Inter-League play wraps up this weekend as the Braves take on the Detroit Tigers in a three-game set. Ian Casselberry of Bless You Boys and I traded questions about the Braves and the Tigers. Below are the questions I asked Ian, and his responses. If you don't know much about the Tigers, then here's your opportunity to find out. Also, click here for the questions I answered about the Braves.
Q: With the Red Sox having just left town and their fans having shown up to the three games in droves, can we expect a lot of Tigers fans this weekend? Do the Tigers have tons of fans that go to away games?
A: Tigers fans do travel well. Even when the team wasn't very good, I think people would make an effort to cheer them on in other cities. But now that they're one of the best teams in the American League, there's a lot of enthusiasm for following them on the road. And transplanted fans aren't shy about showing love for their home team. I haven't watched the Tigers as a visiting fan this season, but the TV cameras have had no problems finding pockets of Tigers supporters wearing team apparel and holding up signs, so the support is definitely there.
I don't know if they'll come out in the same numbers as Boston fans did earlier this week. I've read some of the comments about those games with Boston sounding like a Red Sox homestand. But I don't think you should underestimate the throng that the Tigers could bring with them. Especially at this time of year. School is out, and families are taking vacations. But even back in April, when the Tigers were playing in Anaheim for just two games, a lot of Detroit fans took that trip to see the team. And those games were on Monday and Tuesday. So if Braves fans aren't going to buy those tickets, I think Tigers fans will be happy to snatch them up. A 12-hour road trip isn't that bad when you can fit it in on a summer weekend.
Q: Who is the Tigers' most valuable hitter? Who is the least valuable?
A: It's an obvious choice when you look at his stats, I suppose, but it's amazing what a difference a healthy Magglio Ordonez has made to the Tigers' lineup. And I don't think anyone saw this coming. It looked like the Magglio we saw last year - 20+ home runs, 100 RBI, and creaky defense in right field - was the best the Tigers would ever get. Maybe we all underestimated just how much his left knee was hindering him, especially at the plate. Now, he's driving the ball all over the field. He's become a doubles machine, hitting the ball to the opposite field, and it's skyrocked his batting average.
Craig Monroe has almost been the polar opposite. Yes, he has decent power numbers, but his spot in the lineup seems to be where rallies go to die. That's probably not entirely accurate, but Monroe always seems to strike out when they could really blow an inning open. He just seems to have no feel for situational hitting, just taking the same swing, regardless of how many runners are on base, how many outs there are, etc. And sometimes, it works. He makes contact, drives in some runs, and everything seems okay. But there are so many other times when he should just get the bat on the ball to move the runner along, and he fails to do it. His growing strikeout totals are becoming a big concern, I think.
Q: What makes Jim Leyland a good manager... or is he a good manager?
A: First and foremost, I think he's a good manager for this particular team because up until last year, most of the players had been coddled as they developed into major league ballplayers, and Leyland was the first guy who really held them accountable for their play on the field and contributions toward winning ballgames. Mistakes and excuses were no longer going to be tolerated, and the team really responded to that.
I'm sure Leyland's predecessor, Alan Trammell, tried to hold players accountable as well, but...
...he was here during the hand-holding stage when the younger players were still trying to figure it all out. Once the team brought in veterans like Pudge Rodriguez, Rondell White, and Magglio Ordonez, that approach was no longer necessary, and I think Trammell might have struggled with that change. It's kind of a like a co-worker who you're buddies suddenly becoming a supervisor or manager. There's that awkward change in which you can't pal around anymore because he has to boss you around. I'm not saying Trammell became too friendly with the players. That's not it at all. But he couldn't bring down the hammer with any credibility because he hadn't done that before. Leyland came in fresh, with no preconceptions to change.
There's been some disagreement among Tigers fans as to whether or not Leyland is preaching accountability as much this season, with several players struggling to perform as they did last year. And I think there's definitely some truth to that. He's given those who produced last season a wide benefit of the doubt. But I think Leyland is confident that the players will police themselves, while he and his staff try to focus on how to get some of his players to hit and pitch better.
Q: As another team that Gary Sheffield has played for, we've seen the nicer side of Gary. As a Tiger, has Sheffield been a distraction for the team or a leader on and off the field?
A: Sheffield definitely had the potential to be a distraction a few weeks ago with his comments about baseball teams preferring Latino players because they're "easier to control." But the veteran Latino players on the team, like Pudge Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen, supported Sheffield in the press, essentially defused the issue, and it was a dead topic a day or two later. I don't think that would've been the case if Sheffield hadn't become a leader on this team, someone who knows his role on this team and what he needs to contribute, along with offering what he's learned to players still trying to find their way.
