12/26/11 10:58 AM EST
Tigers' league leaders engineer a magical 2011
Verlander, Cabrera, Valverde have dominant campaigns
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
When manager Jim Leyland used to talk about the Twins and how they ruled the American League Central year after year, he pointed out that at one time, they had the reigning batting champ, the AL's Cy Young Award winner and the league Most Valuable Player.
"That's pretty good," he would say.
This year, it was the Tigers' turn to boast that. The Cy Young winner and MVP just happened to be the same person. To top that, they added a closer who didn't blow a save all season and was named Delivery Man of the Year.
Any of those honors by themselves would've been a major feat for the Tigers, who hadn't had a Cy Young winner, MVP or top relief man since 1984. When Magglio Ordonez won the AL batting crown in 2007, it was a major feat for Detroit -- which hadn't had a batting champ since Norm Cash in 1961.
Everything came together in 2011. It didn't last long enough to put the Tigers into the World Series, but it was enough for a seven-month drama full of twists of turns, and with no shortage of star power.
Justin Verlander became baseball's headliner every five games for most of the summer -- seemingly another no-hitter waiting to happen, after he blanked the Blue Jays on May 7 at Toronto. Jose Valverde was an automatic win who became a high-wire act every now and then, more frequently by season's end, as Tigers fans waited to see how long he could stay perfect in converting save chances.
Miguel Cabrera has been one of baseball's most dangerous hitters for a while. But his ability to go about his business without the same power numbers was a different attack. Jhonny Peralta became an All-Star shortstop in his second chance at the position. Even utilityman Don Kelly had his share of feats, becoming the first Tigers position player to pitch in 10 years, and adding emergency catcher duties to boot.
The storylines were so numerous that Victor Martinez can easily get overlooked. He didn't win any honors. But those who did, say his presence in his first season in Detroit was as priceless as his timely hits batting behind Cabrera in the lineup and his ability to make opponents pay for walking Cabrera.
5. Alex Avila grows into All-Star catcher
To say Avila arrived as a Major League player, even though he has been a big leaguer since 2009, would be an understatement. He basically crashed the party among the game's elite players and put down roots there -- offensively and defensively -- in a year everyone expected him to look over his shoulder at new arrival Victor Martinez as designated hitter and catcher-in-waiting. Not only did Avila never relinquish the starting job, he was the lone healthy catcher the Tigers had for a good stretch of August. The everyday duty wore him down, but it didn't show in his statistics.
4. Cabrera wins first AL batting title
After going 45 years without a batting champion, the Tigers now have two in their last five seasons. The way Cabrera accomplished his, though, was special, coming seemingly out of nowhere over the season's final weeks to surge past Michael Young and Adrian Gonzalez. Cabrera batted 18-for-32 (.563) over his final nine games -- with four doubles, four homers and eight RBIs -- raising his average from .331 on Sept. 20, to .344 by season's end. It completed a year that saw Cabrera perform a personal turnaround from a Spring Training he'd probably like to forget, to a finish that further entrenched him as one of the game's best all-around hitters.
3. Tigers win division for first time since 1987
The last time the Tigers won a division, it was the American League East, because there was no Central division at the time. And it came with big help from a Trade Deadline acquisition named Doyle Alexander, whom they acquired for a talented prospect named John Smoltz. For all the success the Tigers have enjoyed since then, that drought weighed on the club, including a Wild Card letdown in 2006 and a division-tiebreaker loss in '09. This year's race was close, too, until the Tigers built some distance in late August and then pulled away with a 12-game winning streak in September. In the end, Detroit's 15-game margin was the largest of MLB's six division winners.
2. Tigers upset Yankees in AL Division Series
Upset? The way the Tigers rolled through their September schedule, they believed they could compete with anybody. But even in the midst of that stretch, someone asked Leyland whether a down year for the AL Central tempered the results. Detroit's performance against the Bronx Bombers was the team's answer. With a combination of timely hitting and some strong pitching performances from Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers outlasted the Yankees in five games for their second Division Series win over New York in six seasons.
1. Justin Verlander wins pitching triple crown, Cy Young, MVP
The Tigers' season was their most accomplished in quite a while. Verlander's season, however, was historic. Not since 1984 had a Tiger won the AL Cy Young or MVP Awards, and Willie Hernandez won them both. Not since Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser in 1945 had a Tiger captured a pitching Triple Crown. But the true impact was the feeling in a ballpark when Verlander took the mound for the first inning, a feeling that he could throw a no-hitter on any given night if he had his stuff right. He came close so often from May through July, it almost became an expectation. But it never went without appreciation -- especially in Detroit, where Verlander's starts took on a rock concert-like feeling.