Jim Leyland meets with reporters Sunday at Comerica Park as the Tigers prepared for Monday's game. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Jim Leyland’s baseball teams don’t carry players just so they’ll have a better seat at the ballpark. If you’re on his team, you’re going to play.
That’s what made it so curious when he couldn’t find more than a lone at-bat for Jhonny Peralta in the first two games of the ALDS against the Athletics.
For the first four months of the year, up until a 50-game suspension for his connection to the Biogenesis scandal, Jhonny Peralta was one of the best ballplayers on the club. His .303 batting average was one of the highest on the team, his on-base percentage of .358 trailed only Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. His .457 slugging average was .457, good for a third-place tie behind Cabrera and Torii Hunter.
So why was it that with a struggling offense, Peralta could be found watching from the sidelines?
That changes Monday when the Tigers return to Comerica Park, where Peralta had a .940 OPS this year.
“There comes a point where you say, well, you might have to give up something to get something,” Leyland said Sunday. “So I’m just hoping that maybe he can knock in a couple of runs and we can get a lead and maybe get him out of there later in the game.”
Playing Peralta is the right move, although you have to worry whether his inexperience in the outfield will come back to haunt the Tigers.
Maybe it would have been better to to take the short-term view and give him the start in place of Jose Iglesias rather than Andy Dirks.
Not that left field has been a font of hitting success for Detroit in the past month, but Iglesias has struggled to provide anything at all at the plate. He finished the regular season 0-for-10 after returning from the hand injury he suffered when he was hit by a pitch on Sept. 19. He did have a hit on Saturday, making him 1-for-15 since the injury.
Sure, he brings a glove every game and might make a spectacular play. But unless he gets the bat going, the Tigers almost forfeit the lineup spot entirely.
Dirks hasn’t been so hot himself as the team’s left fielder. Since having his best month of the year in August, his September numbers dropped to a .261 average, .311 on-base percentage and .362 slugging. He was 0-for-3 in Game 1 Friday. Peralta, if he recaptures his first few months, would be a substantial upgrade.
If the rest of the Tigers’ bats hadn’t gone to sleep for much of the month of September, such a radical move may not have been necessary in the first place.
Saturday in Oakland, the top five in the order went 1-for-20 with seven strikeouts. But that wasn’t really that out of the norm.
In September, the top of the order flopped. Austin Jackson, the catalyst at the top of the order, got on base at just a .307 clip, 37 points worse than he’d been through the end of August.
Torii Hunter’s on-base percentage fell from .341 the first five months to .295 in September. His slugging dropped from .476 to .407.
Cabrera’s struggles since the injury have been well documented. He still found a way to get on base in September, but he lost 80 points off his batting average and .341 off his slugging average once suffering the key abdomen injury at the end of August.
Only Prince Fielder showed improvement in September, but this is the second postseason in as many years that Fielder has disappeared.
If the top of the order doesn’t pull out of that tailspin, the Tigers may not have enough pop in the rest of the lineup to survive in the postseason, even with great pitching.
The team has the horses to pull out of the slump and score some runs.
Leyland couldn’t afford to wait. Needing a solution right away, Peralta was the best hope.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.