April was the cruelest month this season: preseason favorites like the Toronto Blue Jays and the Los Angeles Angels dug themselves a deep hole. The weather so bad in the middle of the country that it was still snowing in Denver and Kansas City even when the calendar turned to May. For the Tigers, a slow start and a raggedy west coast road trip that turned awful in Los Angeles. A bullpen so leaky that the much-maligned Jose Valverde had to come riding to the rescue with his new two-toned beard.
But then the sun came out for the Tigers in the last third of April, and it’s been shining ever since. It’s also been a bit breezy, due to the homers flying off the Tiger bats and the incessant whiffs of opposing batters.
The last few years have seen strikeouts increasing steadily and dramatically in the major leagues. It’s due to a combination of factors: hitters trying to work pitchers deeper into the count, more pitchers (even power arms like Justin Verlander) throwing cutters and change-ups and working the corners of the plate, and an increasing number of power arms in nearly every team’s bullpen. Pitchers are getting stronger and smarter and toolsier, and as a result many batters look almost defenseless at the plate. It’s an unprecedented time in the history of baseball: the steroid era is over, and the strikeout era is here.
Leading the way is the Tigers’ starting rotation. Just as the Tiger bats started heating up — with Victor Martinez, Andy Dirks, and Alex Avila coming out of the doldrums and Miguel Cabrera absolutely catching on fire — the pitching staff caught the attention of the baseball world. Anibal Sanchez set a franchise record by fanning 17 batters in a game, and the Tiger staff set an American League mark by recording at least ten strikeouts in eight consecutive games.
And that could be just the beginning.
With their only west coast swing out of the way, and only three much less taxing three-city road trips the rest of the season, the Tigers look poised to ride those big bats and the four horses in their rotation to a 100-win season. If the revamped bullpen can just remain decent rather than putrid, the club’s power — on the mound and at the plate — should prevail. It sure doesn’t hurt to have Houston in the league, either.
Consider this: the record for strikeouts in a single season by a pitching staff is 1404, set in 2003 by the Chicago Cubs. This year, Tiger pitchers passed 300 strikeouts on May 5, with Verlander flirting with a no-no in Houston in the club’s 30th game. Even if the pace slackens to below nine Ks a game, there’s no reason to think the Tiger staff can’t break the record by adding another 1,100 strikeouts in its last 132 games.
Missing bats is the name of the game. The fewer the ball is put into play, the fewer chances for base hits, including tweeners and bloopers. And with the limited range of the Tiger infield, the strikeouts assume even greater importance.
The pitching staff is leading the majors in strikeouts while so far sitting around major-league average in issuing bases on balls. Those first 300 strikeouts were accompanied by about 90 walks for a very nice whiff-to-walk ratio of 3.3 to 1. This kind of dominance seems to be contagious. Yes, you need stuff, and the Tigers’ four aces have it in spades, but pitchers definitely learn from other pitchers on their team, and can you imagine the clubhouse conversations among the big four starters? (“I got this guy to swing at my change,” “I fooled this guy with a slider down and away,” etc. etc. It must be a real litany of conquests.)
While the pitching staff excels in missing bats, the Tigers’ offense excels in making contact and in drawing walks. The team is in the bottom third of the majors in striking out, with only 201 through May 4. But the club is in the top five in on-base percentage, batting average, total bases, slugging, and almost all the other most important offensive categories.
The Tigers excel at strike zone judgment. And the guys who didn’t have it are learning — look at the significant jump in Austin Jackson’s on-base percentage in the last two seasons. Whether you’re an old-school fan or a sabermetric stathead, this is elementary baseball knowledge: to get on base, take the walks they give you, and put your bat on the ball when the pitch is one you like.
It’s a contagion, all right. One that should soon leave the good young Royals in the dust.