Baseball lost one of its elder statesmen, Friday, with the passing of beloved, Detroit-businessman and Tigers owner, Mike Ilitch. He was 87.
Ilitch, who also owned the Detroit Red Wings, had a reputation for benevolence in Motown; his love of sports was matched only by his love of the city. He would consistently pump money back into the system, in the form of team payrolls and local sponsorship – even when he stood little to gain, financially.
This brand of philanthropic ownership is rare breed, these days. It’s been replaced by faceless, corporate entities, ownership groups who would use teams as their own, private, wine club; a bauble to entertain and schmooze.
Ilitch, who made his money with his Little Caesar’s, purchased the club in 1992. Times were grim, initially. But, after enduring an eleven-year-stretch without a winning season (‘94-‘05), the Tigers would rebound in 2006, advancing all the way to the Fall Classic. There, they were dispatched by the St. Louis Cardinals, four games to one.
The successful season would prove a harbinger of things to come. Over the next half-decade, the Tigers won two division titles and made it back to the Series in 2012. Unfortunately for Ilitch and company, the return trip even more abrupt than the last, as Detroit was swept by San Francisco.
So, that makes for two World Series appearances, bridged by a six-year gap; which one was the better team?
Here’s how both teams ranked in some basic, statistical categories. Ranking includes American League teams only.
2006, 95-67 record
Runs Scored: 822, 5th
Home Runs: 203, 3rd
OBP: .329, 12th
ERA: 3.84, 1st
WHIP: 1.318, 3rd
Strikeouts: 1003, 9th
2012, 88-74 record
Runs Scored: 726, 6th
Home Runs: 163, 10th
OBP: .335, 2nd
ERA: 3.75, 3rd
WHIP: 1.291, 8th
Strikeouts: 1318, 2nd
Here are the lineups for the respective clubs:
The 2006 club could hurt you up and down the line-up. Every one, with the exception of the noodle-swinging Placido Polanco, was a threat to go yard. The danger extended to the bench, with former all-stars Sean Casey and Dmitri Young waiting in the wings.
The 2012 version was more top-heavy, but featured two, fearsome-sluggers (Fielder and Cabrera) in the prime of their careers. The lefty-righty duo was the best, one-two punch the AL had seen since Manny/Papi. This club was slightly better at taking a walk, but scored 100 fewer runs than their 2006 counterparts.
That stat is slightly deceiving, however. The AL average for runs scored in 2006 was 804. Offense was down, in 2012, with the average number of team runs shrinking to 721.
Base-running was not a major weapon for either club. The Tigers ranked 12th and 14th in stolen bases in ’06 and ’12, respectively (favorite stat: the lumbering Fielder with his one steal, in 2012; the pitcher must have been asleep).
It’s close, but I have to deduct points to a club that shelled out 500+ at bats to Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago (collective .517 OPS). So, I’m giving the edge to the 2006 club.
What about pitching?
It’s hard to argue with the 2012 rotation, which featured three past and future Cy Young winners in Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello. The three fellows who split time in the last two rotation slots were no slouches either.
The 2006 version was less-dominant, but good in context. The Tigers actually led the junior circuit in ERA, that season, despite trotting out 41-year-old Kenny Rogers and Verlander (at the time a rookie and not yet JUSTIN VERLANDER).
Hard-throwing righty, Joel Zumaya, was that club’s secret sauce. With a fastball clocked as high as 104 mph, he simply overwhelmed hitters, and provided a middle-inning bridge to closer, Todd Jones.
Jones is the franchise’s all-time saves leader with 235. However, with a career 1.46 WHIP, he wasn’t exactly conjuring images of Mariano Rivera. That’s par for the course for Detroit fans; they’ve experienced many, late-inning heartbreaks, over the past decade.
In the 2006 Series, Zumaya himself would commit a critical, game 3 throwing error and contribute to a late-inning collapse in game 4 – which all but sealed the Tigers’ fate.
Here’s how their numbers of their top five relievers compared to the ones of the 2012 team.
3.28 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 3.08 BB/9, 6.8 K/9
3.53 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 3.16 BB/9, 9.18 K/9
Given the fact that the league’s, offensive numbers were down in 2012, compared to 2006, the discrepancies are larger than they appear. The edge has to go to the ’06 clubs.
So, while the rotation, and the offensive star-power of the 2012 team was superior, I’d take the balance and depth of the 2006 squad.
RIP Mr. Ilitch, while your Tigers never quite got over the hump, at least you got to drink from the Stanley Cup.