After the 2004 season, I had planned on doing some studies on Norm Cash’s 1961 season. Norm Cash hit a career high 41 homeruns in 1961, but that wasn’t the odd thing. He was the last Tiger to win the batting title with a .361 batting average. His next best career high was only .283 and his career batting average ended up being .271. With a good eye (1,043 career walks vs. 1,091 career strikeouts), Cash nearly matched his eventual career OBP of .374 that season.
I never got around to it. And while I had it on my list of things to do, it’s taken a back burner to some other things. Fortunately, I got bailed out as Steve Treder at the Hardball Times wrote a nice essay on Norm Cash’s 1961 season. Be sure to check it out.
Alright, hopefully everyone had a nice, safe holiday weekend because it’s back to business and I’m going to beat a dead horse. Unfortunately, it’s a dead horse that Tiger fans cling too, and that’s the record breaking 35-5 start that the 1984 Tigers a known for. I have yet to find a team that had a 35-5 stretch at any point in their season, so when the Tigers did it to open things up in 1984, it bordered on magical.
And when ESPN did their top 20 franchises a couple of years back (it was part of their 20th anniversary), only the 1986 Mets and the 1998 Yankees made the cut as far as baseball teams. I thought the 1984 Tigers were snubbed. They led the division wire to wire, they had a dominating playoff run and they won 104 games.
How impressive is 35-5? The Tigers were 30 games above .500 after only 40 games. I did a pretty unscientific search for teams that might have had as good of starts. I focused on some of the best teams of all time, and I’m also throwing in the great Tigers teams as another reference point. I’m also throwing in the 2005 White Sox because a lot of people felt they had a great start. I’m listing them in order of the least amount of games the team needed to hit 30 games over .500 and I’m also adding in the date and the final record of the team as a reference. If I’m missing someone, let me know. If I put them in bold, it’s because I thought it was particularly interesting (either a great team that got off to a mediocre start or just someone I wanted to highlight). Also, I apologize for the formatting. My lack of webskills are pretty apparant here.
1984 Tigers 35-5 5/24/84 104-58
1939 Yankees 40-10 6/17/39 106-45
1928 Yankees 40-10 6/12/28 101-53
1946 Red Sox 41-11 6/14/46 104-50
1912 Giants 41-11 6/21/12 103-48
2001 Mariners 42-12 6/2/2001 116-46
1955 Dodgers 42-12 6/11/55 98-55
1907 Cubs 42-12 6/21/07 107-45
1902 Pirates 42-12 7/1/02 103-36
1998 Yankees 43-13 6/6/98 114-48
1909 Pirates 44-14 6/29/09 110-42
1929 Athletics 45-15 6/25/29 104-46
1969 Orioles 47-17 6/19/69 109-53
1931 Athletics 49-19 7/1/31 107-45
1927 Yankees 50-20 7/1/27 110-44
1986 Mets 51-21 7/1/86 108-54
1970 Reds 51-21 6/27/70 102-60
1954 Indians 52-22 7/4/54 111-43
1906 Cubs 54-24 7/12/06 116-36
2005 White Sox 56-26 7/5/2005 99-63
1975 Reds 59-29 7/11/75 108-54
1961 Yankees 63-33 7/26/61 109-53
1934 Tigers 67-37 8/8/34 101-53
1935 Tigers 68-38 8/15/35 93-58
1961 Tigers 69-39 8/6/61 101-61
1915 Tigers 69-39 8/17/15 100-54
1968 Tigers 71-41 8/8/68 103-59
1909 Tigers 73-43 8/26/09 98-54
1907 Tigers 86-56 9/26/07 92-58
1945 Tigers (Never 30 Games Over .500, Finished 88-65)
1940 Tigers (Never 30 Games Over .500, Finished 90-64)
1908 Tigers (Never 30 Games Over .500, Finished 90-63)
A pretty impressive set of teams, and the Tigers sit well ahead of the bunch. The 1927 Yankees were further down the list then I would have expected. The 1955 Dodgers were highlighted because they were one of the few teams with such a nice start to not finish with 100 wins. The 1934 Tigers had the second best start that I could find (again, I didn’t look at every team for every year), and a few of the Tigers teams that won the pennant never even made it to 30 games above .500.
