There are decidedly two camps of baseball fans. Those who believe that the actual stats and physical skills of players are all – or nearly all – that determine the level of winning. Then there are those who know that the intangibles – leadership, motivation, strategy, “gut”, policies, etc. – factor into the success just as much and maybe even more than the actual physical talents.
Want proof? If talent is the sole determiner, why doesn’t the team seen as the “one to beat” each year almost always fail in hoisting that huge trophy every October? Obviously, there’s much more involved. And that’s what makes baseball great. This is not a predictable sport nor is it stacked against the teams who don’t spend the most money on the most talent.
We could spend days compiling a list of the intangibles but today, let’s go with just one factor. All based upon what we’ve seen just within the past week regarding the Tigers. And Monday night’s first game against the Indians was the idea that inspired.
It was, simply, a terrific game. A game that made Tigers’ fans proud. Why? Because most of the team played up to or beyond their expectations. As Joe Maddon would say, (sic) “they reached beyond their comfort zone.” That practice, not just according to Maddon but to most executive coaches, is the key to winning consistently.
It was a day in which the newspapers earlier reminded all their readers that the Tigers had MLB’s worst pitching, especially the bullpen. Not even close. And then to read that the Indians has baseball’s second best pitching, with a 2.25 ERA and a full 4.0+ runs fewer given up than the Tigers. Well, it was something no fan wanted to hear. How many of us were anticipating watching this game with something closer to dread than desire?
But the Tigers really surprised us. An amazing catch by Iggy, some stellar plays in the outfield, a step-up performance by Daniel Norris and 2 scoreless innings of relief by Anibal Sanchez. Tyler Collins was really raking. And then, if that wasn’t enough, we will all remember where we were when baseball’s slowest runner, Victor Martinez, dropped a successful bunt down the third base line.
But contrast this with last week when pitchers got shelled, humongous leads were decimated, the established highly-paid roster wasn’t hitting a lick, outfielders collided on a regular basis and Nicholas Castellanos made 3 errors all in one game. The team was a walking disaster and went on a losing streak. But most alarming was their lack of focus. Most of them appeared to be somewhere else.
We saw 2 completely different teams over the past week. And that’s the problem.
Call it lack of consistency, passion or motivation. Whatever it is, it creates varying levels of performance. A team that really wants to win it for Mr. I doesn’t perform like a minor league team one week and then like the most exciting, talented team during the next week.
But somehow, Monday night’s game was the tipping point for the team. They collectively had one big Capuchin from Cleveland that they needed to get off their back. Obviously, they remembered the shellacking they took from the Indians in 2016. Add in starting pitcher, Trevor Bauer, who plunked 4 Tigers in their last 2 meetings, and the team became more inspired to win. And that meant pushing themselves more than usual.
But this is a group that has exhibited this hot and cold m.o. for a number of years. Yes, corporate culture is a significant factor and within this category one has to look at the managers. The Tigers have many from the owner to the GM to the field manager. And then there are coaches and players. Everyone has a role to play.
If you look up the definition of “manager”, it is a person who is “accountable to senior executives for performance and to front-line employees for guidance, motivation, and support.” And if you look up “coach”, it is someone who “encourages and trains someone to accomplish a goal or task.”
But obviously, this is a hit or miss policy. More likely, it is policy not considered to be part of a formula for winning given that it’s been ignored for decades.
And managers take their cues from the managers above them. And when this policy is not enforced on a regular basis, you get inconsistent performance – and results. Other than 2006, can we honestly say that the Tigers have outperformed expectations over the course of each year?
It is said that Joe Maddon changed the corporate culture of the Cubs. He made the players learn to hate the term “lovable losers” and his comments such as “Try not to suck” have become legendary. He also made everyone accountable for some portion of team performance and plans at least one motivational team event per week to keep the players focused and charged.
The Tigers have no one like this and it’s unlikely that the current corporate culture will suddenly realize what the team is missing. A change in thought, a change in policy, a change in strategy usually requires boldness and the introduction of new faces. Maybe it will be Chris Ilitch. Maybe a new owner.
In the meantime, we can only hope that some of the players, especially the older ones, see what may be waiting down the road. A core broken up come July. Great players who are much less likely to add a ring to their career. And maybe, just maybe, they will reach beyond their comfort zone and take charge. Regularly.