Sunday, March 31, 2013

2013 Detroit Tigers. Perception, expectations, and reality

The Detroit Tigers once again present us with a sports paradox that has long been there, but few take heed of. Specifically the differences between expectations, perceptions, and reality.

This year the perception of the fans is the Tigers are amongst the best, if not the best team in the American League. They are expected to do very well. After all, they made it to the World Series last year and, having supposedly upgraded their roster in the off-season, visions of their first world championship since 1984 no doubt dance in the heads of the Tiger faithful. But the reality is baseball can be a very fickle game.

Look at last year. With only about a month to go in the season, the Tigers' playoff chances were slim at best. Yet somehow they got hot, the White Sox took a nose dive, and the next thing you know -- presto -- the Tigers were in the World Series. Sure, they got broomed by San Fran in the Big Dance, but as late as Labor Day they were thought to be all but out of contention. Funny things can happen. For all the excitement in Detroit, there was likely an equal amount of frustration on the south side of Chicago as it unfolded.

But whether it's the 2013 Tigers or most any other team in pro sports over the years, there's a trap their fans, usually egged on by their local media, never cease to walk into. Sometimes they'll emerge unscathed, never knowing the trap was there -- and other times the trap will indeed snap shut with a painful reality. Such folks will look at the best player performances from the previous year and take for granted they will repeat themselves. At the same time, they'll look at the sub-par performances and further assume those players must have had an off-year and will be better in the next campaign. Those sort of win-win expectations sound great in theory, but reality doesn't always work out that way. It's just as likely quite the opposite will happen. One need only remember the expectations of Detroit fans and scribes after the Lions went 10-6 in 2011. Talk of the Super Bowl being within their reach the following year was in the air. How did that work out?

This year the Tigers' starting pitching staff is generally credited as being amongst the best in baseball. Yet a hard look might suggest otherwise. Yes, Justin Verlander is one of the top pitchers in the game, but it's not an automatic win just because he takes the mound. The guys he'll pitch to are major league hitters for a reason. There will be times JV will get lit up. Last year, Max Scherzer became almost a co-ace. Is it reasonable to expect the same of MS in 2013? Anabal Sanchez seemed to pitch well towards the end of 2012 and is locked into a spot in the rotation. His career record is 48-51, including 4-6 last year. Doug Fister was 10-10 in 2012 and is 30-41 lifetime. Rick Porcello was 10-12 and is 48-42 over his career. Even if Verlander and Scherzer perform at their best, the other three projected starters offer a career record of 126-134. They could get collectively better, collectively worse, or stay collectively mediocre. Who knows?

Besides perennial sluggers Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers got Victor Martinez back, but will he return to his old .300 productive form after missing a year? Maybe. Maybe not. For that matter, expecting Cabrera to turn in another Triple Crown worthy season is far from a given. He could slide. They also added aging Torii Hunter for a little pizzazz and leadership. Has he still got it or is he on his last legs? We'll see.

About to break spring training, the Tigers, with the media fanning the flames, would have us believe their only possible weaknesses are a back-up left fielder and who will be the designated "closer", though their collective bull-pen is highly touted as well, as is manager Jim Leyland for supposedly knowing how to get the most out of his relief pitchers.

And of course, none of the above takes any sort of injury factors into consideration -- always a possibility.

Yet in the end, the perception is the Tigers are an elite club. The expectation is they will go far. With the American League Central Division again being projected as the weakest in all of baseball, the Tigers should easily win it.

They'd better at least do that, or the reality is they'll join their football brethren that play their home games across the street from them as one of the biggest flops since the Edsel. Come think of it, wasn't that a Detroit product too?

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