Thursday, October 15, 2009

2009 Season Review Part One: Looking Back

I meant to get this post up earlier, but with school and all, it just keeps getting pushed back. Still, here it is. I’m going to follow a similar format to what I did last year: I’ll present my review in two parts. Part one (today’s post) will look back at the just-completed season. Part two (which will hopefully be up in the near future) will take a look at what the Tigers should address as they prepare for 2010.

One thing you’ve probably figured out by now is that it’s very easy for me to think of things in cinematic (or fictional) terms. Last year, I compared the ’06, ’07, and ’08 seasons to the three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, in that the first one was downright awesome, the second was okay, and the third…well, it had a few good moments, but ultimately left you feeling unsatisfied. I’ve run out of Pirates of the Caribbean movies to compare seasons to, so I’ve found a new metaphor. 2009 was The Sopranos: A great, great show that had a really abrupt and sucky ending. Seriously. You may as well have cut to a black, silent screen as Carlos Gomez was rounding third in the bottom of the 12th. It would’ve provided the same amount of closure. Which is, to say, not much. And then there’s the frustration of knowing that they quite literally came up one win short. And I’m not talking about game 163. Nor am I talking about the Saturday night “hangover” game. It probably should not have come to that, because there’s about 75 other games to choose from. They lost the first game of the season despite scoring five runs off Roy Halladay because Verlander hadn’t quite gotten back on track yet. There was a rash of games after the All-Star Break where they lost 2-1. They lost a game in Boston because of Rick Porcello plunking Kevin Youkilis and getting ejected (Everyone got mad at Cabrera after his story broke, but I seriously think I am the only one that feels that the whole Porcello thing was not a smart move. I enjoyed the Youkilis takedown, and I know there’s this whole subculture when it comes to hit batters and retaliation, but he’d already delivered the message to Victor Martinez and he put the pitching staff in a very shaky position because Edwin Jackson had only gone four innings the night before and Armando Galarraga, who was scheduled to start the following night, was sick as a dog, and Porcello knew all of this). There was that final series in Kansas City where the Tigers probably could’ve taken two of three (despite not scoring THAT many runs) if not for an ill-timed pitching meltdown. Yes, there are 77 games to second-guess. Pick one. One’s just as valid as another. But, as my old church pastor said, “if only” is not a healthy way to live. And that is where perspective comes into play.

Back when I did my season preview in March, I really made no actual predictions other than feeling like the Tigers would be better than they were in 2008. I said they had enough talent and potential to win between 85 and 90 games and contend for the AL Central title. They did just that. Most people did not give them that chance. A couple other bloggers did (Kurt over at Mack Avenue Tigers being one of them), but the media, the sabremetric computer simulations, and the “experts” all expected them to finish, at best, in third place (with a sub-.500 record in most cases), and most of them picked the Tigers to finish fourth or last (depending on how favorably they viewed the Royals). And yet, one thing you can say is that all season long, the Tigers defied both math and prognostication, for good or bad. All throughout the summer, the experts waited for the Twins or White Sox to pass them. That didn’t happen. Then in September, when all the pundits and columnists said the Tigers had this thing wrapped up and the computer simulations were giving them a 91% chance at the playoffs (meanwhile, I was pretty much the only one noticing that the Tigers still had seven games left against the Twins), the Tigers proved them wrong again. Or, should I say, the Twins proved them wrong? This is one reason why I don’t buy into sabremetrics. Sabremetrics assumes that everything is constant, that circumstances and players don’t change. But it’s not always like that. Baseball IS dynamic. Things DO change, and unexpected things happen all the time. It’s called the human element. The Tigers are not the ’07 Mets. They did not choke. The Twins were the ’07 Rockies, plain and simple. After the Tigers swept the Rays, we the fans were told that all the Tigers had to do was play .500 ball the rest of the way and they would easily win the Central. They pretty much did just that, ending up a game or two under .500 after that point, which is not great, but is not dismally bad either (They were just really streaky about it, which is what made it look worse than it actually was). The Twins, meanwhile, would have to play close to .800 ball, which is something they had not done at any point in the season (mostly because their pitching was too inconsistent; a lot of their hitters had career years). The best record they had had up to that point was 3 games above .500. Then a funny thing happened: They lost Justin Morneau to injury. Apparently he was holding them back, because, in one of the biggest examples of Baseball Often Does Not Make Sense, they went 17-4 over their last 21 games, including game 163 (three of those losses came to the Tigers, and the other one was to Zack Greinke). The Tigers did what they “needed” to do. The Twins did what they “could not possibly” do. And in the end, the Tigers became the Metrodome’s last victim.

