Commentary

Tigers roaring toward postseason

Flaws fixed through trades, Detroit's suddenly the hottest team in the game

Originally Published: September 13, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Stop us if you've heard this line before:

In October, it isn't the best team that wins the World Series. It's the hottest team.

Well, if that's true, it sure would be a great time to have 100 bucks plunked down in Vegas on those Detroit Tigers about now. But IS it true? We'll let you know momentarily.

In the meantime, though, the hottest team in baseball has probably won about six more games since you started reading this column -- because that's all those rampaging Tigers do anymore. They win. Then they win some more. And then, just because they've forgotten how to do anything else apparently, they keep on winning.

[+] EnlargeDoug Fister
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesThe Tigers are 6-2 when Doug Fister starts.

They've now won 10 games in a row -- for the first time in 43 years. Over their past 13 games, they're 12-1. Over their past 18 games, they're 15-3. Over their past 24 games, they're 20-4. In the 40 games since they traded for Doug Fister, they're 29-11.

So they're not just hot, ladies and gentlemen. They're a five-alarm inferno. You need a potholder just to grab the remote to click on their games these days.

"Right now," said one AL executive this week, "they're the best team in baseball."

Oh, the Phillies (44 games over .500) might beg to differ with that pronouncement. And the Diamondbacks (17-3 in their past 20 games) and Rays (8-1 since Sept. 2) might petition to be included in that Hottest Team in Baseball conversation.

But before we take a look at why we believe the Tigers are more than just hot, we interrupt this program for this important look at one of the great myths in baseball:

It isn't the best team that wins the World Series. It's the hottest.

Oh, really? Turns out that's simply not true. We know because we did the math:

• Since the dawn of the wild-card era, 14 postseason-bound teams have finished a season by playing at least .700 baseball (28-12 or better) over their last 40 games. Exactly one of them -- the 2004 Red Sox (28-12) -- wound up winning the World Series. But five of them lost in the first round. And of the 27 postseason series those teams ended up playing, they barely won more series (14) than they lost (13).

• Meanwhile, 22 postseason-bound teams in the same era have finished a season by playing at least .700 baseball (21-9 or better) over their final 30 games. Just two of those 22 went on to win the World Series -- the 2002 Angels (21-9) and 2003 Marlins (21-9). But eight of them lost in the first round. And those teams went just 21-20 in their 41 postseason series.

• On the other hand, seven teams stumbled into the postseason after playing sub-.500 baseball in their final 40 games. You'd think that would be a formula for disaster, right? Guess again. There were more World Series won by those teams (two) than by teams that played .700 baseball over the same stretch. The two sub-.500 teams that won it all: The 2000 Yankees (19-21) and 2006 Cardinals (18-22). And the overall record of those bumblers and stumblers in their 16 series (11-5) was also better than the record of those "hot" teams.

So whaddaya know. Turns out it ISN'T better to be hot than good. But for the Tigers, that's actually not as bad news as it might appear.

Why? Because "I think we're a different team than we were earlier in the year," their GM and president, Dave Dombrowski, told Rumblings this week. And he's absolutely right.

No team has made more impactful midseason deals than the Tigers. They've won six of Fister's eight starts. Delmon Young has hit .324, slugged .481 and transformed their lineup. And Wilson Betemit (.294/.345/.490 in 34 games) has been one of the best under-the-radar pickups of the summer.

The funny thing is, Dombrowski said, that two years ago, the Tigers thought they'd pulled off a couple of midseason trades that were going to be just as important -- only to have Jarrod Washburn (7.33 ERA in eight starts) and Aubrey Huff (.189/.265/.302 down the stretch) pay tribute to Tiger Stadium … by imploding.

"It's just amazing," Dombrowski said, "how the game works."

But this time around, everything has gone exactly how they drew it up -- only better. In early July, the Tigers still had 25 starting pitchers on their trade-deadline shopping list. By the end of July, they were still working hard on trying to reel in Ubaldo Jimenez and Hiroki Kuroda. But they wound up dealing four players to Seattle for Fister, who can't be a free agent for another four years. And he's been a perfect fit.