And if I missed a team, feel free to drop it in the comments or send it to me via email.
As the Tigers’ season appears headed for a major tailspin here in September, let’s start to put this in perspective. Just two short years ago, the Tigers won 5 of their last 6 games to avoid the ignominy of setting the record for losses in a single season in “the modern era”, by which we mean all teams since 1901. After all, those pesky 1899 Cleveland Spiders went 20-134, but they were owned by the same man who owned the St. Louis Perfectos of that year, who, by no small coincidence, finished 17 games over .500, but still only managed 5th place in the 12-team National League of that year.
I put together some research in the spring of 2004 to see how the Tigers were going to stack up as far as being the most-improved team of all time. I started with the teams that were just truly putrid, the teams that had nowhere to go but up in the following year. Then I set about the more difficult teams to find, the ones that were bad-to-mediocre and improved to quite good or fantastic the following year. The results weren’t that impressive. Despite an improvement of 29 wins over the previous year, it was good for only a 3-way tie for the 18th-biggest one-season improvement of all time, using winning percentage as the measuring stick to even out the changing number of games played in a season over the years, as well as strike seasons and the like. (The title goes to the 1902-03 New York Giants, by the way, who finished with a .353 winning percentage – equivalent to a 57-win season in a 162-game schedule – in 1902, finishing dead last, 53-1/2 games behind the first-place Pirates and even 7-1/2 games behind their nearest competitors, the Phillies. The following year, the Giants played to a .604 winning percentage – equivalent to a 98-win season in a 162-game schedule – finishing just 6-1/2 games behind the Pirates in 2nd place.)
So, now I’ve got this spreadsheet of greatly-improving teams, with a smattering of truly awful teams that just kept being truly awful in there, too (including the 2002-03 Tigers, the worst regression in history of any team that had lost 100 games in the first year). So in order to understand a little better how the Tigers are doing in “Y+2” after their nightmare year, let’s take a look at some other “nightmare years” in history. I’m going to use a winning percentage equivalent to a 110-loss season in a 162-game schedule (a .321 winning percentage) as my cut-off point. There are 38 such seasons out there, from the 1903 Cardinals to the 2004 Diamondbacks. I’m going to throw out one of them, that of the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League in 1915, because the league folded after the season, so they never had a chance to improve, because they ceased to exist. For the “Y+2” data, I’m also going to throw out the 2004 Diamondbacks, because their “Y+2” year is next year. I will use their current record for their 1-year difference, as they have just 21 games left to play.
OK, so among these teams… the putrid, the awful, the wretched refuse of baseball… The average record here is 45-109… Of 37 follow-up seasons, just 5 of the teams managed to actually perform worse in the following year, the Phillies turning the trick twice (’41-’42 and ’38-’39), the Red Sox of ’25-’26, the St. Louis Browns of 1910-11, and the Philadelphia Athletics of 1915-16, with the ’16 A’s being the worst team of the modern era with a lowly .235 winning percentage. But 32 of 37 improved. Even counting the 5 regressors, the average improvement was 92 points of winning percentage, or about 15 wins (and the actual average of wins & losses is 59-95), based on a 162-game schedule. Again, these are teams that largely had nowhere to go but up. Pretty much by definition, they had bottomed out.
Now, what about that “Y+2” year? The actual average of wins and losses improved to 60-93, with a winning percentage of .394, an improvement of 101 points of winning percentage over the “nightmare” year, but just 9 points of winning percentage improvement over the previous year, or about 1 more win in a 162-game schedule. Of the 36 seasons, 14 teams regressed compared to the year before, with the ’28-’30 Phillies leading the way of the yo-yo teams, putting up the following winning percentages: .283-.464-.338. Wins went from 43 to 71 and back to 52. It makes some sense that the top 2 teams when comparing the “Y+2” year to the year prior are 2 of the teams who were actually worse in “Y+1”, the ’41-’43 Phillies and the ’15-’17 Philadelphia A’s.
