SweetSpot: Jim Leyland

One of the things I liked best about Jim Leyland is that he never really gave you a song-and-dance response to questions. He knew that players win games and that players with the most talent win the most games.

My favorite example of this came back when he was managing the Pittsburgh Pirates and got into the infamous shouting match with Barry Bonds during spring training in 1991. Asked after the incident about what kind of example Bonds was setting, Leyland responded to the effect of "Leadership is a .300 average, 30 home runs, 30 steals."

Just the other day he was asked about what Torii Hunter brings to the Detroit Tigers and his first response was something like "Well, to begin with, he's a good player on the field."

Leyland wasn't dismissing the importance of things like veteran leadership or clubhouse chemistry, but merely stating that talent comes first. What you do between the lines is always the most important attribute for any player.

Leyland was also asked, with all his experience and multiple years of managing in the postseason, whether he had learned if there were any keys to winning in the playoffs. Not really, he said. You play the games.

In other words: Anything can happen. You can have one of the best rotations in baseball history and one of the best hitters of all time, but that's no guarantee of anything.

After eight years of managing the Tigers and 22 years of managing in the majors, Leyland has stepped down. He's 68 years old and managing in the major leagues isn't an easy life, even for a baseball lifer like him. He's undoubtedly still beating himself up over some of the moves he made with his bullpen against the Red Sox, but Leyland would also be the first to tell you: That's the playoffs. Their guys beat our guys.

While he managed the Tigers to two American League pennants, there is undoubtedly an air of disappointment over this era of the Tigers, a team stocked in top-line talent with the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Prince Fielder. In 2011, the pitching fell apart in the final two games of the ALCS against the Rangers, Verlander and Scherzer getting pounded. In 2012, the bats died in the World Series against the San Francisco Giants as the Tigers hit .159 and got shut out twice. Against the Red Sox, Cabrera wasn't 100 percent, Fielder didn't hit and the bullpen blew two leads.

Leyland will retire 15th on the all-time win list. Nine of those ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, and Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre will get there some day, leaving Gene Mauch and Lou Piniella. However, Leyland's .506 winning percentage would rank 12th of those 15, ahead of only Bucky Harris, Connie Mack and Mauch. Ten of those 14 also won at least two World Series titles, with Cox, Piniella and Leo Durocher having won one and Mauch none.

Those numbers would seem to put Leyland right on the borderline of the Hall of Fame: his longevity working for him, his career winning percentage and one title against him. The winning percentage is clouded by a couple of things, however. When he took over the Pirates in 1986, they were coming off a 104-loss season. He lost 98 games his first season but had them in the playoffs in 1990, the first of three straight NL East titles. After Bonds, Doug Drabek and Bobby Bonilla departed as free agents, the franchise fell apart and Leyland stuck it out for four losing seasons.

He took over the Marlins in 1997 and they won the World Series. But that club had the big fire sale and the '98 club went 54-108. He managed the Rockies in 1999 but didn't return to the dugout again until his old GM in Florida, Dave Dombrowski, hired him in Detroit in 2006. The 2005 Tigers had gone 71-91. The 2006 Tigers went 95-67 and reached the World Series.

Is he a Hall of Fame manager? Certainly, one more title probably would have made him a lock. The Hall is pretty generous about electing managers, though: Whitey Herzog has just one title and 500 fewer wins than Leyland and he's in; Dick Williams has two titles, fewer wins than Leyland and a .520 winning percentage but he's in. Leyland certainly wouldn't be described as an innovator like Herzog, but he managed the talent he had and didn't try to do too much with it.

Based on historical precedent, I'd say Leyland eventually goes in. Once the big three get in, the next choice would seem to be Leyland, Piniella or maybe Davey Johnson (shorter career, better winning percentage). Leyland did reach three World Series, while Piniella and Johnson reached just one. All three certainly were "famous" managers. I say Leyland rates the slight edge over those two.
The Boston Red Sox were dead, crushed in for the second straight game by a dominant starting pitcher, their bats swinging through nasty fastballs and ungodly breaking stuff from Max Scherzer. It was a tip-your-cap kind of game. Pack your suitcases and head to Detroit and figure out how to beat Justin Verlander in Game 3 to avoid falling down three games to zero in the American League Championship Series.

Then came the eighth inning ... an inning that could turn the entire 2013 season. An inning that is going to cause Jim Leyland a lot of lost sleep the next two nights.

Scherzer had followed up Justin Verlander’s division series clincher against Oakland and Anibal Sanchez’s 12-strikeout gem in Game 1 by taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning. The Red Sox scratched a run across that inning, but the Tigers had already knocked Clay Buchholz from the game with four runs in the top of the frame. When Scherzer cruised through a 1-2-3 seventh -- including his 12th and 13th strikeouts -- it appeared a victory was in hand, the Tigers up 5-1 and the Red Sox's offense have recorded just three hits while striking out 30 times in the two games.

Then came a series of fateful decisions by Leyland and the Tigers. Let’s look at each one.

1. Removing Scherzer after 108 pitches.

Argument for: You’re up by four runs, it’s a long postseason haul, so there’s no need to push Scherzer unnecessarily deep into the game. You have to manage looking ahead to the rest of this series and the World Series. Yes, he’d thrown more than 108 pitches 14 times in the regular season but he’d topped 120 just twice with a high of 123, so it was unlikely he'd finish the inning anyway. Plus, the Detroit bullpen is better than everyone gives it credit for: Joaquin Benoit had a 2.01 ERA, Drew Smyly a 2.37 ERA, Jose Veras pitched well after coming over from Houston and Al Alburquerque fanned 70 in 49 1/3 innings. It’s not a deep pen, but Benoit and Smyly in particular were very good at the end of games.

Argument against: Scherzer is one of the best pitchers in the game and he’d thrown only 108 pitches. The Red Sox hadn’t done anything against him all game. At least wait until he gives up a baserunner before you take him out. What’s the old saying? No lead in Fenway is safe? You use your best guys for as long as you can and Scherzer was still the best guy.

Verdict: I can’t rip Leyland too harshly for this one. A four-run lead should be safe. If there’s one issue: Why start the inning with Jose Veras instead of Smyly when two of the next three batters were left-handed? But even then, it’s possible John Farrell hits Xander Bogaerts for Stephen Drew if Smyly starts the inning.

2. Bringing in Smyly to face Jacoby Ellsbury.
[+] EnlargeJonny Gomes
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports Jonny Gomes scored the winning run after an infield hit to lead off the ninth.

Veras got Drew to ground out but Will Middlebrooks doubled. Due up next: Ellsbury and then Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia, one lefty and then two righties.

