Watching the Detroit Tigers, Who Are Trying to Drag the Past into the Present

The Tigers owe a lot of money to players whose best seasons are behind them. In the moment, though, they're still in the mix, thanks to Detroit stalwarts Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.

by Robert O'Connell
Jun 22 2016, 2:15pm

Photo by Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For a handful of years—starting, say, in 2011, with the signing of Victor Martinez and unofficially ending with the departure of Max Scherzer following the 2014 season—the Detroit Tigers stuck fast to a pattern. They made a winter splash by adding a bat or an arm, then won the American League Central, then flamed out in the postseason, and then repeated the whole process again. Specifics changed, but the final outcome did not. In 2012, a Detroit team with a freshly added Prince Fielder reached the World Series and promptly lost to the San Francisco Giants in four games. Two years later, trade-deadline addition David Price could only pitch the last installment of a division series sweep; he held the Baltimore Orioles offense to two runs while the Tigers mustered just one.

During that period, the Tigers were, quietly, one of the sadder stories in baseball, not only for the annual heartbreak but also because it portended such a rough and lasting hangover. Every offseason, the Tigers mortgaged some new bit of their future to help give their twilight present that last push it seemed to need; every postseason loss stung doubly for the knowledge that the gamble was for naught.

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If this had happened to one of Major League Baseball's bluebloods, there'd at least be a morality-play component to it; championships can't be bought, and all that. The Tigers, though, hadn't won a World Series since 1984 and played their home games in front of fans hurting from the dissolution of the city's main industry. It was different, and it felt different.

One stated reason for the annual all-in moves was the age of octogenarian Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who wanted to see a World Series win before he kicked the bucket. The other was so obvious it did not need to be said: Detroit had Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera—a pair that represented, for a good stretch, the premium pitcher and hitter in the game—and wanted to make full use of the head start those two afforded. And though the Tigers' best efforts didn't produce a title, and though a good number of their imports have since moved on, those two are still around and, this season, getting some backdated luck. The past, or all those thwarted presents, isn't even past.

There it goes. Photo by Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Some quick orienting facts: Miguel Cabrera is not quite the hitter he once was, Justin Verlander is even less the pitcher he once was, and the Detroit Tigers, on sum, are not very good. Cabrera sports a .915 OPS, solid enough but well removed from his former MVP caliber; he now competes with Martinez and Ian Kinsler for "best batter on the team" status. Verlander has a high-three ERA and diminished velocity. As of this writing, the Tigers are 36-35 and have dropped three of their last five.

Here's where that luck comes in. Almost anywhere else, the Tigers would have little cause for hope, but the AL Central is home to baseball's tamest race. Over the first two months and change of the season, the lead has passed between Chicago, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Detroit like a loaned book among too friendly neighbors. Mediocrity is the rule; this was the last division to produce a 40-game winner, which it finally did when the Indians won Tuesday night. In this context, the post-dream-big Tigers, with a lineup that scores some runs and a pitching staff that gives up plenty, can still hang around.

Mere competence doesn't offer much of an incentive to watch a team, of course, but Detroit's stalwarts still do. There is something kind of funny—and sad, and maybe a little noble if you squint—in seeing Verlander take the mound or Cabrera step to the plate in 2016. The game has caught up to them, and the struggle makes for a strange fit with their recent virtuosity.

When Verlander works these days, he does so with a kind of willful optimism. It shows in his mechanics, which haven't changed much from when he was as likely as not to take a no-hitter into the seventh inning. His results have slipped, but his habits haven't: a 90-degree knee-raise, an outward flick of the toe, and his arm circling over his planted leg as if on a track. From that one motion come a fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup, all either slower or duller than they used to be but also better located. Verlander's theory, or his wish, is apparent. Like all aging pitchers, he is counting upon precision to do what raw stuff used to. Very few pitchers could ever throw like Verlander used to, though, and so very few have ever asked so much of their late-career carefulness.

Feels like old times. Or...anyway, looks similar. Photo by Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Last Thursday night in Kansas City, Verlander pitched what has become a somewhat standard game, going seven innings, striking out seven, and giving up four runs. He was alternately fine—an anaesthetizing cutter slipping under Eric Hosmer's bat, a rhythm with the curve as the game went on—and frustrated. But, for a moment in the second inning, he was brilliant in a way that fit within his present circumstances. With a runner on first, a bouncing ball came back at Verlander, and he reached high above his head, picked it clean, whirled, and threw a dart to the open air above second. The toss was immaculately timed; shortstop Jose Iglesias met it at a jog right over the bag, made the out, and sent it along to first. The former Verlander might have preferred the cleanness of two strikeouts. This iteration, all faith in procedure, seemed to enjoy turning the double play.

Where Verlander's transformation is evident whenever he pitches, Cabrera usually looks like he always has. He is a step slower getting out of the box and less inclined to fake an interest in getting all the way to first on a groundout, but otherwise the trademarks remain. His bat wags and his front foot taps in tempo, his bat comes through with a disorienting lack of hurry, and his follow-through tells you where the ball will go. Low means a double sliced to the corner, high a shot pounded into or over the wall.

Monday night, when the Tigers hosted the Seattle Mariners, Cabrera made contact with an inside fastball and followed through high. The ball cleared the left-center wall with room to spare, reaching the walkway back of the Comerica Park shrubs. In the days of prime Verlander and Scherzer and Price, the 2-0 lead this gave Detroit might have been enough; this evening, they had to go 12 innings before they won, 8-7.

MLB's divisional setup prizes drama at the expense of justice. Leagues are sliced into segments that promote regional rivalry and ensure that all the time zones are represented come the postseason. Sometimes the unfairness of this gets silly; most often, we just accept that this is how things work and go from there.

This year, baseball's dash of geographic artificiality has seen fit to prop up the mightiest sad sacks of the early 2010s. Well past when they should be paying the bill for all those years of spending, the Tigers have instead been playing some tenuously meaningful baseball. If this relevance is a little cheap, it also seems somehow owed to them, and to their two icons, for that run of good intentions dashed. And if it falls apart, as it likely will—well, they've been through worse.

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