It seems as if many of the division races are already all but over. However, the American League Central is an exception. Going into Friday’s game, the surprising Cleveland Indians trailed Detroit by only 1.5 games, with nine games remaining between the two teams.
Detroit’s rotation appeared to be a strength headed into this year, but outside of Justin Verlander, it has been shaky. Max Scherzer has fine peripherals but also an ERA around 4.30 in an offensively depressed environment. Instead of starting pitching, the Tigers are getting by on their offense. Their team wOBA of .328 is fourth best in the AL, behind only the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers.
The Indians are in a few ways the opposite of that formula. Their .312 wOBA is just below league average, and it hasn’t been helped by injuries. They’ve stayed in the race due to pitching. In the rotation, Justin Masterson has been fantastic, and Josh Tomlin has been solid behind him.
Friday night’s game ended up being a pitchers’ duel. Tomlin held the Tigers hitless through the first two innings, and when a baserunner did reach, he was erased by a fly-out double play. Entering the bottom of the sixth, the Tigers had only two hits. The Indians had three runners in scoring position through their first six innings but could not cash in any of them. The deadlock was finally broken in the bottom of the sixth when Austin Jackson homered with a man on base to give Detroit a 2-0 lead.
Jackson is a funny case. He came to Detroit from the Yankees’ farm system as part of the big trade that put Curtis Granderson in New York and Ian Kennedy in Arizona, and sent Jackson and Scherzer to Detroit. In 2010, Jackson began the year as Detroit’s starting center fielder and leadoff man. He started off blazing hot by hitting .364/.422/.495 (BA/OBP/SLG) in April of that year, buoyed by a BABIP over .500. Although his BABIP never went below .320 for any individual month -- and with a player who has Jackson’s speed, you probably wouldn’t expect it to -- it never reached close to that level again, and his other months were not even close to being as productive as his April.
Still, first impressions stick. Jackson ended up with a solid .333 wOBA while contributing very good defense, and he came in second in the 2010 rookie of the year voting. Scherzer was great for Detroit as well, while Granderson didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations set for him in New York and Kennedy did not initially stand out in Arizona. In the first go-round, it looked like Detroit was the clear winner of the trade.
Then we got to this season. While Detroit’s offense has been its strength, its leadoff hitter, Jackson, has not been a big part of that attack. This April, his OPS (.509) was lower than his April 2010 BABIP (.530). He has been far better since then, but he still has a wOBA of only .300, good for an 86 wRC+ and a .311 OBP. His strikeout rate is incredibly high. And Scherzer has struggled a bit. Meanwhile Granderson is an MVP candidate, and Kennedy anchors the Arizona rotation, so this year Detroit looks like the loser of that trade.
Many trades take a long time to evaluate. Take Cleveland’s Ubaldo Jimenez trade; maybe he takes the Indians to the World Series, while all the prospects they traded fall apart. Or maybe he gets hurt while the prospects thrive with the Rockies. Maybe it’s not that clear cut, and Ubaldo helps the Indians compete while some of the prospects work out and others don’t. Next year the Tigers/Yankees/Diamondbacks deal might look wildly different.
As for Detroit’s other part of the Jackson trade, Scherzer excelled Friday. Through seven innings, he gave up just six hits and one run, striking out six. Still, it was just 2-1 when Tomlin came back out for the seventh inning, and he got the first two outs with little issue before giving up back-to-back home runs to Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta.
Both Avila and Peralta are massive parts of Detroit’s sneaky-good offense. Avila, coming off a .297 wOBA 2010, has a .382 wOBA this year as the Tigers’ primary catcher, while Peralta’s wOBA is .370 while he plays for them as a shortstop. Although Tomlin gave up only six hits and no walks over 6 2/3 innings, three of those hits left the park and he struck out only two. Joaquin Benoit has had his bad patches in 2011, but he contributed a clean inning before Jose Valverde cashed in the save opportunity to seal the 4-1 win for the Tigers.
The AL Central is in no way decided by one game, but a sweep either way would be a big deal. Jackson and Scherzer provided the difference in a big way Friday night, along with two unexpected cornerstones of the Tigers' offense. They might be in a terrible division with a negative run differential, but with Verlander, they will hardly be a playoff pushover if they get there. Friday night was a big part in inching them just a little closer.
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