The way Sheffield carried himself early in the season when he wasn't hitting set an example for a lineup that was collectively struggling. I think he was trying too hard at times, but Sheffield knew that he would eventually work through what was throwing him off. Once he figured it out, he began to hit the ball all over the field. Unfortunately, that example hasn't translated into positive results for Craig Monroe, one of the players Sheffield has mentored. At one point, Monroe even seemed to emulate Sheffield's bat waggle, which really didn't help him at all. But I think Sheffield has shown him that drastic changes aren't necessary to turn things around. Just do the thing you've always been successful with.
I also think part of the reason Sheffield has fit in so well is that Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski took care of every potential issue Sheffield might have had when they acquired him from the Yankees. His contract wasn't going to be a problem because he received a contract extension. He wasn't going to be sore about being a designated hitter because Leyland told him that was going to be his role. (Plus, when Sheffield hadn't yet become comfortable as a DH, Leyland put him out in the field for a few games to clear his head.) And he knew he didn't have to be "the man" in this lineup, because he would be surrounded by several good hitters.
Q: Is Ivan Rodriguez reverting back to his 2005 "I'm-not-gonna-take-a-walk" form?
A: It sure seems that way. I have the math skills of an English major, but I believe Pudge is currently on pace to draw approximately ten walks. And he drew 11 in 2005, so if that's his goal, he's keeping up with it well.
It's funny because Basil at Federal Baseball asked me a somewhat similar question last week, and I guess I hadn't realized just how few walks Rodriguez had drawn. But when I think about it, he always seems to be down 0-1 or 1-2, and seems to have no interest in working a pitcher. He's just up there swinging. What's interesting is that it runs contrary to the overall approach that the batting order has taken this season. Batters are more patient, trying to work the count, tire out the starting pitcher, and look for their pitch to hit. (It's yet another example of the positive effect Gary Sheffield has had on the team.) But maybe Pudge is the beneficiary of his teammates' patience. Opposing pitchers know they have to throw strikes to get Detroit's hitters out. So when they do, Pudge is swinging away.
Q: What has happened to your bullpen? Is that your team's biggest weakness?
A: In a word, injuries. But that's oversimplifying it, to an extent. The bullpen unquestionably misses Joel Zumaya. There have been so many games in which the opposing team is mounting a rally and the Tigers need someone to come in and just shut the thing down. And no one was better at that than Zumaya. With him out, there isn't another reliever who can come in and strike out the side. And that absence has forced pitchers like Jason Grilli, Jose Mesa (until he was released), and Wilfredo Ledezma (until he was traded to Atlanta) to throw in situations to which they're not ideally suited. Instead of pitching long relief, where they just need to eat up some innings while hopefully not causing too much damage, those guys have found themselves desperately trying to hang onto leads. And for the most part, they've failed miserably.
But injuries have certainly been a factor. Fernando Rodney keeps denying it, and he seems to be checking out with the Tigers doctors, but something isn't right with the guy and he was an extremely reliable set-up man last year. Maybe his mechanics are causing him problems, or maybe he's fighting some mental block, but he's also having problems with velocity and location that he wasn't having last season. And he's already dealt with a sore neck and gone on the disabled list for shoulder tendinitis. I don't know if those pains have completely gone away or if they forced him to throw in a different manner. Even he looks like he's not sure what's going to happen when he takes the mound right now.
So yes, the bullpen is the Tigers' biggest question mark right now, and might be the only area Dave Dombrowski really needs to address moving toward the trade deadline. Everyone following baseball, not just the Tigers, seems to expect them to make a move to improve their relief corps. First base was initially a concern, but I get the feeling the Tigers can live with what they're getting out of the Sean Casey/Marcus Thames sort-of platoon, now that Casey's hitting with some regularity.
Q: Why is your blog called "Bless You Boys?"
A: More than anything else, I think the name is a nod to the last great era of Detroit Tigers baseball before the unexpected success of last season. The slogan came from Al Ackerman, a sportscaster at Detroit's NBC affiliate, WDIV, which was the flagship station for the Tigers' telecasts. And it became a rallying cry during the 1984 season, in which the Tigers started with a 35-5 record on their way to a World Series championship. It's the last time baseball truly seemed to mean something to the fans in this city. Of course, that's changed over the past year, as the Tigers have overtaken Detroit's sports culture.