So, where do the Tigers stand? Of the 36 teams in this group, their current record (63-75, .457 as of this writing, which projects to a 74-88 full-season record) represents 12 extra points of winning percentage over last year’s 72-90 finish, good for 21st place among the 36 teams. Then I remembered that each win in a 162-game schedule contributes a touch over 6 points to a three-digit winning percentage. I went in and entered 75, 76 and 77-win seasons, and the Tigers could only improve 6 spots by the end of the exercise.
However, taking those same 36 teams and comparing the “Y+2” season back to the nightmare season, the 2003-05 Tigers come out much better, gaining 191 points of winning percentage, 5th-best among the group (behind the ’35-’37 Boston Braves, ’61-’63 Phillies, ’46-’48 Philadelphia A’s, and the ’32-’34 Red Sox). And, furthermore, we’re significantly behind the 4th-place Red Sox (it would take a 79-83 finish to pass them), and we’re significantly ahead of the 6th-place ’39-’41 St. Louis Browns (it would take a 71-91 finish to fall behind them).
Speaking of those Browns, of the group, they might well make the best comparison, posting a .279 winning percentage in their nightmare year (compared to the Tigers’ .265). First-year improvements were 179 points for the Tigers, 156 points for the Browns. Second-year improvement was 20 points for the Browns, and currently sits at 12 points for the Tigers. However, it’s going to be difficult to take the comparison much further, because for their third year post-nightmare, the Browns were playing in the war-time American League, finishing 82-69 and in 3rd place. Just 2 years later (that’s “Y+5”, in case you’ve lost track), with rosters still ravaged by war-time absences, the Browns won their only American League pennant. I doubt the Tigers will face the same fortunate circumstances the Browns found themselves in during those years. And speaking of circumstances, the current Tigers and Diamondbacks entries are the only teams in the group working in the free agency era. The 3rd-most recent teams in the group (tie) are the expansion brothers (1969) of the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres.
Well, there you have it. Take it for what you will. We’re not significantly improved over last year, true. However, among a group of 30-odd historical teams that have had nightmarish seasons, we’re actually doing quite good, but the frustrating part is that the vast majority of the improvement came in the first year, and the second year’s improvement looks stagnant by comparison. Let’s put it this way: Our 2nd-year improvement is just a hair behind that of the ’62-’64 Mets (in fact, you need to carry the winning percentages to an extra digit to separate them). But I think we’d rather be in the situation we are in now than those of the Mets teams, who went 40-120, 51-111, then 53-109.
OK, so it’s been in the Tiger news lately that the team, with its recent run of excellent pitching outings, has reduced its staff-wide ERA under 4.00. So, that got me to thinking… And to exploring the wonderfulness that is baseball-reference.com. When was the last time a Tiger team kept its staff-wide ERA under 4.00? Come on, now, no cheating… Just give it to me off the top of your head. The prize goes to the student who guessed (admit it, it was just a guess)… 1988. What with the awful teams (and pitching staffs) in “The Lost Years”, plus having to pitch 81 games a year in the bandbox called Tiger Stadium before “The Lost Years”, getting the staff ERA under 4.00 just hadn’t happened for a really long time.
