Behind Cabby, Tigers should shake off the Royals and chew up the AL Central

Don Kelly's value lies beyond the stat line.

Don Kelly’s value lies beyond the stat line.

There are are a lot of things we know after 30 games of the 2013 season, but one of them we already knew – Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet.

Picking up where he left off in 2012, when he won baseball’s first triple crown in 45 years, Cabrera is leading the league in hitting, RBI, and hits. He’s hitting the ball as well as he ever has this early in the season, and at the age of 30 he seems to be in his prime. Another triple crown – is it possible? With Miggy it seems very possible.

How does Cabrera perform so well and also seem so relaxed? He’s like a big kid on the diamond, constantly chatting, smiling, and having a good time. Yet he’s still punishing the opposition with his tremendous hitting skills (and improving play at the hot corner).

“I just want to play baseball and do what I enjoy the most,” Cabrera said during the off-season while traveling in the Tigers’ winter caravan. “How can I feel pressure doing what I love to do?”

Apparently there’s no pressure, and Detroit fans should be glad of that. We’re getting the chance to watch one of the best hitters the game has ever seen.

Starting Pitching has been outstanding
I put forth the question recently of whether or not the current starting rotation is the best the Tigers have ever had. We still don’t know the answer and won’t until the season has played out, but let’s just say that the quartet of Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, and Max Scherzer are very good. It almost doesn’t even matter that every five days or so Rick Porcello reminds us why his potential is the most interesting thing about him.

The top four starters are 15-4 with a 2.29 ERA in 23 starts. Even those of you who hate stats must acknowledge that those numbers are impressive. Scherzer, Sanchez, and Verlander rank 2nd, 4th, and 5th in the league in strikeouts, JV is second in ERA despite being rusty in a few of his starts, and Fister has walked a grand total of seven batters in his six outings. Want deadly accuracy? The Fantastic Four have a combined 183-to-40 strikeout to walk ratio. Perhaps most impressively, they’ve allowed just five homers among them so far this season. Batters are not getting many good swings against the Tiger starters and even when they do make contact, they rarely hit it very far.

The best defense is a good pitching staff
Only one team in baseball has committed fewer errors this season than the Tigers, who have made just nine so far. Of course, when your pitching staff is striking 10 batters out almost every game, that helps the defense. You can’t boot what the other team doesn’t hit. And the numbers are a little misleading: on balls put into play, the Tigers rate near the bottom in the AL in defensive efficiency (simply put, that stat measures how good a team is at converting a ball put into play into an out), a stat they were miserable at last season.

But last season the Tigers won the pennant with a mediocre defense, and this year there’s no question that they have upgraded. Torii Hunter is fantastic in right field, Jhonny Peralta appears to be a little more nimble at shortstop, and so far Prince Fielder has avoided the sloppy errors he often made on balls in the dirt last season. The fact is that defense is the one area of the game where a team can be below average and still compete and win, because even the worst defensive teams still make almost all of the routine plays and several of the tough ones.

The Houston Smackdown
Some will remind you that the Astros are a pretty bad team, and that the Tigs should have swept them in their just completed four-game series. It’s true, the Astros are going to lose 100 games this year and they are a much worse team than the Tigers. But, Detroit smacked them around in a manner that showed just how great this Tiger team can be. The pitching was spot on, the defense was good, and the bats were smoking hot in the last two games of the series. Give the Tigers credit: they won the series they should have won, but they also won it in pretty convincing fashion: pounding out two dominating wins after squeaking out two tight wins in the first pair of games. Alex Avila’s clutch homer on Friday shows that this team never gives up. That’s a credit to their resolve and the leadership of Jim Leyland.

