Defending Champs Can Still Outpunch Popular Contender

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The New York Sun

Since the beginning of July, around which time people began to realize that the Detroit Tigers, rather than being a team off to a hot start, were perhaps the best team in baseball, many have noted that the Tigers are a pretty similar team to the Chicago White Sox, their competitors in the AL Central Division and the other team with a real claim to being the best in the game. (Sorry, Mets fans, but the Tigers and Sox are running up better records in a much tougher league.)

There’s something to that, but not as much as you might think, and the differences are big clues as to how this playoff race is going to play out.

First, the similarities. Both teams have fiery managers who clearly deserve a great deal more credit for their teams’ success than most managers do; both are built around defense, a deep rotation, late-inning relief, and a solid, (rather than an overwhelming) lineup; and both teams are very good.

You might note that these similarities are pretty generic. Most good teams have good managers, and many good teams are built more around depth than star power. Saying the two teams are similar approaches tautology – the ways in which they’re good are the ways in which most teams are good. It’s like saying a hitter is good because he hits the ball well; true enough as far as it goes, but not very telling.

The area in which the teams most resemble one another is defense; they not only rank 1-2 in the American League in turning balls in play into outs, but neither has a real defensive superstar, instead being more or less solid at every position. Also, both managers will give someone who can’t hit serious playing time for his glove, something many managers claim they’ll do but don’t.

Next most important is that both teams have some pretty gaping offensive holes. While he’s lost playing time, the Sox have given an awful lot of atbats to center fielder Brian Anderson, who’s hit .178 AVG/.274 OBA/.309 SLG. Shortstop Juan Uribe, who can pop a home run but can’t do anything else at the plate (he’s hitting .226/.251/.389) is also seeing action.

Over in Detroit, a continuing mystery is how outfielder Craig Monroe has picked up enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title; he’s hitting .236/.273/.429, and there are better options available. Sometimes, though, that’s the price you pay for defense.

There are a few more similarities – both teams are reliant on right-handed power, and both have hard-throwing late inning relievers. Still, I find the differences between the Tigers and White Sox a lot more telling. These break down into a couple of areas: The Sox have star hitters, whereas the Tigers don’t; and the Sox’s rotation is a lot better.

The benefits of having star hitters like Jim Thome and Paul Konerko are fairly obvious (good teams have good players), but having stars also means you’re not as reliant on lesser players to all play well. The Sox are playing as well as they are in part because right fielder Jermaine Dye and third baseman Joe Crede are both having superb years at the plate, but there’s a bit of give there.

The Tigers, on the other hand, without one monster threat in the lineup, need all their hitters to continue hitting solidly. They might, but this means that more things can go wrong for them. I like young center fielder Curtis Granderson a lot, but he’s not the best bet in the world to continue playing like Carlos Beltran.

The second point is a bit more contentious. The Sox have an enormously impressive rotation. Back-end starters Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez would be third starters on the Yankees or Mets, and the team has good odds of ending the season with five 200-inning starters. All their pitchers are performing at about their expected level or below it, and in Jose Contreras and Mark Buehrle, Guillen has two legitimate aces.

The Tigers have been lauded for having a similar rotation, but they really don’t. The Sox’ pitchers all pitch to contact and take advantage of the defense, but all save Buehrle – a Tom Glavine-type trickster – have the stuff to get a strikeout in a jam or pitch through some spotty defense. The Tigers are rolling out Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson, archetypal finesse lefties with no stuff whatever, and Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander, impressive young pitchers who can’t necessarily be expected to hold up at their current levels over the course of a full season (especially Verlander, a rookie who’s exceptionally odd in that he consistently throws above 95 miles per hour but doesn’t strike out many more hitters than Rogers does).

And while fifth starters Mike Maroth and Zach Miner have between them pitched like an ace (at least until Maroth went on the 60-day DL), over the rest of the season it’s not likely that the Tigers’ fifth men will outperform Vazquez, who, for whatever his faults, is durable and consistently league-average.

In sum, the Tigers need to have things go right to keep playing at this level. They need to continue to get hitting up and down the lineup and they need rookies and career no. 5 starters to keep pitching like Barry Zito. They’re clicking and have been all season, and are just ahead of the Sox. The Sox, on the other hand, even with their recent dominant play, haven’t quite hit on all cylinders yet. It will be a race, and I expect both teams will make the playoffs, but the defending champs are still the favorites.

The New York Sun

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