Strong, Young Pitchers Lead Detroit Tigers to the Promised Land
By Bill Peterson
Those watching the baseball playoffs see the Detroit Tigers rolling out pitcher after pitcher who trips 98 miles per hour on the radar gun, and their thoughts can't be suppressed: The Fox network radar gun must be reading a little fast just to turn up the "wow" factor and keep the audience in tune.
Reds fans might think a little differently: Homer Bailey.
Baseball is burning with questions right now concerning the most reliable way to build a contender. The two methods most often discussed have flopped during the postseason.
The New York Yankees' plan consists in spending $200 million and putting an All-Star at every position. Didn't work this year. Lacking New York funds, the Oakland Athletics resort to finding players who produce in less obvious ways (see "xxxxxxxxxx," issue of Oct. 11). That didn't work this year either.
The Yankees and Athletics both fell to the Tigers, who rely neither on big money nor big ideas. The Tigers keep no secrets either. Their method is to be found right in the middle, on the pitcher's mound, where they're are so dominant that one must believe they will beat whichever club survives in the National League.
Pitching such as Detroit's will win much more often than not against power clubs, speed clubs, resourceful clubs or any other kind of club one can describe.
The true secret to winning, Detroit reminds us, lies not in the sustenance of big bats or energetic run-and-throw athletes but in the care and feeding of pitchers, which calls for enormous amounts of good fortune and health. The Tigers have that perspicuous combination going for them now. It almost never lasts forever, but if it does, so much the better for the Tigers and their fans.
Right now, this is their moment. Young pitching of such high quality, all on one staff, very seldom coalesces on one scene. When it does, it wins.
A television commentator mentioned late in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series that the Athletics fell short for lacking the ability to bunt, steal or hit-and-run. Such an assessment is barely credible in light of how the series progressed. The Athletics almost never led in the series and often played from well behind from game to game. Under the circumstances, needing crooked innings, even more traditional clubs refuse to play little ball.
Generally, when bunt or hit-and-run situations came to pass for the Athletics, the hitter was someone like Frank Thomas or Eric Chavez, big swingers who are present in the middle of every lineup. No manager is going to bunt or hit-and-run with those players.
Moneyball didn't beat the A's against Detroit, even if it didn't help. When a club pitches like the Tigers, offensive strategies are irrelevant. Even if the occasion to trade outs for bases would have arisen from time to time, Detroit pitching would have gladly taken the outs, rung up two more and walked to the dugout.
This Tigers pitching staff is a wonder, reminiscent of the Atlanta Braves circa 1991, which brings up a little cycle of history. Remember 1987? The Tigers needed pitching for their run to the American League East title, so they traded for an Atlanta veteran having the year of his life, Doyle Alexander. In exchange, the Tigers gave up a 20-year-old right hander with a career minor league record of 11-18, running a 5.68 ERA that year at Glens Falls of the Eastern League (Double-A). Kid's name was John Smoltz.
Beginning in 1986, the Braves undertook a youth movement, seriously committing themselves to five years of ugly lumps with Chuck Tanner in the dugout and Bobby Cox concentrating on player development as the club's general manager. Shortly after trading for Smoltz, they brought up Tom Glavine. Steve Avery, Jeff Blauser and David Justice were on the way.
In 1990, Cox moved into the dugout. In 1991, the Braves added Terry Pendleton at third base and Sid Bream at first, improving their defense on the infield corners as an aid to young pitching. They added Otis Nixon to lead off and play center field, another defensive benefit. The Braves went with a young veteran pitching rotation including Smoltz, Glavine, Avery and Pete Smith. The psychological anchor was a veteran left-handed soft tosser, Charlie Liebrandt, who joined the club a year earlier.
And the Braves, from nowhere, rocketed from worst to first. They won their division every year from 1991 through 2005. Meanwhile, the Tigers, an old club in 1987, went into a free fall after winning their division that year. Their 1990s were a dark age. In 2003, they lost 119 games.
Now we're in October 2006, the Braves are sitting at home for the first time since 1990 (through no fault of Smoltz's) and look who's in the World Series -- the club that traded Smoltz for a quick fix all those years ago. The early 2000s Tigers, like the late 1980s Braves, took their medicine with young pitching. Then they added a veteran manager, a veteran left hander and a couple other parts. Suddenly, they zoomed to the top as their pitching matured.
The Tigers' rotation mixes so well that it's a wonder any club hits against it. And, of course, most clubs don't, which is why the Tigers, as an American League club, led the major leagues in staff ERA. Start with hard-throwing lefty Nate Robertson, come back the next day with hard-throwing right hander Justin Verlander, come back the next day with soft-tossing lefty Kenny Rogers, follow with flame-throwing right hander Jeremy Bonderman, then cycle back to the flame-throwing lefty. Finish in the bullpen with blowtorches like Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney.
This Tigers staff contains the best assembly of best young pitching talent since the Braves of the early 1990s. And the Tigers are going a long, long way for a long, long time. (Standard disclaimer: If they stay healthy.)
Of the Detroit starters, they drafted only Verlander, taken the same 2004 first round where the Reds snagged Bailey. Bonderman came to the Tigers as a Class A pitcher in a 2002 three-way deal with the A's and Yankees that cost them only Jeff Weaver. Robertson pitched in Triple-A when the Tigers acquired him in a 2003 trade with Florida. Rogers, a 40-year-old playing the Liebrandt role, signed this year as a free agent.
The Reds still haven't scouted, drafted, signed and developed a pitcher with 100 major league wins since Tom Browning came up in September 1984. Bailey is sitting in the farm system throwing 98 mph. Reds General Manager Wayne Krivsky has acknowledged that some in the organization want to bring Bailey to the bigs right now, while others prefer another year of seasoning. If all goes well, Bailey is the Reds' next big winner.
But a view of Cox's work in Atlanta, along with David Dombrowski's performance as the Detroit general manager, changes the question for the Reds. From the executive suites at Great American Ball Park to the living rooms of Reds Nation, we're all asking, "What should the Reds do with Homer Bailey?"
Here's a better question: Where do the Reds find more like him?