Argument for: Smyly held lefties to .189/.225/.246 line, so bring him to get Ellsbury and stop a rally from getting started.

Argument against: Even if Ellsbury gets on against Veras, the tying run is still two batters away. You could still let Veras face the right-handers. But if you bring in Smyly and Ellsbury gets on, then do you let Smyly face the two righties? Probably not, considering both are much better against left-handers.

Verdict: Again, I can’t rip Leyland too harshly as on paper as he got a good matchup with a better pitcher. The question: Do you assume a worst-case scenario and start thinking about David Ortiz looming four spots away? If so, then you have to ask: Who do you want facing Big Papi?

3. Replacing Smyly with Alburquerque.

Smyly walked Ellsbury, which is the one thing Leyland didn’t count on, because that left him with this choice: Do you bring in your fourth-best reliever to get the platoon advantage, leave in your second-best reliever, or go to your closer?

Argument for Alburquerque: Righties hit .202/.346/.337 off him, but just .130 in the second half. He has been pretty deadly since the All-Star break with that wipeout slider.

Argument for Smyly: You have to be concerned about Ortiz in case Victorino or Pedroia get on, and he would be the best matchup.

Argument for Benoit: He's your closer. If he can get four outs, he can get five.

Verdict: Considering the way Alburquerque has been throwing, it's hard to rip this decision. Smyly had walked Ellsbury, so would you have confidence in him facing Ortiz if it got to that point?

4. Bringing in Benoit to face Ortiz.

Victorino struck out but Pedroia singled to right, third-base coach Brian Butterfield wisely holding Middlebrooks at third, even with two outs. That brought up Ortiz. What do you do now? You have to take out Alburquerque, but do you bring in Benoit or the lefty Phil Coke?

Argument for Benoit: He has been your best reliever all year, and as a setup guy most of his career he's used to entering with runners on base. His dead fish changeup makes him very effective against left-handers; they hit .194 with just one home run off him.

Argument for Coke: Ortiz was 2-for-18 in his career off Coke. Ortiz hit .339 against righties and .260 against lefties. Plus, you added Coke to the roster this round basically to face Ortiz, right?

Verdict: Considering Coke hadn't pitched in a major league game since Sept. 18 and didn't have a great season when he did pitch (lefties hit .299 against him), it's again hard to fault Leyland here. Yes, it raises the question of why Coke is even on the roster, but Benoit has been getting out lefties all season. Of all the choices, once we got to this point, I think this was the most obviously correct one. No way can you trust Coke here.

5. Bringing in Rick Porcello for the ninth.

Benoit threw Ortiz a first-pitch changeup, it hung up too much and Ortiz launched it into the bullpen, sending Torii Hunter tumbling over the fence and making this policeman very happy. After the Tigers failed to score, Leyland replaced Benoit in the ninth with Porcello.

Argument for Benoit: He has been your best reliever. He threw just eight pitches in the eighth (after throwing 22 in Game 1). He can easily go one more inning.

Argument for Porcello: You have to look at the big picture and think about having Benoit ready for Game 3. Porcello's stuff plays up as a reliever and he gets ground balls, so you don't have to worry as much about him serving up a game-losing home run.

Verdict: I'm not a big Porcello fan, but he was clearly the next guy on your roster. I'd have gone with Benoit for one more inning.

6. Jose Iglesias tries to throw out Jonny Gomes at first base on weak grounder.

There is no argument here. Iglesias had no chance to get Gomes; you have to eat the ball there. But the worse play was Prince Fielder failing to use his large body to knock the ball down and prevent it from rolling into the dugout. Bad decision by Iglesias, but a lazy, terrible play by Fielder. Gomes goes to second on the throwing error, advances on a wild pitch and Jarrod Saltalamacchia singles past the drawn-in infield.

One crazy inning. To me, it wasn't so much one bad decision by Leyland leading to another, but simply a matter of one result leading to another decision. Did Leyland overthink things? Maybe, especially since he had implied before the series that it's the type of series you win and lose with your starting pitchers. Tigers fans will obviously second-guess the decision to remove Scherzer, but at the time it didn't seem like an egregious error.

It just didn't work out. The Red Sox's hitters beat the Tigers' bullpen. They avoid a two-game disaster at Fenway Park and the Tigers are left wondering what happened. We're left wondering how the eighth inning will affect Leyland's confidence in his bullpen moving forward.

My prediction: Verlander throws more than 108 pitches in Game 3.
Earlier on Monday, Eric Karabell and myself taped a SweetSpot TV segment on managers, and one thing we harped on was the slow hooks some managers have had in the postseason, particularly Dusty Baker with Johnny Cueto in the NL wild-card game and Fredi Gonzalez with Julio Teheran in Game 3 of the Braves-Dodgers series.

Sure enough, in the first game after our segment, Jim Leyland's slow hook on Anibal Sanchez haunted the Tigers in Oakland's 6-3 victory.

Look, Sanchez had a great season. He led the American League with a 2.57 ERA, and if he hadn't missed a few starts with shoulder issues, he would be a more viable Cy Young Award candidate. He was terrific in the playoffs for the Tigers last season, and they don't have the deepest bullpen among the playoff contenders, so while I understand Leyland's decision to ride Sanchez, it seemed pretty clear he should not have faced Seth Smith in the fifth inning.

Sanchez had struggled all day with his command, and was already nearing 100 pitches as Smith stepped to the plate with the A's leading 4-3. The A's had hit two home runs, one a line shot by Brandon Moss earlier in the inning, and Sanchez doesn't usually give up home runs, just nine all season in 182 innings.

[+] EnlargeAnibal Sanchez
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastSeth Smith's two-run home run off Anibal Sanchez in the top of the fifth was the third longball given up by Sanchez in Game 3.
Yoenis Cespedes was on first base after a single. So, command issues, balls up in the zone, a left-handed batter at the plate, lefty Jose Alvarez warming up in the pen. It seemed to be the right time to remove Sanchez from the game.

Smith hit just .235 against left-handers, and A's manager Bob Melvin would have been unlikely to hit for Smith that early in the game. Alvarez isn't anything great, but if you're going to use him, this seemed like the right situation, especially with two more lefties on deck.

Sanchez, focusing on trying to get a double play, tried to keep Cespedes close out at first and threw five pitches to Smith -- four hard sinkers and one changeup. The 3-1 pitch was a sinker that was flat as a pancake, and Smith crushed it into the bullpen in left-center for a 6-3 lead.

