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Tigers show why they're the best team

5/13/2014

Five thoughts on Monday’s battle between the first-place Detroit Tigers and first-place Baltimore Orioles, a 4-1 Tigers win that was more interesting than the final score indicates and evidence of why they were No. 1 in this week's Power Rankings.

1. Bud Norris did a very dumb thing. Norris had locked up with Rick Porcello in a nice pitcher’s duel, the Tigers leading 2-1 in the eighth inning when Ian Kinsler hit a 1-1 fastball for a two-run homer. Two pitches later Norris drilled Torii Hunter in the ribs, angering Hunter and setting off a little benches-clearing meet-and-greet where Hunter said something along the lines of "I’m going to take that piece of equipment jockeys carry for their horses and use it on your posterior."

Norris, who was ejected, appeared to say, "It’s a fastball inside."

Well, OK. Wayyyyyyy inside.

If you ask me, Norris was clearly upset after giving up the two-out homer. But what did Hunter do? I love that pitchers will get upset when a batter flips his bat but it’s OK for pitchers to throw at hitters for no reason.

"I understand the emotion," an understated Orioles manager Buck Showalter said after the game. "But it happens."

Well, sure. It also will be interesting to see if the Tigers attempt to retaliate on Tuesday.

The bigger question: Should Norris have still been in the game? Kinsler was up for the fourth time and studies show that pitchers get progressively worse each time through the lineup. He had thrown more than 100 pitches and had walked Alex Avila to start the inning. The bullpen had not been worked very hard over the weekend, so it wasn’t a question of Showalter needing the starter to soak up some innings. Plus, in a 2-1 game in the eighth you’re not really worried about preserving the bullpen.

2. Rick Porcello continues to impress. Porcello allowed five hits and no walks in six innings, improving to 6-1 with a 3.22 ERA. He has never walked many but his control has taken a leap forward this year as he’s walked just six in seven starts. Certainly, improved defense in the infield has helped the ground-ball specialist and maybe given him more confidence that he doesn’t have to throw the perfect pitch.

But Porcello has made a major change in his approach this year, as well, throwing more sliders and fewer curveballs:

2013: 182 sliders, 467 curveballs

2014: 99 sliders, 93 curveballs

Whether it's new pitch selection or simply throwing more strikes, it's an improved Porcello and now a valuable part of the Detroit rotation instead of being the "other guy" behind Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez.

3. Victor Martinez actually struck out. One of my favorite stat lines of the season: Martinez has eight home runs and just seven strikeouts, his seventh coming on Monday night. In this era when hitters swing for the fences no matter the count, Martinez has mastered the lost art of putting the ball in play. Martinez went 2-for-4 and is now hitting .331/.380/.583, inheriting the Prince Fielder role of batting behind Miguel Cabrera and outperforming what Prince.

How impressive is Martinez’s non-strikeout start? Since 1980, only George Brett and Barry Bonds have had seasons with more home runs than K’s. Martinez isn’t going to do that -- he had 62 strikeouts and 14 home runs in 2013 -- but this is a special hitter. With two strikes he’s hitting -- get this -- .343/.356/.657. Six of his eight home runs have come with two strikes and he has fanned just those seven times in 73 two-strike plate appearances. When you hear announcers talked about the “toughest out” in baseball, Martinez is at the top of that list so far in 2014.

4. Miguel Cabrera is driving in runs and he hasn’t even gotten hot yet. This is kind of a scary thing for opposing pitchers to consider: Cabrera is hitting .290/.331/.478 with five home runs -- nice numbers but nice isn't usually the word used to described Cabrera at the plate -- but he still has 30 RBIs in 34 games.

There’s still something not quite right about Cabrera, however. He has just eight walks and 27 strikeouts. That’s a 5.4 percent walk rate and 18.2 percent K rate, compared to walking 13.8 percent and whiffing 14.4 percent of the time last year. I’m not quite sure what’s going on there because his chase rate on pitches out of the zone is barely higher than last year and his swing-and-miss percentage is actually down one percent. Pitchers aren’t giving him the free passes like a year ago when he had 19 intentional walks (he has just one this year), but that could be a function of having more runners on base in front of him and thus fewer open bases or managers not fearing Cabrera as much.

My prediction: Cabrera starts heating up as the weather warms. Then we'll start seeing pitchers pitch around him more often.

Assuming they want to pitch to Martinez, that is.

5. The Tigers' defense is better. I alluded to this in the Porcello comment, but the Detroit defense has looked much better than it did in 2013, with one notable exception. The Tigers were at minus-14 Defense Runs Saved entering Monday’s game, but Hunter is at minus-10 in right field and the ill-fated Alex Gonzalez experiment at shortstop resulted in a minus-4 rating. A year ago, the Tigers allowed a .306 average on balls in play; this year it’s at .292.

So, Tigers sitting at No. 1 in the Power Rankings? I'm not going to disagree.