Before he showed up, the Tigers were 4-17 in games started by anyone other than Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello or Brad Penny. So Fister has changed pretty much everything about that final spot in the rotation.

He's 5-1, with a 2.28 ERA in his eight starts. He has the third-best ERA in the American League since Aug. 1 (trailing only James Shields and C.J. Wilson). And the Tigers have inspired the best in him, too. He's improved his WHIP, strikeout rate, walk rate, opponent average and even his fastball velocity since the deal.

"Some guys," Dombrowski said, "just rise to the occasion" when they find themselves in a race. We now know Doug Fister is one of them.

[+] EnlargeDelmon Young
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDelmon Young is batting .324 with four homers, 20 RBIs and 18 runs in 26 games with Detroit.

Meanwhile, Young might turn out to be the best player any team dealt for during the August waiver period. The Tigers claimed him in the second week of August, waited around nervously for a couple of days while the Twins debated whether to move him, then lurched into action and got the trade done just minutes before their negotiating period was about to expire.

Young can be an exasperating player, whose ego and maturity issues early in his career once drove the Rays to dump him only a couple of weeks after he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. But he IS a one-time No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He doesn't turn 26 until this week. And he's under control for next year, too. So for the Tigers, who once employed his big brother Dmitri, he was a chance well worth taking.

"You know, we're talking about a guy who finished 10th in the MVP voting LAST year," Dombrowski said. "He's a talent. You put him in the third spot, ahead of [Miguel] Cabrera fourth and [Victor] Martinez fifth, and he gives us a lot of thump in the middle of our lineup."

And that, fortunately, gets us back to the big picture. Six weeks ago, the Tigers were looked at as a flawed team, whose October hopes revolved almost totally around Verlander's ace-hood. Now, they might be the most dangerous team on the AL side of the October draw.

"They'd be extremely tough in a short series," said one AL exec. "First off, you know you've got to face Verlander twice, or maybe even three times in a seven-game series. And that makes it an uphill climb in and of itself. …

"But look at the big picture, and they've got the best starting pitcher in baseball. They've got the best closer in baseball [Jose Valverde]. They've got one of the two or three best hitters in the game [Miguel Cabrera], with a better hitter [Young] in front of him than they'd had and a great hitter protecting him [Martinez]. Their bullpen is good. Their rotation is deeper. The middle of their order is a challenge. So the things that make them great are not just their trade-deadline moves, but that those moves helped make the talent they already had even better."

So now, the Tigers' GM can say, with reasonable assurance: "I feel comfortable matching up against just about any team we'd face. I like how we're set up."

And he isn't just saying that because this is the hottest team on the planet. A mere five years ago, you'll recall, Dave Dombrowski was the general manager of a team that lost its last five games of the season, blew a 10-game lead in its division over the final 50 games and only staggered into the postseason as the wild card … and then went to the World Series. Of course.

"So I learned a long time ago," Dombrowski said, "that it's all settled on the field. … The postseason is still two or three weeks away. So we'll see where this goes, and where it leads. But right now, I feel good about where we are."

Ready to Rumble

• We've heard lots of famous names connected with the Cubs' general manager gig. Well, here's one fascinating name we haven't heard: Indians president (and longtime GM) Mark Shapiro.

According to people in the game who are close to Shapiro, he would be "intrigued" by the Cubs' job, and has always looked at the Cubs as a special franchise. Those people describe Shapiro as being happy where he is and not looking to leave Cleveland. But the Cubs' job represents such a unique set of compelling circumstances, they believe that if Shapiro were approached, he "probably would listen."

There are no indications the Cubs have spoken with him. And when Rumblings contacted Shapiro, he declined comment. But he seems to fit the profile of the kind of GM that new owner Tom Ricketts is hunting for.

Shapiro grew up around the game, spent nearly two decades working in baseball operations in Cleveland before becoming club president, was in the forefront in embracing new technologies, has exceptional people skills and is still only 43. So he is a name that "makes a lot of sense for them," said an official of one AL team. "I could see the combination of the baseball challenge, along with the Cubs' other challenges, having great appeal to him."

Chris Carpenter's new two-year contract extension carries a ripple effect that extends well beyond St. Louis. For one thing, that's one more attractive name that won't hit the free-agent market next winter. For another, it has a big impact on the bargaining power of a guy who will, from all indications, reach that market -- namely, the White Sox's Mark Buehrle.

