Rough ALDS caps Tigers' roller-coaster year
Detroit started season with Majors' best record, but had some rocky periods
DETROIT -- The Tigers' rule of the American League Central continued, now at four consecutive division titles.
The Tigers' search for a World Series title continued as well, now at 30 years since the team's magical 1984 season.
At some point down the road, maybe soon, when age, attrition or the market has had its say on the core of this team and playoff baseball is no longer a given, there will be an appreciation for the former. As the Tigers sit and watch the rest of the postseason unfold without them, having been swept out of the Division Series, it was hard not to linger on the latter.
Time will tell how history views this era of Tigers teams, hinging in large part on how many more years they can contend and whether they can win a World Series.
The 2014 Tigers had their clear flaws. Some, like a shaky bullpen and inefficient defense, sounded familiar. Some, like an inconsistent starting rotation and a bench without an impact offensive threat, were new developments.
At their best, the Tigers could compete with anybody. At their worst, they could find ways to lose. The same team that won six in a row on the road at Baltimore and Boston to cap a Major League-best 27-12 start, then went to Cleveland and lost three straight to begin a 9-20 stretch.
The same Tigers that outplayed the Royals all season, winning 13 out of 19, and went 10-3 combined against the A's and O's, went 19-19 against the White Sox and Twins, the bottom two teams in the division.
"This season was the worst roller-coaster I've ever been on in my life," Torii Hunter said. "I've never been a part of anything like that -- not with the Twins, not with the Angels, not even last year."
Hunter couldn't put his finger on why, but he wasn't the only one who felt that way. It was a wild enough ride that Max Scherzer believed a division title at the end was a credit.
"At the end of the day, we found a way to win the division," he said. "Even among all the ups and downs that we had, we beat a very, very good team in the Kansas City Royals to win the division."
When they clinched the division on the final day, it felt like the ride was headed upward entering a postseason full of teams that got hot when it counted. Instead, the Division Series was a downswing.
"It was our time to shine here in the postseason -- that's what we've done in the past," Scherzer said. "We thought we had a great team to be able to win this American League Division Series. …
"That's frustrating for everybody in this clubhouse. We didn't want this season to end. We know how much talent's here."
In the end, Victor Martinez said, it comes down to the talent -- not the first-year manager, Brad Ausmus, whose pitching moves and in-game strategies were critiqued.
"It's our fault," Martinez said. "I always say it's easy to blame one guy, but [Ausmus has] nothing to do with it. Actually, he did a great job for his first time managing. Brad did a great job. We are the ones who go out there and play to try to win ballgames. We didn't do our job."
Record: 90-72, first in American League Central.
Defining moment: The Tigers headed to Kansas City for the next-to-last weekend of the season a mere half-game up on the Royals in the division race and looking vulnerable. They dominated K.C. in the opener, taking a 10-1 win behind 7 1/3 strong innings from Justin Verlander, then getting seven more strong innings from Scherzer, outpitching James Shields for a 3-2 win the next day. The Royals took the series finale, but their opportunity to take the division had essentially slipped.
What went right: Scherzer followed up his Cy Young campaign with an 18-win season that arguably saw him become a better pitcher, posting 252 strikeouts while showing a better mix of pitches than the fastball-slider tendencies of his younger days. … Victor Martinez turned in a career season at age 35, crossing the 30-homer mark for the first time, leading the league with a .974 OPS, and providing some of the toughest at-bats in the Majors this season. … Rick Porcello not only made a borderline All-Star case with his breakout first half, but looked like the kind of pitcher people hoped he'd become when the Tigers drafted him out of high school in 2007 and put him in their rotation two years later. … Joba Chamberlain, signed to a low-risk one-year deal in the offseason, became a solid setup man, partly filling the void left by a season-ending injury to Bruce Rondon. In the process, Chamberlain enjoyed a career rebirth after a rough exit from the Yankees.
What went wrong: The season hadn't even started when Spring Training injuries cost the Tigers three young talents who were expected to play significant roles. Defensive wizard shortstop Jose Iglesias (stress fractures in both shins) and fastball-firing setup man Rondon (Tommy John surgery) both were lost for the year, while outfielder Andy Dirks compounded his back surgery with a left hamstring strain while on a late-season rehab assignment. All three positions suffered as a result. … In part because of Rondon's absence, the Tigers' bullpen makeover backfired, both with closer Joe Nathan's struggles and with heavy use of Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Ian Krol. … Miguel Cabrera's season wasn't a disappointment by the end, but a slow return to full strength from core muscle surgery and a bone spur in an ankle left him searching for his old power until the stretch run. He still hit .313 -- a down year by the standards of a three-time defending batting champion, but a great year for many -- and led the league with 52 doubles. … The Tigers were caught short on starting pitching depth in their farm system once Anibal Sanchez had a pair of stints on the disabled list and weather postponements led to two August doubleheaders, eventually leading to Buck Farmer and Kyle Ryan making Major League starts.
Biggest surprise: The Tigers signed J.D. Martinez in the final week of Spring Training, two days after the Astros released him, to provide a power-hitting option at Triple-A Toledo. He ended up becoming the power-hitting protection the Tigers needed in the middle of their order after Cabrera and Victor Martinez. He would've ranked in the AL's top five in slugging percentage and Top 10 in OPS if he had enough at-bats to qualify. He still ended up with 30 doubles, 23 home runs and 76 RBIs in just 441 at-bats.
Hitter of the year: For the first time in six years, it's not Cabrera. Victor Martinez's incredible season was that good, outproducing Cabrera in nearly every major category. The beauty, however, is in the metrics and the ratios. Martinez spent most of the year with almost as many home runs (eventually 32) as strikeouts (42). He has almost as many hits (eight) on 0-2 pitches as strikeouts (nine), four of them home runs. He had an 18-to-4 walk-to-strikeout ratio on full counts.
Pitcher of the year: Scherzer didn't have the numbers for a Cy Young repeat, but he had a better season from a pure pitching standpoint than last year. He also had the highest Wins Above Replacement on the team, and it wasn't particularly close.
Rookie of the year:The Tigers had a lot of them, but the rookie that was up the whole time was the one who made the biggest impact. Nick Castellanos had his growing pains, especially in the field after a year and a half away from third base, but he finished with respectable offensive numbers (.259 average, 31 doubles, 11 homers, 66 RBIs, .700 OPS) and a line-drive approach that should pay off long term.