Series Preview: Cleveland Indians (47-47) vs. Detroit Tigers (53-38)

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The second half of the season kicks off Friday with a four game set in Detroit, and by all rights it’s a whole new season for the Cleveland Indians. At 44-44 going into the series they sit in third and still in striking distance of at least a playoff berth if all bounces right. They control their destiny, if they want to be there at the end it’s all on them. But standing in front to begin the long slog to October is those Detroit Tigers, leaders of the division and best hitting team in the American League. Though they’re only second in team OBP. Scrubs. We’re already well acquainted with this Tigers squad, this being the fourth time they’ve met. A sweep by each and a split of a two game set puts them at 4-4 on the season which is already an improvement on the havoc the Kitties wreaked last year against the Tribe. The Tigers pitching is probably worse than a year ago, but right now that offense of theirs is clicking right along. Some moves, addittion by subtraction and a return to form by a former Indian have helped, but amid all the familiar names it’s J.D. Martinez that’s been the biggest factor in their clout.

Jul 5, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) at bat against the Tampa Bay Rays at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Alright, maybe he hasn’t been the biggest factor. Miguel Cabrera is a thunder god at the plate and Victor Martinez found the power his knee injury tore away from him. But it’s JD who leads the team in average (.346), slugging (.654) and wRC+ (182). By a fair margin too. He wasn’t supposed to be much of anything, the backup when Andy Dirks went down. He was dropped by the Astros last year after putting together a .250/.272/.378 line in 86 games, the third year in a career of underwhelming production. But an article by Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan notes JD broke his swing down to nothing and rebuilt it. He’s always had the ability to hit, a .942 OPS in 343 minor league games attests to that, but he just wasn’t doing the finer things that separate a major leaguer from quad-A.

There’s markers speaking against his newfound greatness. His .397 BABIP is 75 points above his career average, his strikeout rate is pretty much in line with his career at 23.4% and he walks only 5.9% of the time. But if you’d looked at that link above, his swing is night and day from where it was. It’s the same reason I’m so excited for Lonnie Chisenhall – when you can do that most basic of baseball activities and do it very well, you have a great chance of sticking somewhere. Not everyone walks upwards of 10% of the time to find their success, sometimes they just hit it on the screws and it goes a long way. Players like that are more prone to hot and cold streaks based on where the ball falls, but if JD has figured out a way to hit the ball solidly and only swing at pitches he thinks he can do something with, over time that will play out in his favor. It’s sure worked so far this year, often to the Indians’ detriment. He’ll be an interesting player to watch as the season wears on.

About the only other player of any note on the Tigers I haven’t explored yet is utility outfielder Rajai Davis. Somehow, despite being a light-hitting, defense first left fielder, he’s burned the Indians time and again this season, or at least it feels like it. Along with Ian Kinsler, Davis has been central in the Tigers getting faster, more athletic and more dangerous. Dombrowski did a good job, 24 steals in 32 attempts, .339 wOBA and he’s not even hurting the defense as bad as he has in the past when he ended up in center. This will end up being the first year since 2009 he’ll be worth more than one win above replacement by fWAR, and trending to have his second best year by rWAR as well. That’s all about the defensive metrics used – Baseball Reference likes him a little more. Playing time might become a real question if JD keeps hitting, but with Torii Hunter not being what he was last year and needing time off, there’s plenty of space to let the talent play out. Davis is an exciting player to watch and gives them a lot of flexibility the Tigers didn’t have last year. It’s funny to think a role player, fourth outfielder type is the one to push them over the edge but Davis could be that if Brad Ausmus uses him judiciously.

Jul 8, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) pitches in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Besides Justin Verlander not being what he once was, one of the biggest let-downs for the Tigers has to be Nick Castellanos. This dude was supposed to be money, at least according to Tigers press and fans I read about. It’s not that he’s been horrible, he’s producing at just under an average rate with a 91 wRC+ and surely has room to get better seeing as he’s just 22 years old. But that bat was supposed to translate better after hitting .303/.345/.445 in the minors, and as a youngster at every level. Maybe striking out .100 times in 134 AAA games is a bad omen. But his defense -whoa. He’s logged a -1.7 defensive rWAR, -.5 UZR, he’s committed seven errors already. He’s been a bit of a mess. He deserves the benefit of the doubt being mostly a rookie and having been moved from left to third and back and forth a couple times to accommodate Cabrera, so I expect it to turn around as the year and his career wears on. He looks like a baseball player – very important for this kind of thing. Plus the pressure is off him, doesn’t have to be that bat that produces in the middle of the order. That’s for a few years from now. Potential is a scary thing, but he’s got it in spades.

It’s always nice to set a good tone when you get rolling again, but this is still going to be a tough series for the Indians. They avoid Verlander, but that’s actually not totally great anymore. Detroit might ease into the second half as they ease into a lot of things, but hopefully the Indians come out slugging. Fifth in runs scored, but the streakiness has been a bear for them. Let’s have a good one to get it cooking.

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Tags: Cleveland Indians Detroit Tigers J.D. Martinez