2006, when Jim Leyland’s team went to the World Series, Detroit squandered a 10-game lead by going 19-31 to end the season and lose the division in the final weekend, though they still qualified as a wild card.

Tiger fans should be forgiven if they carry a sense of doom with them into the final month of the season.

But these Tigers may have something that other recent clubs lacked: stars at the top of their game at key positions. Justin Verlander , Miguel Cabrera, and Jose Valverde are among the very, very best at what they do. Verlander has been arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball so far in ’11. Cabrera is an All-Star every year, and though he isn’t posting his best numbers so far this season, he remains a .300/30+/100+ offensive force. Papa Grande has been simply perfect. He’s 38-for-38 in save opportunities in 2011, each save earning him more acclaim.

Any club with the best starting pitcher, hitter, and closer has to be considered a team capable of winning the World Series, assuming the rest of the pieces are fairly solid. That’s where the trouble has been for the 2011 Tigers. Beyond Verlander, none of the Tiger starters have been consistent. For stretches one of them is good: Scherzer early in the year and Porcello in July, but otherwise the starting rotation has been “Verlander and Four Other Guys.”

The Tiger offense is scoring runs at a good clip, but too often rallies die or are not even born because of the glaring weaknesses of a few slots in the order. It begins with leadoff man Austin Jackson, who eats up five plate appearances every time he starts and doesn’t get on base nearly enough. He strikes out too much to be a rally extender, which is the same problem Ryan Raburn has. Raburn plays frequently (for some reason known only to Leyland) at second and the outfield. While he occasionally runs into a fastball and touches them all, he’s a rally killer with his frequent whiffs. He also whiffs way too much in the field with the leather. Third base has been a nightmare, as the Tigers rank last in production from that important corner position. Brandon Inge paid the price for that – he now travels by bus.

Toss in the slow death of Magglio Ordonez’s bat, and the Tigers have four offensive positions that are well below league average. As much as Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Brennan Boesch, Jhonny Peralta, and Alex Avila try to put a crooked number on the scoreboard, there’s always a Jackson strikeout or a Magglio double play snuffing it out.

Nevertheless, thanks in large part to the “Killer V’s” – Verlander and Valverde, the Tigers are still in first place. But can they win the World Series with their talent so top heavy?

The team that pops to mind when I ask that question is the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies, a club that vanquished the Kansas City Royals in six games in the Fall Classic. The Phillies had three superstars: starter Steve Carlton, third baseman Mike Schmidt, and closer Tug McGraw. Like Verlander, Cabrera, and Valverde, the Philly trio was at the top of their game in ’80. Carlton went 24-9 with 286 strikeouts. Schmidt was the NL MVP on the strength of 48 homers, 121 RBI, and a .624 slugging percentage. McGraw pitched in 57 games, often coming in to get more than three outs. He saved 20 games and had a miniscule 1.46 ERA. Like Papa Grande, McGraw was a high-energy entertainer on the hill.

The Phillies didn’t dominate their division – they defeated Montreal on Friday and Saturday of the final weekend to finish one game ahead of the Expos. The Philadelphia teams of 2-4 years earlier were more balanced, but the ’80 team won the World Series.

Beyond Carlton, there was one dependable starter in their rotation: Dick Ruthven. The rest of the bellpen, beyond McGraw, was average. The offense was built around Schmidt, who was the only Philly to hit as many as 20 homers. Bake McBride had a good season, and so did Lonnie Smith in his rookie year, but besides that there were a number of average offensive performers. Pete Rose was busy taking up space at first base, where he hit just .282 with a measly .354 SLG. Greg Luzinski, Garry Maddox, and Bob Boone all had off years with the stick.

That team, with several holes in the lineup surrounding one slugger, a top-heavy rotation, and a mediocre bullpen with a stud at the backend, won the pennant. They were not dominant – they won two extra-inning games in the NLCS to barely dispatch the pesky Houston Astros in five games, then the the Phils won their four games in the World Series by a total of seven runs. But they won it all.

A top-heavy rotation anchored by a stud with an amazing repertoire of pitches, a lineup built around a future Hall of Fame right-handed slugger, and a bullpen with a flamboyant closer having a career year. Does that sound familiar? The Tigers may have the magic stuff in 2011, the stuff the Phillies had 31 years ago.