You can sort of feel sorry for the Detroit Tigers, even as they clinched their fourth straight AL Central title, because this one might have been their hardest-fought yet. But for all the expectations, they’ve never truly had it easy.
That’s because while every one of those four titles were expected and predicted, the last three involved the Tigers fending off late challenges: From the White Sox in 2012 (the two were tied on September 25), the Indians in 2013 (the Tribe had to win 10 straight to finish one back, but Detroit’s 13-13 September stumble made that matter), and now the Royals. After this past month, just barely overtaking Kansas City two weeks ago and then having them nipping at Detroit’s heels ever since, there’s something understandably desperate about celebrating a four-game series split against the Twins to clinch.
Feel sorry for them? Sure, if only because nobody gives you a gold star for winning when you were expected to. But it would have been easy to blow any of those opportunities, but the Tigers did not, and in each of the last three years, they’ve advanced at least as far as the ALCS.
The Tigers can easily suck you into a “glass half-empty or half-full?” debate. Consider this checklist of disappointments: If you knew in March that they’d have to deal with may be Justin Verlander’s worst season (according to ERA+, second-worst per FIP), that Anibal Sanchez would get hurt, that Joe Nathan would not solve their closer questions but perpetuate them like Jose Valverde had never left, and that Rajai Davis and J.D. Martinez would log regular playing time in their outfield, you’d be forgiven (then) if you thought they’d be lucky to win the division.
But the Tigers did win again. And they weren’t lucky. Certainly not if you use their extrapolated record from runs scored and allowed, which suggest this was supposed to be an 85-win team, not when they did what you’re supposed to do in one-run games, splitting those 23-20. Their 13-6 record head-to-head against the Royals didn’t just decide the division, it was also their best mark against any AL Central foe.
Explaining their win goes towards crediting them for their strengths, which are easy to take for granted. Even after dealing Doug Fister and with Sanchez’s injury and Verlander’s struggles, they nevertheless finished third in the AL in quality starts. They did that because of Max Scherzer delivering another excellent season, Rick Porcello finally did come into his own, and because GM Dave Dombrowski took this team’s present-day possibilities seriously enough to trade for David Price. And they had the benefit of having stable producers in the lineup like Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter, guys as notable for their durability as the productivity.
If you want to talk about luck and the Tigers, you might put that on the Martinezes. There was no reasonable way you could anticipate that Victor Martinez would have the best year of his career, or that J.D. Martinez would be the waiver-wire find of the season. But even there, I’d suggest luck was the residue of design: Standing by their multi-year commitment to V-Mart through injury and recovery generated the opportunity to reap the benefit of this season. And because the Tigers didn’t have a big-money solution already in place in left field, they were free to take a chance on an Astros discard and discover his entirely remade swing was totally worth taking that flyer, because there was no chance they’d have found a guy who could slug .553 this year on the free agent market, as J.D. Martinez just did.
So now that the regular season is done and the Tigers don’t have to sweat the one-night terror of the wild-card play-in game, you might still be wondering what they’re capable of doing. A strong rotation, stable lineup assets, power ... those are the things that usually serve you as well in a short series as they do over a six-month season. But there’s still that bullpen to worry about. Nathan might be the most frightening presumed closer on a postseason team since Brad Lidge just a few years back, or Mitch Williams in 1989 and 1993. Lidge had the last laugh; “Wild Thing,” not so much. Add in how badly Joba Chamberlain and Phil Coke have done in set-up roles (allowing more than 36 percent of inherited runners to score), and you can’t hope Joakim Soria solves all of their relief problems simultaneously.
The easy escape is to say that we’ll see what happens, that this is why they play the games. Maybe Brad Ausmus shows us something with his in-game and in-series problem-solving skills as manager. Maybe Nathan finds redemption, as Lidge did. Maybe this lineup cranks out enough runs that a return to the ALCS or the World Series doesn’t rely on sweating the small stuff. But if there’s a lesson to this particular Tigers season, it’s that you can count on them to punch that ticket themselves, and not rely on luck to get them there.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.