In winning four consecutive American League Central titles, the Detroit Tigers have had as much star power as any club in the majors: Justin Verlander was an MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 2011; Miguel Cabrera won MVP awards in 2012 and 2013; Max Scherzer won a Cy Young; Victor Martinez finished second in the MVP voting last season. They've had Prince Fielder and Anibal Sanchez and Torii Hunter and they acquired David Price at last year's trade deadline.
But for all that star power and power pitching in the rotation, the Tigers twice lost in the ALCS, got swept in the 2012 World Series when their bats died, and hit .159 in losing to the Baltimore Orioles in three straight in last season's division series -- with help from a couple bullpen meltdowns. The stars haven't always delivered in the postseason, but the Tigers have also entered each postseason with some serious flaws. Everybody knew last year's bullpen was not championship-caliber. Back in 2012, Detroit tried to win the World Series with Quintin Berry hitting second and Delmon Young playing some left field.
Another flaw: This hasn't been a good defensive team, at least the past three seasons. The Tigers' defensive metrics the past four seasons:
2014: -65 Defensive Runs Saved (28th in majors)
2013: -66 Defensive Runs Saved (28th in majors)
2012: -32 Defensive Runs Saved (25th in majors)
2011: +14 Defensive Runs Saved (10th in majors)
Despite a superior base of star power, winning what has generally been a soft division has rarely been easy: one game ahead of the Kansas City Royals last year, one game ahead of the Cleveland Indians in 2013, three over the Chicago White Sox in 2012.
But this year's Tigers -- off to a sizzling 11-2 start after beating the Yankees 2-1 behind Alfredo Simon's seven strong innings on a damp, overcast evening in Detroit -- may be different: This looks more like a team and less like a collection of talent.
Most notably, that is showing up on defense and that begins with shortstop Jose Iglesias. He was supposed to be the shortstop last season, but the Tigers shut him down in spring training when tests revealed long-standing fractures in both shins. Right now, he's healthy and picking it, including this highlight-reel play on Monday to get speedy Brett Gardner at first. Acquired from the Boston Red Sox in 2013 as part of a three-way deal involving Avisail Garcia, nobody ever doubted Iglesias' ability at shortstop after his defection from Cuba. While he doesn't have Andrelton Simmons' arm, his hands are Omar Vizquel-esque and he's going to be a Gold Glove candidate. Entering Monday, he was +3 Defensive Runs Saved and projects as a major upgrade over the -10 the Tigers got from last year's shortstops.
What's surprising is Iglesias is hitting .439. He has no power and doesn't walk, but what he does is put the ball in play, with just two strikeouts in 46 plate appearances -- giving him one of the five lowest strikeout rates in the majors. It's not always pretty -- he gets a lot of bloopers and infield tricklers in there -- but at least he's showing something at the plate that suggests he won't be a zero offensively.
The outfield defense will also be much better. Gone is Hunter, a huge defensive liability last season at -18 DRS, and moved to a platoon role is Rajai Davis, who struggled in center field with -11 DRS. In is Yoenis Cespedes and his cannon arm that helped him to 12 DRS in 2014, and Anthony Gose, an athletic center fielder acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays who is an upgrade defensively over Davis. Instead of trying to shoehorn guys like Berry or Young or Brennan Boesch or an aging Hunter in the outfield, the Tigers now have an outfield alignment that works.
Maybe GM Dave Dombrowski learned something watching those division-rival Royals soak up fly balls all October?
The end product? Entering Monday, the Tigers ranked second in the majors behind only the Royals in Defensive Runs Saved, at +12.
That's not the only reason the Tigers have been baseball's best team so far. Simon was an offseason acquisition a lot of analysts questioned after his poor second half with the Cincinnati Reds, but he's 3-0 with a 1.74 ERA and has just two walks in 20.2 innings. Shane Greene is also 3-0, with a 0.39 ERA. Price has allowed one run in three starts. Joakim Soria has, so far, been the lockdown closer Joe Nathan wasn't a year ago. J.D. Martinez has slugged five home runs. Nick Castellanos' defense at third base, terrible last year by the metrics, looks improved.
Scherzer is gone. Rick Porcello is gone. Verlander hasn't pitched yet. Even Sanchez has been roughed up.
But the Tigers are 11-2. Team game, my friends.