Listening to the radio yesterday, the following question was asked: "How much credit does Jim Leyland deserve for the Tigers currently being in first place?"
Since I refuse to call and talk to HUGE, the biggest moron in the world, I answered the question to myself, out loud, and became increasingly frustrated as I did so. The short answer is "None at all." The long answer is explained in the following paragraphs.
The Tigers are 1 game ahead of the Cleveland Indians right now, which means that we are leading the crappiest division in baseball by one measly game. If we were in the AL East, we'd be fourth. We have a losing record on the road. We're only 7 games above .500, having played almost 80 games thus far. So yes, we're in first place, but my argument is that we should be 10 games, not 1 game, ahead of the Indians.
Why? Well, for starters we have the two best overall players in the AL Central and that can't be debated. Justin Verlander is the best pitcher, and arguably best player, in all of major league baseball for 2011. He's flawless; the Cy Young is his to lose, and right now he's your AL MVP. Then there's Miguel Cabrera, hitting .330, slugging .570, and tops in the division in every hitting category imaginable.
The funny thing is, Victor Martinez is probably the third best player in the AL Central, and with the way Peralta and Avila are hitting this season, we might have five of the ten best players in the AL Central.
And yet, we're 1 game ahead of crappy Cleveland, who doesn't have a batter hitting above .300. Detroit has FIVE. Cleveland's best pitcher, Justin Masterson, has a LOSING record of 5-6. Verlander has pitched 20 innings more than him, and given up FEWER runs. Our starting rotation is miles better than the Indians', and our offense is hitting .268 (3rd in MLB) while Cleveland's hits .247 (19th).
And yet, we're only ONE LOUSY GAME ahead.
It's not an issue of celebrating our lead. It's an issue of lamenting the 10 or 15 games we lost this year that we should have, could have, and would have won if not for the incompetency, stubbornness, and possible mental instability of our skipper, Mr. Marlboro himself, James Richard Leyland.
Jimbo is 66 but looks and acts like he's in his mid 90s. The game has passed him by, and now all he's left with are decades of bitter memories, and a burning desire to piss off the media (who he doesn't trust) and the fans (whom he doesn't like). If his desire to win baseball games is an 8 out of 10 (and it might be lower), his desire to belittle media members and infuriate fans is a 72. He's Rod Marinelli with lung cancer. His smug, demeaning, insolent demeanor says "I know what the hell I'm doing, don't you dare question me!"
Here's the thing though ... Leyland doesn't know what the hell he is doing. If he did, Detroit would have the best record in baseball. Leyland routinely makes the same mistakes game after game, year after year. As a result, Detroit loses way too many baseball games, and ends up watching the playoffs from home.
Leyland keeps pitchers in too long, platoons the wrong guys, uses ineffective lineups, lacks creativity, and worst off all, bitterly refuses to learn from his mistakes. In the mind of Jim Leyland, there are no mistakes. As he likes to say "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."
Sometimes you win, other times you should have done more to try to win. You don't just accept losing. I know baseball teams can't go 162-0, but damn it, you should try. Don't throw a crappy pitcher out there and let them get rocked in the 6th inning. Use your damn bullpen. Don't let Brandon Inge bat with guys on and one out in a tied game in the 8th inning; use a damn pinch hitter. Heck, don't let Inge bat EVER, but that's a separate issue.
Leyland does less to intentionally win games than any coach or manager in any sport. He takes his cards and leaves the game to luck. "I'll bench Peralta today and see what happens." "I know Coke is pitching poorly today, but I wonder if he can finish the 7th. Let's see..."
It's not a slot machine. It's a dang baseball game. It's not an inevitable sequence of uncontrollable events; it's a living organism, and no person has more power to control it than the skipper. How many times has Leyland ordered a squeeze bunt this year? Maybe twice? How many well-timed pitching changes? Maybe five? Here's the most important question: how many times has Jim Leyland started the offensive lineup that gives us the best possible chance for winning? Answer: not nearly often enough.
The best lineup, without question, is some combination of:
Austin Jackson, CF
Alex Avila, C
Brendan Boesch, LF
Miguel Cabrera, 1B
Victor Martinez, DH
Jhonny Peralta, SS
Magglio Ordonez/Andy Dirks platoon, RF
Don Kelly, 3B
Ramon Santiago/Danny Worth platoon, 2B
On a daily basis, Leyland "rests" one of his six great hitters. 'Rest' is a nice way of saying "What the hell is Boesch doing on the bench??? He's only 24 years old! He doesn't need any damn rest!!"
However, the two worst batters in all of major league baseball, Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn, never get the benefit of such "rest." Leyland plays them, starts them, in fact, shoves them down the throats of Tigers' fans who in turn write hundreds and hundreds of angry comments on mlive.com/tigers. If you go to that site and click on any column, 99% of the comments are anti-Leyland or anti-Raburn or anti-Inge. Usually, it's some combination of the three.
We've got a MVP pitcher dominating the league and a superstar first baseman, and all the fans can think about is how much we hate Raburn's .239 on-base percentage and 76 strikeouts. Danny Worth is a much, much, much, much, much better player than Raburn, both in the batter's box and in the field. And yet he has half as many at-bats as Raburn's has strikeouts.
Despite having the MLB's worst on-base percentage among batters with 200 ABs, Raburn has the sixth most at-bats on the Tigers. More than All-Star Alex Avila, more than upcoming Andy Dirks, more than multi-purpose Don Kelly. As any Tigers fan will tell you, Raburn doesn't belong in the Majors. But as I'll tell you, he doesn't even belong in the Minors. He shouldn't even be allowed to watch baseball.