Now, compare that to what Melvin did with Jarrod Parker, who had been hit around during a three-run fourth inning. He let Parker go one more inning, with Josh Donaldson turning a 5-4-3 double play on Torii Hunter to help out his pitcher and end the fifth. Parker was only at 73 pitches through five; in the regular season, he would've gone back to the mound for the sixth.

This isn't the regular season, however. Melvin went to Dan Otero, and he pitched two scoreless innings, with Sean Doolittle and Grant Balfour finishing up (nice little skirmish there with Balfour and Victor Martinez, by the way).

The other issue for the Tigers is their offense, which ranked second in the AL in runs scored in the regular season, but was 27th in the majors in home runs in September and has scored runs in just two innings in three games in this series. A large reason for those struggles, of course, has been Miguel Cabrera, who had just two extra-base hits in September. Leyland has decided to stick with his injured star, but it's clear he's not remotely close to the hitter he was for most of the season.

The decision to play Cabrera also hurts the team in the field. Not a good defender to begin with, it seems reasonable to assume Cabrera's fielding is also hindered. His error in the third inning allowed a run to score with two outs, leading to a heated exchange between Sanchez and Cabrera as they walked off the field and into the dugout.

In trying to infuse more offense, Leyland also inserted former shortstop Jhonny Peralta into left field, where he had played two games since returning from his PEDs suspension. In the fourth, Peralta was unable to throw out Stephen Vogt tagging from third on a fairly shallow fly. Vogt is a catcher. Peralta did later hit a two-run single, but that poor throw cost the Tigers a run.

Trouble is, Leyland can't DH Cabrera because Martinez is locked in there and he's been one of the team's best hitters. You're not going to catch Martinez, who played just three games behind the plate, because Alex Avila is a plus defender and hit very well in September (.343, seven extra-base hits). You could play Peralta at third, have Andy Dirks in left, and be stronger defensively at two positions, but that means sitting Cabrera.

The series isn't over. Doug Fister versus Dan Straily in Tuesday's Game 4 is a matchup that favors the Tigers, but right now the A's have the better lineup, the better defense and the better bullpen. I see no signs that Cabrera is going to suddenly bash one out, so Fister is going to have to pitch a gem and hope his defense and bullpen backs him up.


Eric and myself discuss why Dusty Baker got fired in Cincinnati and why we're not happy with what managers are doing in the playoffs so far.

Chess match: Tigers versus A's

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
2:30
PM ET
Our final look at the managers ...

Detroit Tigers versus Oakland Athletics

What Jim Leyland likes to do: While the Tigers stole the fewest bases in baseball, barely averaging an attempt every three games, Leyland has been exceptionally aggressive trying to compensate for his regulars' lack of foot speed, getting his runners moving with the pitch 180 times (only Mike Scioscia had his Angels doing that more often).

What Leyland doesn't do is sweat pitch counts, you should also know by now -- Tigers starters went past 110 pitches an MLB-leading 50 times (and perhaps to some statheads' consternation, the world did not end). He also doesn't have to freak out over his bullpen. Maybe he did earlier this year, leading to the brief comeback of Jose Valverde, but these days Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly are working out just fine as the Tigers' tandem in tight spots. With the Tigers' starters routinely get into the seventh inning, Leyland may not need more than that.

The one interesting roster addition is Jhonny Peralta, back from his suspension. He's been working out in left field, although with Oakland having an all right-handed rotation does that mean Andy Dirks stays out there?

What Bob Melvin likes to do: Get the platoon advantage, since he managed to do that with his lineup cards an MLB-leading 77 percent of the time. And as a function of that, Melvin has been one of the most aggressive managers in the AL when it comes to sending up a pinch-hitter, second only to the hyperkinetic Maddon. And as a function of that Melvin uses his bench enough to blur the distinctions between starters and reserves: Alberto Callaspo and Eric Sogard double up as the team's starting second basemen and utlity infielders, Brandon Moss backs up in right, and fourth outfielder Chris Young started in half the A's games.

Melvin may very well be the perfect A's manager: He doesn’t bunt (just 21 successful sac bunts on 32 attempts) and he doesn't run (with an MLB-low 74 occasions runners moved with the pitch). With Melvin's readiness to pinch-hit, even with three catchers on the roster it's unlikely that he'll burn a position player on a pinch-running assignment -- no AL skipper used fewer than Melvin's 14 Herb Washington specials.

In part because of his young rotation, he doesn't ask too much of his starters. He's the perfect antithesis to Leyland in his starting pitcher usage pattern, because with just seven outings with more than 110 pitches thrown, Melvin's A's tied with Clint Hurdle's Bucs for fewest in the majors. In the bullpen, he won’t stick with any reliever too long, leading to a lot of switching things up; all five of his top pen men averaged less than an inning per appearance. Ryan Cook struggled in September so we'll if Dan Otero instead joins Sean Doolittle and Grant Balfour as the late-inning trio that Melvin likes to employ.

Advantage: Another tough matchup between another good pair, but I'd favor Melvin just slightly because he might be able to steal a late run or two in a tight game.


The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.

 
For all the consternation over Jose Valverde, part of the Detroit Tigers' late-inning woes has been the failure of the offense to deliver big hits late in close games.

So when Victor Martinez walked leading off the bottom of the ninth Thursday and Jhonny Peralta hit a 1-2 pitch from Boston's Andrew Bailey over the fence in left field for the dramatic two-run, game-winning home run, part of it was that the Tigers were simply due.

Entering the contest, the Tigers had lost four games they led going into the ninth inning. But they had rallied to win just one game they had been trailing. They were also 2-7 in extra-inning games. The bullpen has been getting the blame, but check out some of the offensive numbers before Thursday's 4-3 victory:

  • In so-called "late and close" situations -- plate appearances in the seventh or later when the batting team is tied, ahead by one run, or the tying run is at least on deck -- the Tigers had been hitting .199 with two home runs in 372 at-bats (by Omar Infante and Alex Avila).
  • Miguel Cabrera was hitting .128 without an extra-base hit in 39 at-bats in late-and-close.
  • Prince Fielder was hitting .214 in 42 at-bats.
  • In extra innings, the Tigers are hitting .198 with no home runs in 86 at-bats.

In other words, when the going gets toughest the Tigers have wilted. Valverde has simply been the easy target, but it's not like Cabrera and Fielder have been doing anything in the late innings of close games.

So Peralta's home run arrives at a time when the offense needed to come through. It was a great piece of hitting. After Peralta took a slider for a strike, fouled off another slider and then took a fastball up for a ball, Red Sox catcher Ryan Lavarnway put his target low and away, and Bailey delivered a slider low and away -- maybe up an inch or two higher than he wanted, but not a terrible pitch -- and Peralta guessed right and pulled it into the bullpen.

