Motown Meltdown
Issue   |   Wed, 10/31/2012 - 14:00

With all their starpower, the Tigers sure put up a sad showing in a World Series in which they were — rightfully — the favorites.

The prospect of facing Justin Verlander in Game 1, let alone the potential to have to face him more than once, should have been daunting enough for the Giants. Then, there was the Tigers’ offensive combination of likely MVP Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, likely the most fearsome one-two punch in the game. The tandem had been terrorizing opposing pitchers for the entire season and had no reason to stop doing so now. Add to the mix Jim Leyland, a wily, veteran manager with World Series experience, and you’d be looking at at least a pretty competitive series, right? Wrong, apparently. The Giants weren’t remotely fazed by any of the factors that should have worked in the Tigers’ favor.

Actually, that’s a pretty big understatement. The Giants made the favored Tigers look like a J.V. team.

This postseason gave us a few pretty significant flukes. First off, the Braves, a championship contenders in their own right and known for their smart, fundamentally sound brand of baseball, played about as poor a game as I’ve ever seen in their first-round matchup with the Cardinals. After dominating the eventual champions in two NLDS road games, how could the stacked Reds go on to lose three straight — at home? Yankee fans, of course, were left trying to rationalize how their potent offense could suddenly become so flimsy, a surprising ransformation that almost cost the best team in the American League the Baltimore series and left them with little chance against Detroit. And, finally, the fearsome Tigers exhibited a lack of spark and execution, especially at the plate, when it counted the most.

What’s going on here? Why, of late, has baseball proven so difficult to figure out? The answer to the “what went wrong?” question usually starts with the fact that the ability to hit a baseball at the Major League level is a weird thing — sometimes it’s there, and sometimes it isn’t. In other words: even the best offenses can go through inexplicable slumps. But the vaunted Tigers offense would be probably as unlikely a candidate to go through that kind of funk as any lineup in recent memory. You can’t chalk it up to lack of postseason experience, either. Fielder had been there before with the Brewers and Cabrera, of course, was a former champion in 2003 with the Marlins. Same goes for catcher/DH Gerald Laird, who won it all in 2011 with the Cardinals. Starters Delmon Young and Jhonny had prior playoff experience, too: this was not exactly a lineup that should have been vulnerable to pressure, which is known to exacerbate offensive slumps.

Time itself is our next possible culprit: after sweeping the Yankees, the Tigers had a long layoff as they waited for the Cardinals-Giants series to go the full seven games. Proponents of this theory will be quick to point out that this is the same phenomenon that victimized the Tigers in 2006. That year, after quickly dispatching Oakland in the ALCS, Detroit looked rusty in the World Series and fell to the inferior Cardinals without much fight. As a Red Sox fan, I remember that roughly the same thing happened the following year: the Red Sox simply overwhelmed the Rockies, who had swept their NLCS opponent, after a hard-fought seven-game series with Cleveland. I spurn this argument, though, because the opposite viewpoint could just as easily have been argued. After going seven games, shouldn’t the Giants — especially their pitching staff, which looked Cy-Young-esque in the Fall Classic — have been at least a little worn out? And what about the idea that the Tigers’ rest should have helped them rather than hurt them, given how long the baseball season is and how few days off most players get?

So, if it wasn’t pressure, lack of experience, or rust that hurt the Tigers, the only explanation we have left is that they were doomed by the natural ebb and flow of the game of baseball. Naturally, that isn’t a very satisfying explanation.

Come to think of it, the phenomenon of really good teams failing to win World Series titles isn’t a new one. The Texas Rangers, to name a recent example, had baseball’s best offense in 2010 and 2011 but lost in the World Series each year. Far more striking is the case of the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s and 2000s. People remember that Bobby Cox led his team to a Division Title every full season between 1991 and 2005. Excluding the strike year, that’s 14 titles. More easily forgotten is the fact that, in all those years, Cox’s Braves won exactly ONE World Series. If you were to flip a coin without taking talent and experience into consideration, the odds of a playoff team’s winning the World Series in a given year would be one in eight under the format of the time (actually, they’d be slightly more favorable on average, since the Wild Card wasn’t introduced until 1995).

But the Braves, who were decidedly better than average (Maddux? Glavine? Smoltz? Anyone?), performed decidedly worse than average in the Fall Classic. Can we say that, come October in each one of those years, the Braves just simply “didn’t have it?” Hardly. If we’re going by the “natural ebb and flow” paradigm, but the Braves should have had some exceptionally good postseasons as well as exceptionally mediocre ones. But they didn’t. They were a very, very experienced team that simply didn’t win the World Series at the expected rate.

Which takes me back to the Tigers and my one biggest question regarding modern-day baseball: does being a “good team” in the traditional sense mean anything anymore?

It’s become clear in recent years that big payroll, great talent and even a veteran clubhouse doesn’t necessarily translate into championships. So what does? Is it some “intangible” that the likes of Tim McCarver and Joe Buck are always trying (rather poorly, I might add) to articulate? If so, there’s definitely no good predictor of what it might be.

So would we be more accurate to say that playoff results in general, but World Series Championships in particular, basically come down to luck? You can call it a mysterious “intangible” if you’d like, but isn’t it all the same?

Or did the 2012 Detroit Tigers just really blow it? Maybe that’s difficult for me to accept.