A Similar Situation for Yankees-Tigers Series

Stephen Drew

A five-game winning streak has the Yankees miraculously alive in the AL East and on the doorstep for the second wild card. This week’s three-game series in Detroit could put the Yankees in prime position to clinch a playoff berth over the the final 30 games of the year or it could put the Yankees back in the same hole they just spent the past week climbing out of.

With the Yankees and Tigers meeting for the first time in Detroit and the final time this season, I did an email exchange with Rob Rogacki of Bless You Boys to talk about what has happened to the Tigers since the trade deadline, the breakout season from Rick Porcello and the futures of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.

Keefe: I saw on Sunday that you tweeted, “Tomorrow, we are all Yankees fans,” with the Yankees playing a makeup game in Kansas City. The Yankees got the job done in Kansas City with an 8-1 win on Monday night and with a Mariners’ loss in Texas, the Yankees now trail the second wild-card spot by just 2.5 games. I know I shouldn’t be excited about the Yankees being in play for the second wild card, but that’s where injuries and an underachieving offense have left me. But your jump on the Yankees bandwagon only lasted a few hours as they now head to Detroit for a three-game series with your Tigers in a series that both teams desperately need to win.

On the day of the trade deadline, everyone sort of penciled in the Tigers and A’s for the ALCS because of their moves to strengthen the already strongest rotations in the league. But over the last four weeks, the Tigers and A’s have played themselves out of running away with their respective divisions and the Tigers aren’t even holding on to a playoff spot right now.

When the Yankees played the Tigers at the beginning of August, they looked like a different offensively and it was almost as if Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez didn’t beat you then no one would. Did the Tigers make one too many moves that actually made them worse since July 31?

Rogacki: I think that the pair of moves the Tigers made at the deadline definitely improved the team, especially given how well David Price has pitched so far. Price has a 2.35 ERA and 2.90 FIP in four starts in a Tigers uniform, but is just 1-1 thanks to a lack of run support. Price tossed a one-hitter against his former club in his last start, but lost 1-0 on an unearned run.

Losing Austin Jackson at the deadline definitely hurt the offense — especially given how he had been hitting in the second half — but the team’s struggles largely fall on the big bats in the lineup. Ian Kinsler had a .515 OPS in the second half prior to the team’s last road trip and scored just eight runs in a month-long span. Miguel Cabrera’s .820 OPS is excellent for most mortals, but far below what the Tigers expect of their $292 million man. Victor Martinez took a little while to recover from an oblique strain that hobbled him in July, but has turned things around with a .992 OPS in August.

The hitters aren’t the only problem, though. Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez have both missed starts this month, leading the Tigers to use guys like Robbie Ray and Buck Farmer in the rotation, with left-hander Kyle Lobstein tentatively scheduled to start on Thursday. The team’s lack of starting pitching depth is finally starting to be exposed, but with Verlander already back and Sanchez not far behind, the team looks poised to climb back into the playoff picture.

Keefe: I never understood the hype and attention paid to Rick Porcello as he grew up in the majors over the last five years, but now everyone is seeing why the Tigers have always been so high on him with 14 wins, a 3.10 ERA and a league-leading three shutouts. Porcello has become the front-end starter the Tigers hoped he would when they picked him in the first round in 2007.

What has been the biggest difference in the back-end starter Porcello was in his first five seasons and what he has become in 2014?

Rogacki: Porcello’s big leap actually came in 2013, but largely went unnoticed thanks to an unimpressive 13 wins and a 4.32 ERA. He posted the highest strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career, resulting in a career-best 3.53 fielding independent pitching (FIP) measure. If that isn’t enough, look at what he did in the second half. From July 1st onward, Porcello was 9-2 with a 3.57 ERA in 14 starts. He held opponents to two runs or fewer in seven of those starts and logged his first complete game in a victory over the White Sox.