Give credit also to Drew Smyly for escaping a two-on, none-out jam in the eighth to keep the game close and to Tigers manager Jim Leyland for keeping his best reliever in the game for two innings. Joaquin Benoit might get the next save opportunity, but Smyly is going to get a lot of big innings late in games.

The Red Sox are now facing a little ninth-inning combustion of their own. It was Bailey's fourth blown save, and he's allowed home runs in four of his past five appearances. Maybe the Tigers won't be the only team looking for late-inning help.
 
Peralta pitch locationESPNAndrew Bailey's fourth pitch to Jhonny Peralta caught the outside corner -- and Peralta didn't miss it.

 


The last we saw of Jose Valverde, he was buried deep in the Detroit Tigers' bullpen in the World Series, Jim Leyland having lost confidence in him after he'd lost one playoff game against the A's and blown a four-run lead against the New York Yankees in another. Midway through the postseason, Leyland dumped his Proven Closer, who had recorded 35 saves in the regular season, and gave final-out duties to Phil Coke, a pitcher who had allowed a .396 average to right-handed batters.

Obviously, there is no time in the playoffs to let a pitcher work through a slump, so Leyland had little choice but to go with the hot hand, or what he perceived to be the hot hand. It wasn't an easy decision to make, and you have to give Leyland credit for making the adjustment.

But this is still modern baseball and managers still love having that security blanket for the ninth inning, so even though the Tigers elected not to re-sign Valverde as a free agent -- with good reason, as he just wasn't all that good in 2012, no matter what the saves column may say -- here he is, back with the Tigers, and there he was on Wednesday night, saving a 7-5 victory over the Kansas City Royals to push the Tigers back over .500.

The official record says Valverde cruised through an 18-pitch inning, retiring Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar and Billy Butler. A closer look reveals he still has a lot to prove before Leyland grows comfortable using him. He threw 18 four-seam fastballs, and while he was clocked as high as 95 mph, he didn't induce a single swing-and-miss. Gordon flew out to left fielder Andy Dirks just shy of the warning track, Escobar hit a hard grounder to second base and Butler flew out to Dirks on the warning track. Valverde got the outs this time; we'll see about next time.

[+] EnlargeJim Leyland, Jose Valverde
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJim Leyland, left, went back to the Jose Valverde security blanket ... despite the limited security.
The bigger issue here is what Joe Sheehan alluded to above: Impatience in October makes sense, but why the impatience in April? Nobody wanted Valverde on their team, or, to be fair, not at Valverde's asking price or given his desire to be a closer. So after the Tigers handed the job to rookie Bruce Rondon (who lost it before spring training ended), and then went to a bullpen by committee, and then to Coke, and then to Joaquin Benoit, and then I think John Hiller and Willie Hernandez got opportunities ... suddenly Valverde is their guy again? Explain. The Tigers lost confidence in the entire bullpen after 18 games?

The kicker is Detroit started the season 9-9, but the bullpen was hardly to blame. The pen was 1-4, but two of those losses came in the 12th and 13th innings, hardly the fault of the relievers. The Tigers had lost just one game when leading heading into the eighth or ninth, and that loss in Minnesota in the second game was facilitated by Austin Jackson and Dirks miscommunicating on a fly ball.

I get that the Tigers had no Proven Closer and managers love to have one. I wrote a couple weeks ago about the closer myth -- most of them come from nowhere anyway -- and the Tigers probably would have been fine settling on Coke or Benoit or Al Alburquerque.

Now they have their PC, although I'm not exactly sure what it accomplishes. Let's say Valverde scuffles through another mediocre season but does well enough to hold on to the job, and the Tigers return to the playoffs. This is a guy who has pitched in 14 career postseason games and allowed 16 runs. Does that sound like a security blanket?
From the Detroit News:
But it's been quite interesting this spring and offseason, as Jim Leyland repeatedly has said he thinks (Alex) Avila can be a bit too selective at the plate.

So, your response, Alex?

"I just don't swing at balls out of the zone. Last year, I hit .240-something and I had a ton of walks, and it wasn't because guys were scared of me," Avila said. "I'm not gonna swing at balls."

Now, I'm guessing Leyland is suggesting Avila be more aggressive on pitches within the strike zone, not swing at pitches outside the zone. Leyland's concerns, I suspect, come from Avila's batting lines the past two seasons:

2011: .295/.389/.506, 19 home runs, 73 walks (551 PAs)
2012: .243/.352/.384, 9 home runs, 61 walks (434 PAs)

OK, never mind that because of his excellent walk rate Avila had a higher on-base percentage last year than Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Zimmerman, Carlos Beltran, Adrian Gonzalez or Albert Pujols, to name just a few hitters; Avila did have a worse year than in 2011. So maybe Leyland's on to something? That Avila was somehow more passive and thus less productive?

Avila did swing less often in 2012 -- he swung at 43 percent of all pitches seen in 2011, 39 percent of all pitches in 2012. On pitches in the strike zone, the difference was 1.2 percent: 60.2 percent in 2011, 58.7 percent in 2012. I don't think Leyland can eyeball a 1 to 2 percent less aggression rate. He swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone in 2012 (24 percent versus 21 percent) and his contact percentage on pitches in the zone was 4 percent less in 2012. Overall, Avila's approach over the two seasons was basically the same.

The big difference between the two years: He had a .366 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) in 2011, .313 in 2012. That figure in 2011 ranked sixth among all hitters with 500 plate appearances and is essentially unsustainable for a batter with Avila's speed. By this analysis, we would conclude that Avila was essentially lucky in 2011.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean Leyland is wrong. Avila's batting average dropped, but so did his extra-base power. Maybe Avila is still too passive or was more aggressive in certain counts in 2011. Avila does have a fairly low rate at swinging at pitches in the strike zone: Among players with 400 PAs, he was 174th out of 193 in swing percentage. Among those with a lower rate were Mike Trout and Joe Mauer, however, and nobody is telling them to be more aggressive.

Anyway, Avila swung at the first pitch 12.7 percent of the time in 2011, 12.2 percent in 2012, so no difference there. What about 1-0 and 2-0 counts, when the hitter has the advantage?

1 and 0
2011: 14.6 percent swing rate
2012: 14.4 percent swing rate

2 and 0
2011: 23.8 percent swing rate
2012: 14.4 percent swing rate

So he was more aggressive on 2-0 counts in 2011. But you know what we're talking about? About 10 swings. And Avila didn't hit well on 2-0 counts in 2011 anyway: .250 with no home runs in 24 PAs.