Of course, things went wrong, mostly the offense. After being quite high-powered in 2007, they kind of went “all or nothing” in 2008, and the issues that they began to have last year kind of came to the forefront this year because the pitching wasn’t masking it anymore. And just like how a lot of guys had career years in ’07, many of those same guys had subpar years in ’09. Polanco and Magglio struggled through the early part of the season before turning it up near the end (Maggs was especially bipolar; he was hitting .225 at the end of May and then went on an absolute tear after the All-Star Break to finish the season at .310). Inge had an incredible first half before his knees betrayed him. Most of Cabrera’s numbers were right where you’d want them to be, but 103 RBIs is low for him (though you could easily make the argument that there weren’t that many guys on the bases for him to drive in). Granderson’s season was really weird, because he had a career high in home runs and had a decent year when it came to stolen bases, but his average and his ability to hit doubles and triples went down considerably, as did his average against left-handed pitching (which was somewhere around .250 last year, certainly an acceptable number).
Like they have in previous years, injuries certainly played a part. Jeremy Bonderman essentially had a lost season, as did Nate Robertson. Carlos Guillen missed a large part of the season with the shoulder problem. Jarrod Washburn’s knee injury never really allowed him to contribute. I suspect Armando Galarraga spent a good chunk of the season hiding an elbow injury that limited his effectiveness and control. The big blow was probably Brandon Inge and his knees, which was very sad to watch when you consider what a great first half he had. Some tried to argue that he was merely regressing to the norm, but the timing of the injury in relation to his struggles is too much of a coincidence to have any certainty in a statement like that. And then we have Joel Zumaya. We’re getting to the point where you might as well just copy and paste his name into the injury paragraph every year. And I know he struggled for about a month leading up to that disastrous outing at Yankee Stadium, but there is some evidence to suggest that he was trying to pitch through the sore shoulder. Oddly enough, though, outside of the struggles and losses that were his own doing, the team really didn’t miss a beat after Zoom went on the DL. Brandon Lyon stepped in and did a very good job in Zumaya’s stead.

What went right? Pitching and defense, which is what the focus turned to after last season. There were some bumps and lapses along the way (they had some horrible series defensively against the Angels and Yankees early in the season, and then there was that span in early summer where the pitching staff gave up a ton of bases-loaded walks), but overall, it’s what carried them all year. Justin Verlander found his dominating fastball again and went from leading the league in losses to tying for the league lead in wins and leading the majors in strikeouts. And it didn’t look good for him in April. The first Game Thread I ever visited on BYB was that April game he pitched against the Angels (the start right before he “found it”), and I was seriously the only one with a kind word to say about him. I never lost faith in him. And I was rewarded for that, and hopefully he’s got ten or fifteen years left of that dominance (wearing the Olde English D, of course). There were several people on the Tigers blogosphere that were not happy about the Edwin Jackson trade when it first happened. Those sentiments quickly faded, and it sure does look like that trade was a steal, with the Tigers coming out on top. I know he started to slide in late August/September, and hopefully he just hit a wall (after all, he pitched more innings than he had in his life), because he has gotten progressively better each year. I wasn’t sure what Rick Porcello would bring when the Tigers first decided to stick him in the rotation out of spring training. I felt that either he would impress mightily or that he would flame out and never reach his promise. Luckily, it was the former. Porcello probably deserves to win Rookie of the Year. I’m not sure he will, since the voters tend to prefer position players over pitchers, but he should at least finish in the top three or four. The back end of the bullpen also got better. Brandon Lyon had a terrible April, but after that, something clicked, and for the rest of the season, he was probably the most consistent reliever we had. And I don’t think anyone was sure what to expect when Leyland decided to make Rodney the closer at the beginning of the season. But hey, the guy only blew one save all year (and in that game, he really didn’t pitch all that badly). It was usually an adventure when he took the mound. He had a tendency to make things way too exciting. But he got the job done. And then there was the defense. Gerald Laird may not have contributed much with the bat, but with the number of runners he was throwing out, I could certainly live with that. Same with Everett/Santiago at short. Moving Inge back to third base made a big difference, even with the injury, and Cabrera’s starting to turn himself into a pretty decent defender at first base, though he’ll probably never get recognized for it. Inge and Laird certainly deserve the Gold Gloves for their positions, but with the offensive struggles (which shouldn’t be part of the equation but is), likely will not win (I’ll take a stab and say Mauer and either Evan Longoria or Michael Young). Polanco might win the one for second base, and he’d certainly deserve it.

Even though we came up short, you have to agree that this season sure was entertaining. There are so many moments that I am going to remember, from Galarraga’s gem/Cabrera’s grand slam in the home opener to Brandon Inge making the All-Star team to Clete Thomas hitting a walk-off home run on my birthday. Of course, my favorite moment is probably the 1-0 complete game that Verlander pitched in Cleveland, highlighted by Curtis Granderson’s amazing catch to rob Grady Sizemore of what would’ve been a crushing game-winning home run. And there are many more.

And that wraps up my look back at 2009. Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll take a look at what needs to be done for 2010.

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