- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Detroit Tigers are the story of the season.

The question of the season: Are they for real?

The Tigers (62-30, .674) have the best record in baseball. They’re on a 109-win pace.

BaseballProspectus.com says there’s a 95-percent chance the Tigers will make the playoffs. Which means the surprise would be if the Tigers missed the postseason.

Yes, the Tigers are for real.

Next question: How are they doing it?

How are the Tigers, who in the last four seasons lost 91, 90, 119 and 106 games, respectively, and haven’t made the playoffs since Kirk Gibson, the best team in baseball?

The obvious answer is Jim Leyland is their manager, and that has a lot to do with it.

But more specifically, it’s pitching and defense.

The Tigers lead the American League in ERA at 3.54, a half-run better than the Los Angeles Angels.

Leyland made much of this happen in spring training, when he gave rookie Justin Verlander (11-4, 2.83 ERA) a spot in the rotation and rookie Joel Zumaya (4-1, 2.58) a spot in the bullpen.

If they can throw 100 mph in Lakeland, they might as well do it in Detroit, Leyland figured.

It seems like such an obvious decision now, because it worked, but that’s why he’s Jim Leyland. There probably aren’t five other active managers who would have given those roles to two kids with a combined 11.1 major league innings and made it work.

Nate Robertson (8-5, 3.36), Jeremy Bonderman (9-4, 3.59) and Kenny Rogers (11-3, 4.10) help give the Tigers the best starting rotation in the majors.

But the pitching staff is just sixth in the AL in strikeouts, which means something good must be happening behind the pitchers:

The Tigers are the best fielding team in baseball. They lead the majors in defensive efficiency, a measure of the percentage of batted balls that a team converts into outs.

Curtis Granderson, in his first full season, is the best defensive center fielder in the league.

Ivan Rodriguez is the best defensive catcher in the league.

Placido Polanco is above average at second. So is Brandon Inge at third.

One reason the Tigers fare so well in pitching and defensive stats is because they play in Comerica Park, which is suited to such a team.

Of course, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski deserves some credit for hiring Leyland.

Leyland interviewed with the Philadelphia Phillies after the 2004 season. They hired Charlie Manuel instead and are 12 games back in the NL East.


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