The conclusion here: I see no evidence to support Leyland's theory that Avila should swing more often. Avila's approach was the same in 2011 and 2012. It worked well for him in 2011, when there was a good chance he was simply over his head. A more aggressive Avila would likely become a worse Avila; his strongest attribute as a hitter is his patience at the plate. Keep doing what you're doing, Alex.
Some random stuff on sacrifice bunts as a follow-up to the previous post ...

Nobody loved to bunt as much as Gene Mauch. If Earl Weaver was famous for playing for the three-run homer, Mauch was famous for playing "little ball." The fact that he never reached a World Series in 26 years of managing could just be a coincidence.

Mauch's teams led their league in sacrifice bunts in 15 of his 26 seasons and his 1979 Twins squad had 142 sacrifice bunts, the most of any team since the 162-game schedule began in 1961. That total is all the more remarkable since it came in the American League, without the benefit of pitchers padding the total. The next-highest total by an AL team is the 1977 Rangers with 116.

Those Twins didn't have a lot of power -- 112 home runs, 12th in the AL -- so everyone bunted. Rob Wilfong had 25; John Castino had 22; Roy Smalley, who led the team with 24 home runs, had 15. Not surprisingly, many of those bunts came from the No. 2 spot -- a combined 48 sac bunts from the two-hole hitters.

Mauch loved to bunt when the game was tied -- 51 of the 142. But he also loved to bunt when trailing by one run -- 27 times. Nothing like playing for a tie. He'd bunt in any inning, as they had 52 in the first three innings, 45 in the middle three and 45 from the seventh on. The Twins had one game with five sacrifice bunts (they won 6-1).

The man loved his bunts.

* * * *

To show how a manager can change, look at Jim Leyland. When he managed the Pirates, he had Jay Bell as his No. 2 hitter from 1990 to 1992, when the Pirates won three straight NL East titles. Bell led the NL with 39 and 30 sacrifice bunts in '90 and '91 and had 19 in '92. The Pirates led the NL with 96 sac bunts in 1990, 99 in 1991 and ranked fourth with 89 in 1992.

Leyland's 1997 Marlins, which won the World Series, had 71 sac bunts, below the NL average of 74. His 2012 Tigers bunted just 36 times, although that was enough to rank third in the AL.

But where he once loved to bunt with Bell in the second spot, his No. 2 hitters had just eight sacrifices. Mostly, he bunted from the No. 9 position (15).

As for Bell, his 39 sac bunts are the second-most by one player since 1961. Bert Campaneris of the '77 Rangers had 40.

* * * *

All the lowest team totals for sacrifice bunts have come in recent years. The 2005 Rangers hold the "record" with just nine sacrifice bunts. Buck Showalter managed that team and they hit 260 home runs. Somehow, they outhomered their opponents 260 to 159 and still finished under .500. I'm guessing the double-play combo of Michael Young and Alonso Soriano didn't help: They're credited with -58 combined Defensive Runs Saved.

Offseason report card: Tigers

February, 1, 2013
2/01/13
7:00
AM ET
2012 in review
Record: 88-74 (88-74 Pythagorean)
726 runs scored (6th in American League)
670 runs allowed (5th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Re-signed Anibal Sanchez. Signed Torii Hunter. Lost Jose Valverde and Delmon Young.

It has been a relatively quiet offseason for general manager Dave Dombrowski, but his two major signings made perfect sense. Bringing back Sanchez gives the team another reliable innings-eater in the middle of the rotation, even if he's not quite as good as his three terrific starts in the postseason, when he posted a 1.77 ERA.

Snapping up Hunter for two years and $26 million was one of the sleeper free-agent signings of the winter. While the Tigers ranked 25th in the majors with minus-32 defensive runs saved, the biggest defensive liability wasn't Miguel Cabrera at third base or Prince Fielder at first base, but the collection of right fielders (primarily Brennan Boesch). Hunter will be a clear defensive upgrade there, and while he won't hit .313 again (he'd never hit .300 before 2012), he'll provide more offense than the .235/.285/.357 line the Tigers got from right field in 2012 (the lowest OPS in the AL).

Position Players

The return of Victor Martinez is addition by subtraction, because it means the departure of Young and his .296 on-base percentage. Martinez is a career .303 hitter, but he is 34 and returning from missing an entire season following knee surgery.

Certainly, any lineup with Cabrera and Fielder is going to score runs; it's knowing you can build around two of the most durable players in the league (they missed only one game between them last year). Despite their presence, the Tigers ranked just 10th in the AL in home runs and they'll remain one of the slowest teams in the league. But if Martinez hits and Alex Avila hits like he did in 2011, there is potential for more runs here.

Pitching Staff

They have the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander and follow that up with the underrated Doug Fister (how did the Mariners trade this guy?), Max Scherzer (fourth-best ERA in the AL in the second half) and Sanchez. Drew Smyly is one of breakout candidates for 2013, and clearly the Tigers believe so as well if the trade rumors involving Rick Porcello are true.

The question mark: Who closes? Following Valverde's meltdown in the playoffs, Phil Coke handled the position just fine, but his 4.05 career ERA and ugly .854 OPS allowed in 2012 have led to speculation that hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon -- with no major league experience -- will be given the chance to close. I have my doubts about that, considering Rondon has fewer than 30 innings above Class A and enough command issues (4.4 walks per nine in the minors) that Jim Leyland might want to see the kid throw some strikes before handing him the ninth. The closer issue moves the overall grade of the staff down a notch.

Heat Map to Watch
Miguel Cabrera's 44 home runs was one element of the Triple Crown. Impressively, he hit 40 of those off right-handed pitchers -- and you can see from the heat map Cabrera's ability to turn on inside pitches.

Miguel CabreraESPN Stats & InformationMiguel Cabrera hit 44 of Detroit's 163 home runs in 2012 -- 40 off right-handers.
Overall grade

SportsNation

How many games will the Tigers win?

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    40%
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    51%
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    7%
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    2%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,707)

Despite their World Series appearance a year ago, the Tigers were hardly a super team, top-heavy around the big three of Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder. Winning 88 games in the weak AL Central doesn't necessarily inspire a lot of confidence, but I have a feeling the rotation will be stronger after Fister and Scherzer had strong second halves, a full season of Sanchez and the full-time addition of Smyly. Hunter is big upgrade in right field as well. The Tigers will be heavy favorites once again to win the division.
At this point, there isn't a whole lot to say. The San Francisco Giants' pitching has been spectacular, their defense has been terrific and the Detroit Tigers' bats are as cold as the Michigan weather. But the series isn't over, not with Max Scherzer certainly capable of outpitching Matt Cain in Game 4 and Justin Verlander ready for Game 5. This series hasn't been about one team being better in the clutch than the other -- it has been about one team playing better at just the right time.