Mark Buehrle
Buehrle

Chris Carpenter
Carpenter

One longtime friend of Buehrle laughed at speculation that Buehrle might retire after this season, saying: "I don't believe that. … He enjoys it too much." But our source said he believes Buehrle really only wants to pitch for the Cardinals or White Sox. And now that the Cardinals have five starters under contract next year (assuming they pick up Adam Wainwright's two option years), St. Louis presumably won't be a plausible alternative anymore.

Meanwhile, White Sox officials have been telling people in the game they need to cut payroll next year after going over budget this season. And they also have five starters under contract for next year, even without Buehrle.

So an executive of one team who spoke with the White Sox brass says the only way he sees them making room for Buehrle is if he's willing to "be creative" about his next contract. AND the club would have to be able to trade one of its current starters -- most likely Gavin Floyd. Can all that happen? Of course. But it's still a lot of hoops for Buehrle and his team to jump through.

Roy Oswalt
Oswalt

• Now here's another guy Carpenter's contract extension could affect: Roy Oswalt. The Phillies aren't likely to pick up his $16 million option. So one old friend tells Rumblings that St. Louis is a spot Oswalt also has had his eye on if he leaves Philadelphia and opts to keep pitching.

The friend says Oswalt "doesn't want any part of the American League," wouldn't pitch for a non-contender and might balk at the West Coast. So it's possible the only two teams he'd consider pitching for, now that St. Louis is off the board, are the Phillies and Braves. And the Braves don't figure to be dabbling in the starting pitching market this winter. So the Phillies, his friend says, "are really holding the cards."

But Oswalt has talked openly about retirement. And who knows how seriously he's contemplating that. His friend says in one breath, "I wouldn't be surprised if he packs it in," then says in the next that "anything's possible."

"When he talks about retiring, it's because he's tired, or he's not 100 percent," the friend said. "He's as competitive a guy as anyone I've ever met. He loves to play. But he doesn't love it if he can't be who he thinks he should be."

So anybody trying to speculate on what Oswalt will do or what he's thinking is only speculating. It's all based on his health, his potential options and how far his team goes in October. And we can't fill in any of those blanks yet.

Guillen
Guillen

• Who will be managing the White Sox next season? We tossed that question at a baseball source who is tight with team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, and got this succinct reply: "Ozzie Guillen."

The same source also said, with zero equivocation, that if the Marlins think they can wait this out and then scoop Guillen off the unemployment line this winter, they'd better re-think. Unless the folks in Florida want to trade a big-time player to the South Side, the source said, the White Sox won't make any move to resolve Guillen's future until after the Marlins have hired a manager.

Johnny Damon
Damon

• More and more, it sounds as if the Rays would be amenable to bringing back Johnny Damon for another year of DH fun. And Damon would love to stick around. But remember, Damon wanted to go back to Boston, New York and Detroit, too -- and his trusty agent, Scott Boras, sometimes has different ideas about what Damon is worth than his former employers. As Damon himself said last year, after finding himself in Detroit: "I usually stay out of this stuff. I leave it in Scott's hands -- and I always end up changing teams."

• Sources say Aaron Rowand definitely wants to play next season, but isn't likely to play again this season unless he gets an offer he can't turn down. The Phillies had kicked around the thought of bringing Rowand in this month, even though he'd be ineligible for the postseason. But with the arrival of Hunter Pence and the emergence of John Mayberry Jr., they can't offer him any playing time -- and aren't a fit down the road because they probably don't have much of a role to offer him for next season, either.

Rowand has told some ex-teammates that since the Giants will still be paying him next year and money won't be a factor, his No. 1 criterion this winter is to land with a team that can offer him a chance to play. But other clubs seem to view him more as a platoon player at this stage of his career. Of the 217 players in the big leagues who have gotten 350 plate appearances this year, Rowand ranks 209th in OPS (.621).

But if you look beyond those numbers, here's what you find: Away from AT&T Park, his OPS was 131 points higher (.682, versus .551 in San Francisco). And against left-handers, he hit .327, with an .818 OPS, away from AT&T Park (versus .240/.609 at home).

