After the Tigers fell umpteen games back of teams that are actually good at baseball, it’s finally time to concede that, no, Detroit will not be playing in the postseason. (It took me longer to jump off the bandwagon because I finally got a leather-padded seat near the front.)
Honestly, watching a Tigers game is like swallowing a Clamato-flavored Ambien. You fall asleep cranky then wake up wondering what happened the night before, which means it’s probably time to fall on our collective fan-oriented swords and find silver linings in the Tigers’ season.
Here are a few: Matt Joyce has batted well. He could develop into a strong left-handed power hitter. Same with Clete Thomas on the other side of the plate. Brandon Inge showed an immense amount of patience, waiting for his chance to be a starter again. Todd Jones didn’t implode as a closer until the midpoint of the season — a far, far longer time span than anyone thought he would implode. And the team, after an infinite amount of patience and ibuprofen, traded Jason Grilli away to the first team that wanted him.
There have been a few other small memorable events in the season, none of which drowns out the sorrows of an 0-7 start, pictures of Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis on milk cartons across the state or Gary Sheffield, somehow DHing every day with fewer home runs than groundout double plays. But perhaps the finest memory, if not a shining beacon of success, arose in the form of rookie pitcher Armando Galarraga.
The fact that Galarraga is the team’s MVP and wasn’t even on the Opening Day roster speaks volumes for both Galarraga’s success and the Tigers’ disappointment, but again, let’s stick to the good vibrations only. Detroit traded for him in February simply because the Texas Rangers didn’t want him anymore. Today he’s the team leader in wins and ERA, second in strikeouts to Justin Verlander and may very well be the American League’s Rookie of the Year.
Knowledgable baseball fans might say Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria is a shoe-in to be ROY. I have no problem with that pick, because the dude was an All-Star as well as a big part of Tampa’s miracle season. Longoria leads all other AL rookies in batting average and home runs. Plus, he fields his position great, and third base is not exactly a cozy spot on the diamond.
Now look at Galarraga compared to other AL rookies. He’s tops in ERA, wins, strikeouts and WHIP (baserunners per inning). Among all AL pitchers — not just rookies — his ERA ranks sixth. Now, in all fairness, Galarraga has benefitted from some of the comfiest run support in the league (about six runs per game, third luckiest in the AL), so that explains the 12-4 record entering this weekend. But the tiny number of baserunners and strikeouts is largely credited to him.
In fact, when you compare Longoria and Galarraga to the league average, you’ll find they’re equally better than the median batter or pitcher by about 35 percent. (I could start listing off the space-age stats that detail this, but I realize if I spout off too many stats like VORP and EqA+, an 80-year-old sportswriter will vigorously shake his cane at me.) Suffice to say, they’re both great, and they’re both deserving of the ROY.
But what’s more valuable these days: a quality hitter or a reliable pitcher? More to the point, which is in higher demand? Most general managers will tell you that pitching is harder to find and therefore is the secret to success. And while it looks as though Longoria will return from his wrist injury next week, if his time on the disabled list is any longer, Galarraga might have a chance to play baseball for an extra month longer than Tampa’s golden boy and have more chances to prove his worth.
Even if that doesn’t happen, put it this way: The Tampa Bay Rays will recall 2008 fondly for the time they were better than both the Yankees and the Red Sox in the same year and finally made the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Tigers need at least one tangible piece of evidence the year wasn’t a total wash, and it shouldn’t because not all Tigers fans overdosed on horrible-tasting sleeping pills.
Visit Matt Sussman’s sports blog at www.futonreport.net.