A few thoughts before Sunday's game.
  • Asked before Game 4 if he thought Prince Fielder was pressing or trying too hard, Jim Leyland said, "No, I don't think so. I think he's hit some balls hard that have been caught, and then he's had some other games where he hasn't swung quite as good." Prince himself had said after Game 3 that pressing is just a word used when you're not hitting well. In looking at the numbers, however, Fielder has been a little less patient. During the regular season, he swung at 27 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, but that figure is 40 percent during the postseason. Overall, he's swung at 50 percent of the pitches he's seen in the postseason compared to 43 percent during the regular season. Leyland is right in that Fielder has hit into some bad luck, but Fielder has been more aggressive than normal.
  • It's not just bad luck that many of the Tigers' line drives keep finding San Francisco gloves. Sitting out in the left field bleachers on Saturday, it was easy to see Gregor Blanco moving around for every batter -- in, back, left, right. A couple times I saw him make a signal toward Angel Pagan. I'm not saying the Tigers don't adjust, but I don't think their outfielders are moving around from batter to batter like the Giants outfielders. "I think it says a lot about our team athleticism," shortstop Brandon Crawford said before Game 4. "I know Blanco has made a couple catches that have taken away runs. Marco's play against the Cardinals and mine last night stopped a possibility of a rally starting."
  • Tim Lincecum's has been Bruce Bochy's secret weapon out of the pen. In his pregame press conference, Bochy said he'd prefer not to use Lincecum, although he'd wait until batting practice when pitching coach Dave Righetti talks to Lincecum to see how the two-time Cy Young winner feels. There's no urgency to use Lincecum tonight with the three-game lead and with Cain likely to at least get you into the sixth inning, Bochy has a well-rested pen he can use. Better to give Lincecum the day off and have him available if you need him in Game 5 or 6.
  • Gary (@2charms) asked me on Twitter: "I'd like to see research on WS champions & # of layoff days, the correlation. ie how many champs w 6, w 5, w 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 etc." I went back to 1995. The World Series champion has averaged 3.5 days off between the LCS and Game 1 of the World Series. The World Series loser has averaged 3.4 days off. People remember 2006 when the Tigers had six days off and the St. Louis Cardinals one and the Cardinals won in five games, or 2007 when the Colorado Rockies had eight days off and the Boston Red Sox two and the Red Sox won. The Tigers had five days off this year. But it has worked the other way as well: The Philadelphia Phillies had six days off in 2008 versus Tampa's two; the New York Yankees had six days off in 1996 versus the Atlanta Braves' two. If the Tigers lose, it won't be because they were rusty.
  • Quintin Berry is back in the Detroit lineup, hitting second again. It's not like Leyland has a better option. Andy Dirks is hitless in the World Series, but he's a better hitter than Berry. One thing is that Leyland isn't pulling a Joe Girardi and suddenly deciding to play his bench players. "Our lineup is what it is, and we're playing in the World Series," Leyland said. "I'm not afraid to make adjustments, but down three games to none, it's a little late for changing a lineup, I think." I will say that Leyland's philosophy makes a lot more sense than than desperation Girardi employed in the ALCS.
  • Matt Cain hasn't been lights out this postseason, although he did managed to blank the Cardinals for 5.2 innings in his previous start. He gives up a lot of fly ball outs, so the Tigers' best hope for beating him is to connect on a couple home runs. There just isn't enough productivity in the Detroit lineup right now (catcher Alex Avila will also not start after getting hit by a foul ball in Game 3) to string together long rallies of base hits. If the wind is blowing out all game, maybe that's a break the Tigers can catch. But if I had to predict, I'll say the Giants take another low-scoring game, say 3-1, and win their second title in three years.


SAN FRANCISCO -- This was the Madison Bumgarner Giants fans saw most of the season: the pitcher with impeccable control, the ability to get inside on right-handed batters, generate ground balls and change speeds. This was the pitcher who had become one of the best young left-handers in the game, not the guy who had struggled in recent weeks.

Bumgarner justified manager Bruce Bochy’s faith in choosing him to start Game 2 over Tim Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong, leading the Giants to a 2-0 victory and sweep of the first two games. He threw seven shutout innings, an efficient 86 pitches with eight strikeouts and just two hits allowed, one of those being an infield single. It was a dominant effort.

Amazingly, the day before, Bumgarner himself didn’t seem to know what to expect. Through his first 25 starts he had a 2.83 ERA and had allowed a .218 opponents' average. But he had struggled since an August start against the Dodgers when he threw 123 pitches. Since then he’d posted a 6.85 ERA. His fastball velocity had dipped and he appeared fatigued in his previous playoff start, against the Cardinals. Batters had feasted off his fastball, hitting .400 against it his past nine starts.

Before Game 1, he hesitantly suggested he and pitching coach Dave Righetti had resolved his issues. “I think we were going through some mechanical issues that -- just some small things that might have affected my arm and made it more difficult to throw, and I think that’s really all it was,” he said. “I think we’ve got it fixed. Like I said before, there’s no way to tell 100 percent until you get out there and get going game speed.”

I think we’re 100 percent sure now.

* * * *

Doug Fister -- despite taking a line drive off his head in the second inning -- matched Bumgarner zero for zero through six innings, albeit with one caveat: not with the same efficiency.

That set up the key decision of the game. With Hunter Pence leading off the bottom of the seventh, Fister had thrown 108 pitches. Pence hits right-handed, followed by three lefties. Jim Leyland had right-hander Octavio Dotel and rookie lefty Drew Smyly warming up. If Leyland brings in Dotel -- probably his best option against right-handed hitters -- it’s probably for just one hitter with the string of lefties due up.

Leyland decided to leave in Fister for one more batter; he’d thrown more than 108 pitches seven times, so it wasn’t uncharted territory. Pence had flied out twice against him and has looked feeble most of the postseason. There were certainly cries on Twitter suggesting Leyland should have pulled Fister. I see it both ways. I can certainly see Leyland’s desire to hold back Dotel to possibly face Marco Scutaro and Buster Posey later in the game. It's easy to criticize Leyland since the decision didn't work out and in this day and age few managers want to lose game when a starter is over 100 pitches.