This season, Porcello’s strikeout rate has returned to earth, but his walk rate has also dropped. He is holding left-handed hitters to a .673 OPS, by far the best mark of his career. Opponents also have a .215 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) on ground balls against Porcello, well below the league average of .250. Part of this may be to weaker contact induced by Porcello locating his pitches, and part of this may be due to the Tigers’ improved infield defense. Third baseman Nick Castellanos and shortstop Eugenio Suarez have not been very impressive, but Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera have statistically been two of the best defenders in baseball at their respective positions.

Keefe: In 2012, Justin Verlander was virtually as good as he was in his Cy Young an MVP season in 2011. In 2013, his ERA jumped to the mid-3s and his WHIP climbed and while he still had a good year, it wasn’t what we had become used to after his previous two seasons. Now in 2014, at age 31, in the second year of a seven-year, $180 million deal, Verlander has had a lot season.

Verlander has only had one full sub-.500 season in his career (when he led the league in losses with 17 on a bad 2008 Tigers team) and that same year was the only year his ERA was above 3.66 (it was 4.84), but this year he’s on his way to having his second-worst season of his career and his worst in six years.

What has happened to Justin Verlander? Do you just chalk this up as a lost season for him or are you worried about his future and his contract?

Rogacki: There’s always some level of worry when a pitcher gets a contract as long and expensive as the one that the Tigers gave Verlander prior to the 2013 season, but I’m not very concerned about his results in 2014. Verlander had core muscle repair surgery in early January — similar to the surgery Miguel Cabrera had last October —  which seems to have sapped his stamina. He has a 3.67 ERA in innings 1-3 this season, but that figure jumps to 5.33 in innings 4-6 and 8.04 in the seventh inning or later.

Verlander hinted earlier this year that he still doesn’t feel 100 percent after the surgery, something that Cabrera reiterated around the All-Star break. It will be interesting to see how both stars come back in 2015, provided neither runs into any more setbacks along the way.

Keefe: Max Scherzer turned down a reported six-year, $144 million from the Tigers after his Cy Young-winning season, putting his right arm and future financial status on the line every time he throws a baseball. But this season, at 29, Scherzer has followed up his 2013 21-win season with another impressive year and with starting pitching as coveted as it’s ever been, he is likely to blow away the $144 million the Tigers offered him.

If I were Scherzer, I would have taken the guaranteed $144 million knowing that on any pitch at any time, you might never get a chance to make that kind of money again. But as long as he is able to stay healthy for another month (and possibly October if the Tigers get there), his gamble will have paid off.

Is there any chance Scherzer is a Tiger in 2015 and what do you think he will end up getting?

Rogacki: I don’t ever want to doubt what Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski is capable of, but the trade for David Price seems to have all but sealed Scherzer’s fate. The Tigers seem reluctant to offer him a contract longer than six years, while Scherzer appears to be after the biggest payday possible (a safe assumption when you’re talking about a Scott Boras client). If he hits the free agent market, I would not be surprised to see Scherzer become baseball’s second $200 million pitcher, especially considering that he has pitched at an ace level since mid-May of 2012. I would love to see him back with the Tigers next season — he’s as outgoing and goofy as baseball players get — but not at the kind of money he appears to be looking for.

Keefe: As this series starts, the Yankees are 6 games back of the Orioles and 2.5 games back of the second wild card. The Tigers are 1 ½ games back of the Royals and ½ game back of the second wild card. I think I’m safe in assuming that you didn’t expect the Tigers to be going down to the wire for a playoff spot when the season started or after they landed David Price and I know that on July 31 you didn’t think they might be looking at a scenario where they have to play a one-game playoff or one in which they don’t reach the postseason at all.

What are your feelings on the state of the Tigers on Aug. 26 and after their final 33 games, where will they be?

Rogacki: The Tigers definitely aren’t where any of us expected them to be at this point in the season, especially given how good they have looked at stretches this year. That said, I think that the Royals’ recent hot streak will end in the next week or two, and the Tigers will win their fourth consecutive AL Central crown. With 27 of their final 33 games against AL Central opponents — and the other six games at Comerica Park — they have plenty of time to jump ahead of the Royals and get back into the postseason.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the help. Nicely done last night, Yanks.