Braves

• Scouts who have been following the Braves keep reporting they think the Braves' bullpen is finally showing signs of wear and tear. Just nine NL pitchers have appeared in 70 games this season. And guess the only team with more than one reliever on that list. Yep, it's Atlanta -- with THREE (Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty and closer Craig Kimbrel).

Neither Kimbrel nor Venters had let a late-inning lead get away since June until last week, when both of them blew saves against the Phillies and Cardinals. So it's getting increasingly noteworthy that Kimbrel leads all closers in innings (71⅔), while Venters leads all relievers, period (81⅔).

Manager Fredi Gonzalez told Rumblings he never set out to have that happen, and he's trying his best to avoid riding these guys too hard. "But it doesn't help," he said, "that you play 23 extra-inning games. So that's 47 extra innings in those games. And they're all bullpen innings."

• Finally, for all of us National League MVP voters, one of the toughest questions we face is just figuring out who's the MVP of the Brewers, let alone of the league. We've asked a bunch of people in baseball that question this month, and they're all split between Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.

"I'll tell you one thing," said one of them. "You'll find out next year -- when Fielder's gone, and Braun walks about 150 times."

Five Astounding Facts (Tuesday edition)

Tigers

1) In the 43 years in which the Tigers were stringing together zero 10-game winning streaks before this week, the other 29 teams won 10 or more in a row a combined 146 times. Every one of those other 29 clubs -- 14 of which didn't even exist the last time the Tigers won 10 in a row -- had at least one double-digit winning streak in that span. The Orioles, believe it or not, led the sport with 11 of them. And even the Pirates did it eight times. So which team has now gone the longest without winning 10 in a row? That would be the Royals, who last did it in 1994.

2) First, the Red Sox tied their game Saturday in Tampa Bay on back-to-back homers in the ninth inning. Later, the Diamondbacks did the same thing, evening up their game with San Diego on back-to-back homers in the ninth. So how many times have two teams done that in the same day? How 'bout NEVER, according to the Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR home run historian David Vincent.

3) Quick. Name the only active pitcher who has thrown four regular-season complete games that were either one-hitters or no-hitters. Believe it or not, it's not Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay or Tim Lincecum. It's -- who else? -- Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez just threw his second one-hitter of the year, and third of his career, to go with his 2006 no-hitter. So that's four by our count, one more than Tim Hudson (three one-hitters), Mark Buehrle (two no-hitters and a one-hitter) and Halladay (one regular-season no-hitter and two one-hitters). We're well aware, of course, that Halladay also would have four if you count his postseason no-hitter. But baseball doesn't combine postseason and regular-season stats. So hold those emails. Thanks.

Bronson Arroyo
Arroyo

4) Box-score line of the week: On the way to becoming the first NL pitcher to break the 40-gopherball barrier since Eric Milton in 2005, Bronson Arroyo spun this classic Saturday at Coors Field: 1 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 3 HR. So who was the last active starter to give up three home runs while getting no more than three outs? That would be -- coincidence alert -- Bronson Arroyo, on June 24, 2008.

5) Box-score-line runner-up: In the very same game, the Rockies' Alex White served up five gopherballs in five innings in rolling up this line: 5 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 5 HR. You think it's easy to give up five bombs in five innings and still win? Apparently not, because White is the first National League pitcher ever to do it in the live-ball era -- and just the third in either league. The other two: Tim Wakefield (2004) and Mike Mussina (1994).

Tweets of the Week

• From the Marlins' legendary tweeting machine, Logan Morrison (@LoMoMarlins), on his swollen knee:

My cast went for $1500 earlier this season (to benefit the American Lung Association), any opening bids on my knee fluid?

• From Late Show tweeting genius @EricStangel, on the Yankees' waterlogged homestand:

Weather is so bad at Yankee Stadium 2 of the 3 trains in The Great Subway Race are delayed due to flooded tracks

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from our favorite Chicago parody kings at The Heckler (theheckler.com):

RICKETTS INTERVIEWS BRAD PITT FOR VACANT GM POSITION AFTER A SNEAK PEAK AT MONEYBALL

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com