[+] EnlargeGregor Blanco
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAYThis little thing -- Gregor Blanco's bunt staying fair -- led to the only run the Giants needed in Game 2.
On his 114th pitch, Fister left a 2-2 slider over the middle of the plate and Pence grounded a base hit past Miguel Cabrera.

That brought in Smyly, who walked Brandon Belt on a 3-2 slider up out of the zone. Gregor Blanco then placed a bunt down the third-base line, the ball rolling to a stop on the dirt between the grass and the baseline. Catcher Gerald Laird had no option but to let the ball go; it was just a perfect bunt by Blanco. Brandon Crawford grounded into a double play but that scored the game’s first run.

Leyland did have another option there. Use Phil Coke instead of Smyly. Coke, of course, had defaulted into the closer's role after Jose Valverde's postseason implosion and pitched well in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. Normally, the seventh inning -- especially against the left-handers -- would have been Coke's inning, followed by Joaquin Benoit and Valverde. Instead, Leyland trusted a rookie with little experience pitching in relief. Coke did finally get into the game -- in the eighth, with the Tigers now trailing 2-0.

"Probably if Valverde was ready, probably would have had Coke in that situation, but Smyly did fine," Leyland said. "He got a little bit wild there, but he got a couple big outs. He got the double-play ball and gave us our shot at it."

A 114th pitch. A slider meant to be a few inches outside left over the plate. A perfect bunt. The little things.

* * * *

One more little thing that can matter: sliding. In the top of the second with none out, Prince Fielder was hit by a pitch and Delmon Young doubled just inside the third-base bag. As the ball bounced away from left fielder Blanco, third-base coach Gene Lamont waved home Fielder. First, the wave. With nobody out, you had better be pretty sure Fielder is going to score. In fact, you had better be just about absolutely sure Fielder is going to score.

According to sabermetrician Tom Tango’s run-scoring matrix, an average team would be expected to score about 2.05 runs with runners at second and third and no outs; with a runner on second and one out, the average run production is about 0.7 runs. That data is from 1993 through 2010, so the run-scoring environment is a little lower now, and of course you would have to adjust based on upcoming hitters and so forth. Still, Lamont’s decision was about a 1.3-run decision. Fair or not, he made the wrong one.

Blanco’s relay throw actually airmailed shortstop Crawford, but Scutaro -- him again! -- was backing up and threw home to catcher Posey, and replays showed he tagged Fielder on his shoe and/or rump just before he slid across the plate. If Fielder had slid to the back part of the plate, he probably would've been safe, as Posey would have had to stretch to make the tag. That’s asking a lot from Fielder, however; he's not paid to slide expertly into home plate. Yes, the next two Tigers hitters popped out and struck out, so maybe Fielder wouldn’t have scored, but it’s kind of like time travel: That play changes everything that potentially comes after.

Then, in the top of the fourth, Omar Infante was picked off first and caught at second. With a better slide -- he dragged his foot behind him -- he might have been called safe.

Those two plays exemplified the first two games of the series: The Giants made plays and the Tigers didn't. Pablo Sandoval snagged a Cabrera line drive; Cabrera didn't have the range on Pence's base hit. Scutaro made the relay, Fielder didn't make the slide. Smyly couldn't execute the 3-2 slider that he walked Belt on, Fielder grounded into a 1-6-3 double play after Cabrera had led off the seventh with a walk.

Right now, like Bumgarner's pitches on a perfect San Francisco October evening, everything is working for the Giants.
Cabrera/RomoAP PhotosHow closer Sergio Romo, right, and the Giants staff deal with Miguel Cabrera could be a Series key.


It has been a long season. Remember when the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners began in Japan way back in March? OK, you probably don't. But you've made it this far. Don't quit now. We have at least four more games left and hopefully seven. Here's why I'm watching what should be an exciting World Series between two of the game's storied franchises -- and even though this is the San Francisco Giants' 19th World Series trip and the Detroit Tigers' 11th, they've never met before.

1. Miguel Cabrera. The best hitter on the planet on the game's biggest stage: Yeah, that's a pretty good place to start. I can’t wait to see how the Giants attack him. He has been kept under wraps for the most part this postseason, hitting .278 with one home run in nine games, so he has to be careful not to press if the Giants don’t give him much to hit. But I have the feeling Cabrera may show us why he won the Triple Crown.

2. Justin Verlander. He might not win the AL Cy Young Award this season, but Verlander is the game’s best starting pitcher with the game’s most dominating stuff. After mediocre results in his first two postseasons in 2006 (his rookie season) and 2011, he has been lights-out so far, with three wins in three starts. No starting pitcher has ever won five games in a single postseason, but because he’ll start Game 1, he could have the opportunity to start twice. One thing to watch: The A’s led the league in strikeouts; the Yankees were clearly in an offensive slump of historic proportions. The Giants are a contact team against whom the strikeouts won’t come quite so easily. That means more balls in play and more pressure on the Detroit's suspect defense. We’ll see how Verlander responds to this tougher assignment.

3. Jim Leyland's and Bruce Bochy’s place in history. It’s amazing to realize that when Leyland won the World Series with the Marlins in 1997 he was only 52 years old. Wasn’t he kind of portrayed as the slightly cranky baseball lifer even then? He's now 67 and trying to win another title. He and Bochy are two of the best managers of the past quarter-century and both are going for their second championship. Neither has managed in the major media markets of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston, although Leyland has certainly received more media attention through the years than Bochy. The winner of this series may have something bigger at stake than media attention, however: a place in the Hall of Fame. Not every manager with two titles is in (Cito Gaston, Tom Kelly to name two), but Leyland is 15th on the all-time win list and Bochy is 23rd. This Series could cement their legacy.

4. Marco Scutaro. One of the best things about the postseason is how a player like Scutaro -- a good player, although certainly more role player than star -- can become the most important guy for a team for a couple weeks. It doesn’t have to be a team’s No. 3 or 4 hitter who does all the damage, and Scutaro enters on a roll after knocking out 14 hits in the National League Championship Series. The Giants had an obvious parallel two years ago in Cody Ross, another late-season acquisition who came up big in October. Admire Scutaro for his old-school approach at the plate: He puts the ball in play with his superior contact skills, a trait lost amid this generation’s incessant desire for power.

5. Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner. They may not all get a World Series start -- Bumgarner’s velocity and stuff have been down in recent starts -- but this trio has the chance to make its mark with a second World Series title. Think how difficult that is: Not even the Greg Maddux-Tom Glavine-John Smoltz trio was able to do that. Lincecum, of course, didn’t have a good season, but that doesn’t matter now. All the Giants need from him is one -- or maybe two -- good starts.

