Listening to sports talk radio on the way home one day, I heard a few reasons given for why the Tigers were a disappointment this year. Injuries, of course, were one excuse. Not one that I agree with, but at least there is some validity to the argument. Other reasons included not making a move to trade for Prince Fielder or another slugger at the break, or the fact Jim Leyland insists on trotting these bad rosters out year after year.
Well, you get the point. Listen to talk radio at your own risk, right? Come to a blog if you want some solid analysis.
I bring this up because I wanted to tell you the real reason the Tigers failed to win the division. It wasn't the pitching. It wasn't the hitting. It wasn't the lack of deadline moves. It wasn't the injuries. It wasn't the poor road record. It wasn't the manager.
It's just that the Twins were better. They won 94 games. That wasn't an accident. No Tigers fan living on this side of reality would have predicted 94 or more wins for the squad from Detroit this year.
So I guess in that way, yeah, you can say it was the pitching and the hitting. Compared to the club from Target Field, the Tigers' pitching, fielding and hitting were all far too inferior heading into the season. There's nothing wrong in admitting your team lost to a better team, is there? On top of that, Minnesota lives a charmed life and managed to eke out even more wins than expected.
You can't even really say the Twins were getting lucky in theirs wins and losses. Their expected winning percentage, bases on runs scored and allowed, was .575. They finished the year .580. The Tigers, similarly, were predicted to finish .505 and finished .500. So one team got a touch lucky, the other a touch unlucky. Nothing enough to argue over.
It's just that the Twins were good. Thirteen games better than Detroit good. Had the Tigers tried to go out and make a bang at the trade deadline, they would have used their trade chips up and still fallen six to nine games out of first base. You don't think the use of a player for two months is going to make that big of a difference, do you? I don't. I'm glad Detroit has its prospects, either to trade for something they need in the offseason or to continue developing for some cost-controlled goodness in years to come.
If you're looking for injuries to bail you out, the Tigers can't credit that for the 13 game difference, either. Had Joel Zumaya, Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera stayed healthy, the team might be a few more games above .500. But we're not talking about a dozen or more games. A trickle here or there. Not enough to win the division.
And no, it wasn't the fault of the manager either. I know there are people out there who want to blame Leyland for this. But guess what: Managers do not make that big a difference in calculating wins and losses. They set the mood. They're locker room guys. They "manage." They make some in-game decisions that work when they shouldn't work or fail when they should work, you name it. The result of all those decisions may not break exactly even, but it's not going to be that big of a difference. If a manager isn't getting bullied out of the clubhouse by his team, he's good enough to stay in the big leagues.
Before the season, I predicted the Tigers would win 82 games. Leyland was not involved in that thinking at all. The team's lack of depth was. As it turns out, this wasn't an issue because the rookies who were brought to Detroit for the most part performed admirably.
The big thing for me? The pitching did not look good. You had your ace in Justin Verlander. You had a guy I felt pretty good about in Max Scherzer. And then? Well, I tried to warn you off being too high on Rick Porcello this early. His peripheral numbers indicated he could improve as a pitcher this season while seeing worse results. Then the combination of Dontrelle Willis, Armando Galarraga and Jeremy Bonderman was downright frightening to think about. On top of it, the bullpen featured some players who were given opportunities due to contracts as much as any results, paired with some unproven kids, and a fairly decent closer.
In other words: The Tigers pitching staff did not shout "playoff contender." Didn't matter if Joe Torre, Jim Leyland or Ron Washington was in charge. There were troubles, up front and in red ink. In the end the Tigers had the 11th ranked rotation in the American League by ERA, and the 12th ranked staff overall. You're not going to win like that, and there's a lot of work to be done in that area before next year.
Of course, hurting the pitching staff was a rather lackluster defense. The Tigers ranked 18th with a .691 team defensive efficiency, which is a measure of how many balls in play are turned into outs. That's a slide from ninth and .695 in 2009. (The team ranked as high as third with a .702 in 2006).
Say what you will about the Tigers' batting and all the injuries that went into it, but they were still within 30 runs of the Twins and one of the White Sox. They finished in the middle of the American League with 751.
So why didn't the Tigers win the division? They needed a perfect storm, they needed to stay healthy, they needed better pitching. But mostly they needed the Twins to stay out of the stratosphere. Unfortunately, Minnesota went on several nice winning streaks and -- as predicted before the season by quite a few -- were never really threatened in the final months of the season.
There was really very little the Tigers could have done to change that fact.