The Mets host the AL Central leading Detroit Tigers at Citi Field this evening as the two teams open up a three-game interleague matchup this weekend. The Tigers are sporting a 74-53 record and find themselves 5 games ahead of the second place Indians. These two teams last faced off in 2011, when the Mets memorably took two of three from them in Detroit (remember Carlos Beltran and Jason Bay's grand slams?).
The Tigers' starting pitching staff leads the majors in Fangraphs WAR by a mile with 19.6 wins above replacement (6 whole wins ahead of the Rangers' staff for second best). They also have a one man wrecking crew in Miguel Cabrera, who is having a career year after winning the AL MVP last season. In order to get some more info on the Tigers, Kurt Mensching of Bless You Boys answered a few questions for us about the team.
Amazin' Avenue: The Tigers' rotation has been one of the best (if not the best) in the majors despite Justin Verlander not pitching like vintage Justin Verlander. What's been the big difference for guys like Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez this year and what has caused Verlander's performance to dip a bit?
Bless You Boys: Scherzer and Sanchez have actually taken opposite roads to the same place. In the case of Scherzer, he's not striking out batters at the same rate as before. But he's cut his walk rate down. Keeping that pitch count lower has kept him effective deeper into games. He's actually added a full inning to his average start of last season. Both his slider and fastball have been effective. Sanchez has actually increased his rate of strikeouts quite a bit and batters are whiffing more often. Earlier this season he set the franchise record for K's in a game at 17, although he's fallen off his earlier pace.
Verlander is the great question to which we'd love to have an answer. The simple answer, so far as we've discovered, is that his mechanics are off. His release point has changed. Now, why is that? Why, knowing that information and working with his pitching coach, hasn't he been able to fix it? He'll come back a game and everything falls into place and he looks terrific ... and then he'll hit the wall the next start. There does not appear to be any injury. There's a lot of talk about his confidence being down and his attitude appearing to be poor. I hate to play amateur psychologist. But he's definitely not the Justin Verlander we've come to expect. He may be the team's fourth-best starter at this point.
AA: Prince Fielder is hitting just .258/.346/.437 after a big first season in Detroit. What's been up with him this season?
BYB: It's hard to say. One theory -- Torii Hunter's, actually -- is that issues outside the game have weighed on his mind. You probably saw Fielder and his wife began divorce proceedings May 28, plus they have two children. Maybe that's it. Maybe that's not it at all. Who's to say? You can definitely define the problem. He's swinging at more pitches outside the zone, making less contact, his line drive rate is off, his home runs per fly ball is off. The issue of why all of those things are occurring, that's harder to say.
AA: With shortstop Jhonny Peralta suspended, the Tigers acquired Jose Iglesias from the Red Sox at the trade deadline. How has Iglesias looked so far and has the transition been smooth? Is Peralta finished in Detroit?
BYB: I'm 99 percent certain Jhonny Peralta is done in Detroit. You can never say for sure. But I think with his missing 50 games and carrying the weight of the guilt, the Tigers just won't put themselves in that situation. Maybe they should. Iglesias is an exciting defender -- fun to watch for sure. But he was hitting about .200 in Detroit before a recent, unsustainable hot streak pushed him all the way up to .299. His bat leaves a bit to be desired. In a video game world, the Tigers are best when they've got the bat and the glove available to plug in as needed. In the real world. it's more difficult than that.
AA: The Tigers' bullpen looked to be a mess early in the year. How have they been of late and is it good enough to get the Tigers through the playoffs?
BYB: The bullpen has settled in pretty well. I'm not going to sit here and tell you it's a strength or a great pen or anything. But I think it's reached the point where it's good enough. The important thing in the playoffs will be the rotation going deep enough in games to bypass any of the problem children. The added days off should also mean the players who are reliable can pitch in most, if not all, of the games. Plus you have to assume one of the members of the rotation will get bounced into the pen as well. So, yeah, it's not ideal. But to be honest, I'm more concerned about the offense not disappearing like it did during the World Series.
AA: Miguel Cabrera has had an incredible career and yet somehow is in the midst of a career offensive season. What's it like to watch him on a daily basis, what makes him so great, and where do you think the Tigers would be without his contributions?
BYB: In baseball, you think a .300 hitter is going to get a hit every at bat. You think a guy with 40 or 50 home runs is going to have a home run every game. It's irrational. The numbers tell you to expect a hit every couple of at bats and a home run every couple of games. But you think like you do anyway. Watching Miguel Cabrera is tenfold that feeling. I've had the pleasure of watching him hit for years now, and you expect good things every time. But this year, he delivers on the promise, seemingly at the key moments, routinely. Even though the Tigers lost the game in extra innings, his home run off Mariano Rivera to tie the game in New York a few weeks ago is going to be one of those chill-inducing things. As for what makes him great: There's nowhere safe to pitch him. His plate coverage is incredible. He makes small adjustments pitch to pitch. He accepts what the pitcher gives him and has the ability to put it to any part of the field and with the power than can put it out of the park. I don't know where they'd be without him, but it wouldn't be as fun.
Thanks again to Kurt Mensching for giving us a preview of the Tigers