6. Intentional walks and sacrifice bunts. Remember last year’s World Series when Ron Washington and Tony La Russa went crazy with ill-advised free passes and odd bunts? It was a second-guesser’s dream. I don’t expect to see the same slew of erratic decisions from Leyland and Bochy, but the World Series can turn even the most level-headed of managers into chemists with a room full of potions. In the National League Championship Series, we saw how Mike Matheny’s free pass to No. 8 hitter Brandon Crawford in Game 6 led to a big inning. Last year, Washington’s intentional walk to Albert Pujols in Game 6 was a key decision in the Rangers’ eventual defeat. In a tight series, managerial decisions can be a decisive factor.

7. Prince Fielder. Many in the industry were not pleased when the Tigers coughed up $214 million to sign Fielder. Hey, imagine that: Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 83 years old and wants to win a World Series. OK, so Fielder isn’t riding the exercise bike after games. Despite his girth, Fielder is actually one of the most gifted hitters in the game. He seemed a little overanxious at times in the first two rounds, hitting .211 with two unintentional walks, but maybe he’ll be more relaxed as he plays in his first World Series.

8. Sergio Romo. Who says you need a closer who throws 98 mph? Romo is a guy who barely cracks 90 but has a deadly slider that hitters have trouble picking up. He’s another great story, a guy the Giants never seemed to fully believe in until they were forced to use him as the closer after Brian Wilson was injured and Santiago Casilla struggled. Bochy had primarily used Romo as a right-handed relief specialist in recent seasons (last year he pitched just 48 innings in 65 appearances), but now he has earned Bochy's confidence to face all swingers -- as he should, after holding lefties to a .167 average this season. At some point, he’ll probably need to protect a one-run lead against two guys named Cabrera and Fielder and that's going to be some kind of wonderful.

9. Cold weather. Because it’s always fun watch players wearing layers, ear muffs and hand warmers. Oh, wait, no it’s not. The weather in Detroit this weekend may dip into the high 30s, so cold that Leyland might be given special dispensation to smoke in the dugout. But the dark, not-so-secret aspect of cold weather is the realization that the season’s most important games can be played in weather more suitable for creating ice sculptures than baseball art. Let's hope foul weather isn't a factor.

10. Who will have Darrell Evans throw out the first pitch? Yes, I’ve termed this the Darrell Evans World Series. You know, like if it had been the Reds versus the Tigers, we would have had the Sparky Anderson World Series. Or the Cardinals-Tigers would have been the Rematch of 1968 World Series, with highlight reels of Bob Gibson and Mickey Lolich. Instead, we get the Darrell Evans World Series, the underrated star of the '70s and '80s who played for both franchises (he was part of Detroit’s 1984 World Series champs). Make it happen! We need a Darrell Evans sighting.

The obvious answer here is: Well, of course, you do. Starters rarely throw complete games anymore in the postseason; in the past 10 postseasons we've had just 19 complete games. Only two starters have thrown more than one in that span: Josh Beckett and Cliff Lee, with three apiece.

But what I'm really getting at: Can the Detroit Tigers reach and win the World Series without Jose Valverde closing games? Valverde had 35 of Detroit's 40 saves this season, but two disastrous outings against the A's and the Yankees clearly made Jim Leyland lose confidence in him.

So far that hasn't mattered, as Phil Coke has closed out the past two wins. Coke has a good arm -- and as we saw last night when he struck out Raul Ibanez, the ability to put away left-handed batters with that nasty slider -- but he didn't have a good season. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, only 11 allowed more walks plus hits per inning than Coke. But maybe Leyland has discovered a hot hand. Sometimes that's all you need. Look at World Series champions during the wild-card era with some issues at closer.

[+] EnlargeJose Valverde
AP Photo/Paul SancyaA pair of disastrous outings appears to have cost Jose Valverde his role as Tigers closer.
2011 Cardinals: Jason Motte. Didn't pick up his first save of the season until Aug. 28. Remember, he wasn't perfect in the postseason, either. He gave up two runs in the ninth in Game 2 of the World Series as the Rangers won 2-1. And he gave up two runs in the top of the 10th on Josh Hamilton's home run in Game 6, only to be rescued in the bottom of the 10th when the Cardinals tied it up.

2006 Cardinals: Adam Wainwright. When Jason Isringhausen got injured late in the season, the rookie got two saves the final week and then four in the postseason, as he pitched 9.2 scoreless innings.

2005 White Sox: Bobby Jenks. Another rookie who started closing games after Dustin Hermanson got injured. Jenks had six saves in the regular season and four more in the playoffs, although the White Sox also threw four straight complete games in the ALCS.

2003 Marlins: Ugueth Urbina. A trade acquisition, Urbina eventually took over the closer role from Braden Looper. Jack McKeon used him extensively in the postseason -- 13 innings in 10 appearances (the Marlins played 17 games total). He did pick up four saves, although he also had two blown saves in the playoffs and allowed five runs in 13 innings.

2001 Diamondbacks: Byung-Hyun Kim. Kim had a good regular season and did pick up three saves before falling apart in the World Series, but this team rode Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson all the way.

The point being: You don't need your closer to be perfect to win it all. The Tigers lost Game 4 against the A's, but won Game 1 against the Yankees and certainly have a shot to win it all. It is worth noting that all the pitchers above had much better regular-season numbers than Coke. Valverde did pick up a save earlier against the A's, so another question: Since the wild-card era began, has a team won the World Series with different relievers closing out games?

Yes. Sort of.

In 1995, Mark Wohlers was Atlanta's closer. But after he allowed a home run and a double to begin the ninth in Game 4, Bobby Cox used lefty Pedro Borbon for the final three outs in a 5-2 game. Three other teams also won a World Series with more than one pitcher getting a save during their postseason runs, but the saves came in unique circumstances. Ramiro Mendoza got a save for the Yankees in 1999, coming in during the eighth inning of a 4-1 game and staying in for the ninth when it was 6-1. Looper got a save for the Marlins in 2003 in the 11th inning of an National League Championship Series game and Mark Buehrle got a save in the 14th inning of a World Series game for the White Sox.

What Leyland will have to do is rather unique in recent postseason annals. As Paul Swydan wrote today Insider on ESPN Insider, using multiple closers wasn't so unique prior to the wild-card era. Maybe Leyland sticks with Coke. I suspect we'll see Octavio Dotel or Joaquin Benoit at some point.

It won't be as easy as running Mariano Rivera out there, but it can done. It just requires a little thinking outside the box. And if any manager is capable of that, it's Leyland. Remember, this is a guy who with the Pirates once started a relief pitcher in a playoff game.

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