Meet Don Kelly: Ballplayer
I’ve been known to get down on Don Kelly, because – well, he doesn’t have a lot of obvious skills that make him standout. I’ve questioned whether he deserves to take up a roster spot, and I’ve criticized Leyland for playing him. But I was wrong. Kelly is showing that there’s something inside him that can’t be measured by the fancy stats and bat speed and foot speed and arm strength and so on. Kelly is a ballplayer. Like Tom Brookens when he was serving as the Tigers third baseman and infield utility guy in the 1980s, Kelly is a guy who doesn’t look like he’s very good at all, but he gets the job done. He also will surprise you with his ability to line a fastball into the gap on occasion. He’s a better defensive outfielder than I’ve ever given him credit for (he’s the third best on this team after AJax and Torii), and he has also added a little wrinkle to his offensive game in ’13: he’s showing more plate discipline and laying off pitches low out of the strike zone. Last fall in the ALDS, Kelly delivered an epic flyball that was a key to the Tigers postseason success, and he’s showing again this spring why he’s an important part of the team.

Tigers make rare trip to D.C.
Starting Tuesday, the Tigers will play a two-game series in Washington D.C. against the Nationals. This will be just the second time that the Bengals have played in D.C. since interleague play began. There was a time when Detroit and Washington were rivals when the Nationals were in the American League from 1901 to 1960 (as one franchise) and again from 1961-1971 as the franchise that became the Texas Rangers. 100 years ago, the Tigers vaunted offense, led by Ty Cobb and Wahoo Sam Crawford, would square off with Washington ace right-hander Walter Johnson, the hardest thrower in the game. “The Big Train”, as he was called, had long arms and a wicked fastball. Cobb used a devilish tactic to have success against Johnson. Knowing that the Senators’ pitcher was terrified of hurting a batter with his fastball, Cobb stood almost on top of the plate when facing Johnson. As a result, Johnson tossed the ball out wide of the plate and Cobb flicked his bat out and hit him to the tune of a .366 average, nearly what his career mark was.

The modern version of Johnson – Washington’s Stephen Strasburg – won’t face the Tigers in the brief series, but Detroit’s “Cobb” (Miguel Cabrera) will be on display for the fans in the beltway.

Are the Royals for real?
We’re only a month or so into the season, but already Tiger fans are peeking at the scoreboard, this time at the out-of-town results of an unusual rival – the Kansas City Royals. The Royals, who haven’t been relevant since The Cosby Show was TV’s #1 hit, are staying on pace with the Tigers. So far, the young Royals are doing it behind their top three starters: James Shields, Ervin Santana, and Jeremy Guthrie. They’re second – just ahead of Detroit – among AL teams in ERA, and they are getting pretty good pitching from their bullpen. They’ve won their share of low-scoring games – nabbing eight victories when they’ve scored four runs or less. Can they stick with the Tigers?

Here’s why they can: Santana and Shields are both very good pitchers, capable of putting up good seasons. Also, the Royals’ offense is getting the job done right now even though their two young stars, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, have struggled. They two have combined for only one home run and 15 RBI so far. Once they get hot, the KC offense will be much better.

But here’s why KC can’t hang with the Tigers all season long: Guthrie is a mediocre pitcher who’s off to a good start, but will not likely keep it up. Their offense, outside of Hosmer, Moustakas, Alex Gordon, and DH Billy Butler, is average at best.

The Royals may be the feel-good story in the AL for the first few months of the season, or maybe even the first half, but I don’t think they can keep up with the Tigers, who outclass them in almost every area of the game.

2 replies on “Behind Cabby, Tigers should shake off the Royals and chew up the AL Central

  • Jim

    The Nationals were never in the American League. The first Washington Senators team (1901-60) are now the Minnesota Twins. The second Washington Senators team is now the Texas Rangers.
    The Nationals were originally the Montreal Expos.

  • Dan Holmes

    Jim – as the article states – the Washington Nationals were in the AL from 1901-1960. They were called the Senators by many, but their official name was the Nationals. In fact, The Sporting News and many newspapers referred to them as the “Nats” often. You are correct – the current Nats are a different franchise, but they share their heritage with the other D.C. teams that came before them.

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