Why do the Tigers wish that I pluck out mine eyes?

Personal goings on have kept me from seeing most of the last two Tiger games, which is why I have yet to post as a fill in for Samara. However, with this being my first shot at commenting on the Tigers outside of somebody else’s comment section (Plug alert: I’m usually laboring away here), I figured I would take the opportunity to give some thoughts on the Tigers v2008.

Regardless of what media you choose in following the Tigers, there is a lot of understandable frustration aimed at this team. Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen, Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander and the bullpen all take their shots from fans and those whose opinions are out there for all to see. Even that’s an abbreviated list that doesn’t include players we expected to be declining (Sheffield and Pudge), those who have been ushered out of town (Grilli and Jacque Jones) or coaches.

There have been calls to move some or all of the non-hustling, complacent veterans. There have been calls to remove the inept coaching staff. But the truth is the players the Tigers might be able to move aren’t the ones fans generally want gone. I took a look at salaries and the length of contracts for each of the Tigers, and there just aren’t a lot of players who are talented enough and represent enough of a bargain to command much in return.

Playing amateur GM, I singled out Nate Robertson, Bobby Seay, Clay Rapada, Placido Polanco, Ryan Raburn and Marcus Thames as the players whose performance and contract situations might bring back as much talent as the Tigers would be giving up. With the possible exception of Robertson, these are generally not the players fans are talking about when they call for the front office to get rid of these bums.

In other words, we’re probably looking at the team we’ll be watching for the next season or two for the most part. Having no real solutions on how to improve the product on the field, I decided to think about why this team forces Samara to concoct so many drawings that convey our collective sadness.

To me, the most obvious answer is the defense. In terms of defensive efficiency, they’re actually a little above middle of the pack but that doesn’t really tell the story. First of all, the overall defensive efficiency is being carried by the outfielders, who have been among the best in the American League in terms of turning fly balls into outs. The infield, as most would expect, is much closer to being among the worst in the league. That’s where the miscues are happening, and those are the plays that make us wish we wish we had been bombarded by gamma rays so we could go smash stuff in a spectacular fashion.

This weakness of the team is all the more glaring because it is the infield that houses so much of our new blood and our highly paid talent. Every ground ball that shoots to the left or right of Miguel Cabrera or Carlos Guillen would have been snagged by Brandon Inge. Or even Sean Casey. See how delusional we’re getting about these things? Not only that, but when a grounder squeaks between the left side of your infield and those two players are costing something in the neighborhood of $20M there seems to be a natural impulse to blame effort rather than talent. After all, the talent must be there if they’re making so much, right?

That gets to the heart of why the lineup has been so frustrating, too. These guys are highly paid because they have track records. Our expectations were high because everything suggested this would be a fantastic lineup. We’re not talking pie in the sky, rose-tinted glasses, out of touch with reality expectations either. Just about everybody from the grizzled veteran columnist to Baseball Prospectus looked at this lineup and saw it brutalizing its way to at least playoff contention.

While it’s produced among the most runs in the American League, it’s also produced nine shutouts and a lot of very long streaks of scoreless innings. What may be even more frustrating is there aren’t really any high level explanations being offered. Dombrowski and Leyland seem pretty much dumbfounded. We don’t really have the data to analyze hitters like we can pitchers.

In other words, we can look at Verlander and Bonderman and say the strikeouts are down because they’re velocity is down. I don’t know too many people who can look at Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Renteria and say what they’re doing differently this year from last (other than playing in the American League rather than the National). I suppose it’s possible to do similar analysis, but I haven’t seen it.

Regardless, as fans absent actual reasons and explanations for disappointing peformance, we’re usually not too shy of providing our own. What we seem to be turning to is lack of effort, or fire or will to win. You know, those things that are so plainly lacking when you’re really talented team is still losing.

To me, the symbol of the Tigers’ 2006 was Brandon Inge’s 13-pitch at bat that led to a comeback win against the A’s early in the season. It just seemed so scrappy, so iconic and it just so happened to coincide with a stretch that was a large part of the Tigers being able to make the playoffs despite their miserable finish to the season. This season, there have been a couple moments that, in the moment, seemed like they could be that icon of the season and a turnaround. They just always seem to be followed by a four game losing streak. And my God, it’s so frustrating it makes me want to take things and rent them asunder.

Given this opportunity to speak on the Tigers, however, I don’t want to seem like some down-trodden wiener who has given up on his beloved team. That is not the case at all. The reason I’m still tuning in and hoping, aside from a palpable and dangerous addiction to Detroit baseball, is absence of explanation cuts both ways. Nobody has offered an explanation I buy as to why the Tigers have dug this hole for themselves, and therefore nobody can really tell me why they couldn’t suddenly dig out of it.

If you don’t consider the postseason, you can’t possibly tell me you’d rather be a fan of the 2006 Tigers than a fan of the 2006 Twins. The Tigers have subjected us to collapses late in the season for two years in a row now. There is some part of me that can’t give up on the idea they’ve just jumbled their calendar somehow.

–GUEST BLOGGER, Matt

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