Anatomy of a Tiger (Part 1)

Amid the continuing performance-enhancing drug scandal, Barry Bonds passing Babe Ruth on the all time home run list and yet another AL East race between the Yankees and the Red Sox, the season’s biggest surprise has undoubtedly been the resurgence of the Detroit Tigers. With most pundits focusing on the defending champion Chicago White Sox or the up-and-coming Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, no one, myself included, saw the Tigers contending, much less being in the discussion for best team in baseball in the end of June. (Just ask my bookie. Thanks a lot, Cleveland.)

Well, if the A’s 2002 season could inspire a New York Times bestseller on the A’s player acquisition strategies, the Tigers’ hot-start-going-on-Cinderella-season deserves at least a column. (Note to the mainstream media: I am not, and have never been, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski.) So I thought I’d try to figure out where a team that manages to go from a .438 winning percentage one year to a .679 winning percentage through almost half a season the next year gets its players. Then, I’ll compare how the team was assembled with the other current division leaders. In today’s column, I’ll focus on the pitchers, with a look at the hitters to come in next week’s column.

The Pitchers

As they lead all of baseball by allowing a microscopic 3.75 runs per game (through June 26), it’s only fitting that their pitching staff should get top billing here. Led by young flamethrowers Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander, the Tigers staff has compiled a 3.54 ERA and leads the league in runs allowed by a ridiculous 43 runs over the A’s. Last season, they were eigth in the American League in runs allowed. Here are the Tigers top four starters, their closer and their top two set-up by innings.

NAME                IP     ERA
Jeremy Bonderman    106.0  3.65
Kenny Rogers        104.2  3.44
Justin Verlander    95.2   3.39
Nate Robertson      93.1   3.38

Fernando Rodney     38.2   2.79
Joel Zumaya         37.0   2.43
Todd Jones          30.0   6.60

Impressively, two of the four starters and the two good relievers were developed by the Tigers organization, while Nate Robertson was acquired from the Marlins in 2003 and spent a year between Triple-A and the majors before breaking into the bigs for good. The heart of the Tigers pitching staff—well, the good part, anyway—includes only one real mercenary: Kenny Rogers. When Dombrowski signed the Gambler to a two-year, $16 million deal after a resurgent age-40 season with the Rangers, everybody laughed. At this point, he certainly looks like a better addition than the Esteban Loaiza’s, Jeff Weaver’s or Jason Johnson’s of the world. While there are still quite a few innings left to go on that contract, the bottom line is that it’s looking good so far—at least as good as Scott Hatteberg looked for the 2002 A’s.

In contrast, Bonderman, Verlander, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya epitomize the staff.

Verlander was a first round draft pick out of Old Dominion just two years ago, and is only the second player from the first three rounds of that draft to make an impact on the big league level. (Huston Street, drafted as a sandwich pick, is the other.) Zumaya was drafted as a starter out of Bonita HS (Calif.) in the 11th round of the 2002 draft, Dombrowski’s first with the team. Rodney is the only holdover from Randy Smith era, having been signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1997.

More famously, Bonderman was acquired from the A’s during the 2002 season for Jeff Weaver, in a trade that also netted the Tigers Carlos Pena. Controversially, the Tigers promoted to the majors straight out of Single-A to begin the 2003 season as a 20-year-old, and he has shown flashes of brilliance while struggling in the majors in the three seasons since. Service time issues aside, Bonderman has put things together this season, posting the best strikeout and strikeout to walk rates of his career to go with a strong ERA. Along with Verlander, he gives the Tigers two young, top of the rotation pitchers with first round pedigrees.

Todd Jones is the odd man out in this story, being old—unlike Rodney and Zumaya—and crappy—unlike Rogers. Signed as a free agent after resurrecting his career (or at least his bank account) with the Marlins last season, Jones, with his 6.60 ERA, 20 saves and 2-year, $11 million contract, highlights the fact that the Tigers are still a rich team with a $82 million payroll despite their recent history of on-field ineptitude.

Now, to compare the Tigers’ pitcher acquisition with other teams.

TEAM        FA    TRADED (young)*    TRADED (veteran)    DRAFTED    AMATEUR FA    WAIVERS
Tigers      2        2                  0                  2          1              0

Boston      5        0                  1                  1          0              0
Mets        5        0                  0                  1          1              0
Cardinals   4        2                  1                  0          0              0
Oakland     0        4                  0                  3          0              0  
Padres      0        4                  1                  1          0              1

ALL OTHERS  14       10                 3                  6          1              1

*TRADED (young) indicates that a player was traded for before establishing themselves as major 
leaguers. Thus, Kirk Saarloos was classified as "young" while Josh Beckett was classified as 
"veteran." Admittedly, this is somewhat subjective, but I think it says more about 
team-building philosophies  than using a strict age limit. The hardest call was Jason Marquis, 
who I ultimately classified as "young" due to his age at the time of his trade and that he had 
yet to pitch a full season for the Braves.

What’s most exciting for Tigers fans is that the Tigers seem to have as much good, young homegrown (read: cheap) pitching talent as anyone. Of the other teams profiled, only the A’s young pitching can compare, with Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, Huston Street and Justin Duchscherer.

Money Talks

On the whole, the Tigers seem to have acquired their players in a similar fashion as other successful teams, but a closer look at the table really shows how unique the Tigers are among their peers. Clearly, the other division leaders can be divided into the haves and the have nots. The Red Sox, Mets and Cardinals combined to sign all 14 of the free agent pitchers in this mini-study, while the A’s and Padres did not sign a single one of their major pitchers off the free agent market. Not coincidentally, the former three teams had an average payroll of over $103 million, while the latter two averaged just over $66 million. That the Tigers’ pitcher acquisition falls in between those two extremes probably reflects the Tigers’ middle market payroll.

Of all the current division leaders, the Tigers also stand out in that they are the only real surprise. That they were able to make such a quick turnaround, especially with their pitching, can also partially be explained by their players. When you acquire good young talent, whether it’s through the draft or via trades, it’s always possible to make a quick leap forward. If you’ve got the money to make free agent acquisitions, sooner or later one of them will work out. If, through luck or design, that coincides with good young talent hitting the majors, then you have the recipe for a breakout pitching staff.

I Can’t Believe This Is The Same Car

That said, we should always remember what the Wolf told Vince Vega and Jules after they managed to wash a blood-soaked car in Pulp Fiction: that one should refrain from demonstrating one’s, um, exuberance, until the job is done. (This is a family and work-friendly website, after all.) For one thing, the A’s and the Padres only have one pitcher between them making more than Todd Jones this season (Barry Zito), and even he makes less than Kenny Rogers. When you have almost $90 million to spend on players, you should be able to assemble a good pitching staff. If anything, given the amount of money the Tigers spend on players, it was only a matter of time before the managed to stockpile some good talent. Very few teams spend that much money and fail to be successful at least some of the time—both of the truly atrocious franchises in recent history, the Royals and the Pirates, are both inept and cheap.

Still, it’s a good time to be a Tigers fan. With the young pitching they’ve come across and their apparent willingness to throw money around, they should be at least competitive in the foreseeable future, barring a Cubs-esque run of ineptitude and injuries. Come back next week for a look at the Tigers hitters.

References & Resources
Tigers Central provided a lot of good background information on the Tigers players.
Payroll data came from this report by Maury Brown.
Stats, transactions and salary data from ESPN and Baseball Reference.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

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