He doesn't have the bat speed to hit anything. 80 MPH fastballs blaze past him. Ordinary curveballs confound him. With his limited bat speed and lack of hitting instincts, the best way to describe him is that he makes every single pitcher look like Justin Verlander. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn't say that Brandon Inge does the exact same thing.
Of course, when Inge was batting a measly .208 it was greeted with rousing joy when he was sent to the 15-day disabled list with mono. Most fans speculated that he obtained mono from making out with Leyland; no other rationale could explain how he ever saw the field. Most of us were waiting to hear that Raburn also had the kissing disease.
In AAA, Inge hit less than .240. He proved that he can't even hit minor league pitchers. So of course, Leyland inserted him right back into the starting lineup at the first possible chance, and hasn't taken him out since. Never before has a player returned from injury to the dismay of so many fans. Since returning, Inge has 12 at-bats and 2 hits, a dazzling .166 average. He's also got 3 strikeouts. Frankly, both of those hits were small miracles, and he could easily be 0 for 12.
But here's the thing. I'm not mad at Raburn and Inge. I'm really truly not.
What are they supposed to do, bench themselves? Hold a press conference to say, "Sorry everyone, but we both suck so badly that we have decided to retire from baseball and in the process lose millions of dollars." I mean, it's not their fault they are sucky players. Well, it is ... but it's not their fault they are players. What they should be is watchers. Spectators. Unemployed spectators.
Send them both down to the minors to "work on their swings" if you want to be gracious. I know they are both owed some money, so that's probably the thing to do. Or maybe trade them for a 9th round pick and some chewing tobacco. Who cares. Just get them the heck off the field. That's Leyland's job. Put the best team on the field. It's an absurdly easy decision that he refuses to make.
There are only 3 possible reasons:
1) He hates the fans so much that he wants us to suffer;
2) He is so unbelievably stubborn and set in his ways that he won't admit he is wrong;
3) He has the early stages of dementia, and I'm not joking about that.
I believe it is a solid combination of all three, mixed with the effects of sucking down 40-50 cigarettes a day and possible some mental insanity. After all, the definition of "insane" is 'doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.'
If you had a center in the NBA who shoots 20% from the floor and gets 1 rebound a game, would you leave that guy in the starting lineup all season, even if 99.999% of the fans were begging you to get rid of him, even if he were costing you valuable wins?? Inge and Raburn are that guy. They are Darko, Harrington, Charlie Batch. They strike out with a guy on 3rd and no outs on a near DAILY basis. It's inexcusable. How hard is it to smack a sacrifice fly? Cabrera can do it 100 times out of 100. Inge can't do it once. He strikes out looking on a 60 MPH softball pitch. Raburn couldn't hit the ball off a tee. And these idiots are getting more playing time than Alex Avila, who is an unquestioned All Star hitting above .300. In a combined 393 at-bats, Inge and Raburn have 40 RBIs and 25 extra-base hits. In 214 ABs, Avila has 45 and 28, respectively. Inge and Raburn combine for 123 strikeouts, or 31% of their at-bats. The six best hitters on the team combine for 219 strikeouts on 1,379 ABs, or a 14% rate. It's just totally inexcusable, pathetic, and unexplainable. Not on the part of Inge and Raburn, but on James Richard Leyland.
I haven't even touched on Leyland's inability to manage pitchers, and his insistence of leaving Phil Coke in the starting rotation despite the 1-7 record. I also haven't touched on the fact that Raburn leads the team in errors and has the lowest fielding percentage, so forget about him being on the field for defensive purposes. As for Inge, he has a knack for making the easy plays look hard, and isn't a better defender than Don Kelly. In fact, Kelly's .964 fielding percentage is better than Inge's .960, and he has half as many errors in about the same number of chances.
The counter-argument to all I've said is easy: Who else could you play at 3rd and 2nd? Do the Tigers have a better option than these two scrubs? Well, it's a good point. Ramon Santiago is only hitting .209. But, he is a switch-hitter, he can draw walks, he can bunt, he doesn't strike out (20% rate), and he puts the ball in play with guys on base. That's all you need at the bottom of the order. He's not good, but he's an improvement. At 3rd, Kelly is way better than Inge, and just because he's not a star doesn't mean he should sit the bench so Leyland can be a loyalist. Put the best team on the field, and give your team the best chance to win. How freaking hard is that to figure out!?
Obviously, Detroit needs to work a trade before the deadline for an infielder. They might need to consider giving up some relievers or even a decent prospect like Dirks or Worth. People have discussed a trade involving Boesch and/or Jacob Turner (young pitcher who should be in the rotation next year). Most fans say no way. I actually don't mind it, as long as we get a 2B or 3B who can hit .280 or higher with some power. We've got a glut of outfielders, and as much as I love Boesch, the infield is absolutely brutal and we can't win a World Series with Inge and Raburn on the field. Of course, the only way Boesch is tradeable is if Magglio starts hitting, and that remains to be seen.
So in summary, my answer to the radio question is this: "Leyland deserves zero credit for the Tigers being in first place. Instead, he deserves 90% of the blame for Detroit not being 10 games ahead of Cleveland. We are in first place in spite of his terrible managing."
If Detroit misses the playoffs this year, Leyland is gone. That's a certainty. If we make the playoffs and get ousted in the first round, I still think he'll be gone. This team is too good not to make a playoff run. We've got the best dang pitcher in baseball and arguably the best hitter. Stop screwing around Leyland. Why don't you go die of lung cancer?
In non-baseball news, it looks like the NFL might actually happen. I'm 90% optimistic, which is higher than I've been in a long time. In fact, I might starting working on some Power Rankings/ NFL Preview stuff. If there was some free agency, that would help. The Lions could be anywhere from 5-11 to 11-5, depending on free agency (and by 'free agency,' I mean Nnamdi Asomugha.)