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August 25, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Motown Movement

by Joe Sheehan

It's been mentioned to me that the "Daily Prospectus" hasn't quite been living up to its name lately. It's nice to know people care, and you can all look forward to a more regular schedule beginning next week and running through the end of the regular season.

One of the great comeback stories of the season reached another peak in Detroit yesterday, as the Tigers reached .500 for the first time since the second day of the season and moved to within 4 1/2 games of the American League wild card. Their 10-3 win over Seattle makes them 58-46 since starting the season 5-17 and being dubbed the worst team in the league by one Web columnist. Since the All-Star break, the Tigers have a 25-17 record, matching the Yankees for the best in the AL.

Where the hell did this come from? Well, it's not the offense: the Tigers still have a .255 Equivalent Average, and that's adjusted for Comerica Park. (As a side note, Comerica is only reducing run-scoring by .5% through Wednesday's games, according to Clay Davenport's park factors.) The Tigers are 11th in the league in runs, tenth in OBP, tenth in slugging and 11th in walks.

This isn't a good offense, but it has been getting better throughout the year. Damion Easley is hitting better after a brutal start. Juan Gonzalez appears to finally be healthy and has an OPS above 1000 in the second half. Recent callup Billy McMillon has hit well in limited playing time, outplaying Luis Polonia, who he replaced.

It's a dysfunctional offense: too often Juan Encarnacion and his .322 OBP are in the #2 hole, and Deivi Cruz has batted fifth more than he ever should. The Tigers have Rich Becker and could use his OBP, but lack a way to get him regular playing time.

The starting pitching has been a crucial part of the Tiger resurgence, although the overall numbers are unimpressive. As a whole, the Tiger starters are .27 wins below average, seventh in the AL. But the current Tiger rotation has performed much better than that (SNVA is Support-Neutral Value above Average):

                 GS    SNVA

Hideo Nomo 25 0.38 Jeff Weaver 23 0.87 Brian Moehler 21 1.12 Willie Blair 15 -0.14 Steve Sparks 7 0.41

The disastrous performance of C.J. Nitkowski and the below-average work of Dave Mlicki are part of the past, replaced by the unexpectedly effective pitching by Steve Sparks and Willie Blair. Since the All-Star break, the rotation has been phenomenal, keeping the Tigers in every game and giving the mediocre offense a chance.

The Tigers aren't blowing those good starts, either. They have the fifth-best bullpen in baseball. While Todd Jones gets all the ink because of his save total, and is having a legitimately great season, Danny Patterson is also one of the top 30 relievers in baseball. The aforementioned Nitkowski, a nightmare as a starter, has been fantastic out of the pen, and Nelson Cruz has been an unknown assassin in the sixth and seventh innings. The bullpen is so good that the decline in effectiveness (and current absence) of Doug Brocail hasn't been a factor at all.

Can they keep it up? It all hinges on the rotation; if the Tigers keep getting quality starts and aren't forced to score six runs to win, they can stay in this thing. While the starting pitching is a surprise, all of these guys have pitched well in the major leagues in the past; there are no stone flukes in this group, guys with no track record of success who are pitching well.

The Tigers have ten days to dig in their heels, because beginning Labor Day they play 21 straight games against teams over .500, with 11 of them against three teams ahead of them in the wild-card standings. I don't see them surviving that stretch, but hasn't their run made August just a little bit more fun?

Finally, let's all keep Tony Saunders in our thoughts this weekend. Saunders re-broke his left humerus in a rehab start last night, after 16 months of rest and rehabilitation from the first break. To work as hard as he did only to suffer the same injury again is a cruel fate. I hope he's able to rebound, if not to pitch again, at least to be happy in whatever comes after baseball.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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