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April 5, 2008

Prospectus Today

Value Judgments

by Joe Sheehan

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A promising season, one that began with hopes of a championship and visions of a thousand runners crossing the plate, ended ignominiously this week. The Detroit Tigers, dubbed by some as a World Series contender, lost four games in a row to see that dream die.

There's no one culprit in the stunning end to the Tigers' year. In four games, the Tigers scored just 10 runs. Although they were missing center fielder Curtis Granderson atop the lineup, the absence of their leadoff hitter can't explain sub-.200 batting averages by Gary Sheffield (.143), Jacque Jones (.091) and Placido Polanco (.105). As a team, the Tigers hit just .234 with a .309 OBP and .358 slugging, far below expectations. Fans will point to injuries to Sheffield (finger) and Miguel Cabrera (quadriceps) that cost each a game as well as to Granderson's absence for the falloff, but the team scored more runs in the games each missed (six) than they did in the two in which they both played (four).

The Tigers were built to outscore, not outpitch their opponents, making the ill-timed four-game losing streak that much more frustrating, because their pitching was acceptable. No one will issue an award to a team that allows 5.25 runs a game. Neverthless, that figure is in line with expectations, especially of a team missing two key relievers. Kenny Rogers provided a quality start, and Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman each pitched into the seventh inning before tiring; Nate Robertson was the only starter to get bombed. The bullpen, considered the team's weakest link, has been fairly good: 14 2/3 innings, six runs, 11/6 K/BB (after intentionals), one homer allowed. Only Jason Grilli, who allowed five hits on 22 pitches in the final game, was a disaster.

The failure of the Tigers to live up to the expectations created by the game's best offseason stings, not least because it marks the second year in a row in which the team wasn't able to build on its 2006 World Series appearance. That team, which went 7-1 in reaching the Series, clearly had a quality that the last two have…

Wait, it's not October 5th? It's April? Well, that changes things. See, baseball doesn't look a whole lot different in the first week of the season than it does in the first week of the playoffs. You have a disproportionate number of day games, the rotations have generally started fresh, and the people in the stands look kind of cold. Yet when a team loses three or four in a row in October-always to a pretty good baseball team-we imbue those losses with an importance that is disproportionate. The amount of attention paid to a baseball game doesn't change the nature of baseball. It's a hard game in which failure-70 percent of at-bats by good hitters end unsuccessfully, 40 percent of games played by great teams do the same-is common and the line between it and success very thin.

Four games are meaningless. They're a rounding error, a blip, five days to be forgotten just in time for the next cry of "Play Ball." Unfortunately, in October, a four-game losing streak gets you a long vacation and the opprobrium of people who don't understand the game. In baseball, the very best teams are perfectly capable of taking a trip through their rotation without winning a game. If you do that in April, no one cares; if you do it in October, there's an immediate connection made between your performance at your job and the content of your character.

It's all nonsense. If the Tigers are capable of losing four straight to the Royals and White Sox to start the season without it meaning they're bad people, losing four straight to the Red Sox in October shouldn't carry any more weight. That we're paying more attention to the latter games, that they're covered by more media, given prime-time television slots, all the attendant hoopla doesn't change that it's baseball. Baseball teams show their value over the long term, and over the short term, any and all results are not only possible, but probable.

So the lesson here is not only one for the moment-that the Tigers' fortunes are no different today than they were a week ago-but one for the future. When October rolls around, and some team wins four in a row and is lionized, even canonized; or their vanquished opponents find not just their performance, but their manhood, questioned, remember April, and how a team thought to be one of the very best in a tough division in the better league became the last team in baseball to put a tick in the win column. Remember the season's first four-game losing streak, and how little it meant in the grand scheme of things.

Remember just how hard baseball is.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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