On the other hand, let’s not forget that no team in the American League had a staff-wide ERA under 4.00 last year (and, when considering staff-wide ERA, it’s just not fair to compare to any team in the National League, where that automatic out comes up every 9th man). Not even the Johan Santana and Brad Radke Twins (with an excellent bullpen, too), who led the league at 4.03. There were only 2 teams under the 4.00 mark in 2003, the Hudson-Mulder-Zito A’s and the Mariners (extreme pitchers’ park). In 2002, four teams managed an ERA starting with a 3, the A’s (Hudson-Mulder-Zito), Angels (WS Champs), Red Sox (Pedro and staff) and Yankees (well, they’re the Yankees, no explanation necessary). Only two teams in 2001 (Mariners and A’s) turned the trick, and in 2000, nobody did it (the Red Sox led the way at 4.23). In 1999, only the Red Sox came in under 4, and even they required a more precise calculation, as their official 4.00 ERA is actually rounded up from 3.9986. The Yankees had the 114-win juggernaut season back in 1998, and they were the only team in the league under 4 that year. In 1997, the under-4’s were the Yanks, Orioles and Blue Jays. In 1996, the Indians led the league in ERA… at 4.35. In 1995, it was the juggernaut, 100-wins-in-a-144-game-schedule Indians leading the way again, this time at 3.81, but they were the only team under 4. In strike-shortened 1994, the White Sox were the lone team under 4. In 1993, both colors of Sox were under 4, but nobody else. Which leads me to 1992, when only 5 teams had staff-wide ERAs above 4. Those would be the Rangers (4.09), Indians (4.11), Yankees (4.21), Mariners (4.55), and the Tigers bringing up the rear (4.60).
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s been quite the offensive era, hasn’t it? A full 13 years since the majority of the AL had staff-wide ERAs under 4. As of this writing, the Tigers are among 5 teams with staff-wide ERAs under 4 (the White Sox leading at a ridiculous 3.14, the Twins at 3.49, and the Angels at 3.74 ahead of the Tigers’ 3.86 and the Orioles at 3.96).
I know what you’re thinking… So what’s the point of all this? Well, the experts’ take on the Tigers as they headed north from Spring Training was that the free agent signings of this past off-season were shaky (check), and that the real key to the success of the Tigers will be how the starting rotation fares (and I don’t think that even the most ardent Tiger fan would have disputed this). In other words – so far, so good. Despite the early struggles in the wins and losses columns, there are reasons to yet have hope for this year’s team. My, but that feels good to realize as late as mid-May… For a change. Don’t look now, but we’re only 4.5 games behind the wild card as of today.
I’d like to introduce Jeff into the small Tigerblog family of writers. In his first column, he takes a look at the Tigers legacy, or soon to be lack thereof. Nice work, Jeff.
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The current era of Tiger baseball began with a whimper in 1994. In that strike-shortened season, Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson were 37, Alan Trammell was 36, and Tony Phillips was 35. Save Trammell, though, they all had big years, as did relative young tykes Cecil Fielder, Mickey Tettleton, and even Junior Felix. The pitching, however, was atrocious, and Detroit fell short of .500 by nine games. (Can you name the only Tiger starter to lead the team in ERA twice since then? It’s Felipe Lira in 1995 and 1996. He was 15-27 over that stretch.)
We all know what happened after that. The hitters got older and promised reinforcements either never quite showed up (Milt Cuyler, Raul Casanova, Robert Fick), or were nothing but drops in the slop bucket (Tony Clark, Bobby Higginson). The pitching never improved, and even the occasional inspired personnel move – like the trades both for and of Mark Redman – weren’t enough to overcome so much negative inertia. That 1994 season kicked off a streak of eleven straight losing seasons, a streak the Tigers are still trying to bust.
Sitting here in 2005, it’s easy to forget how different the Tigers were in 1993. Pieces of the 1980s’ best team were still in place, supplemented by a recurring diet of bashing free-agent and trade acquisitions like Fielder, Tettleton, and Rob Deer. The Tigers weren’t necessarily poised for greatness, but they were coming off of 13 winning seasons in 16 years, they scored more runs than anyone else, and greatness hadn’t yet grown faint in the rear-view mirror.
It’s also easy to see what the years 1994-2004 – we’ll call them the Lost Years — have done to the Tigers’ legacy as a franchise, as the Lost-Years indignities stack up. Tiger Stadium sat empty while hope surrounding Comerica Park faded amidst stadium debt and general indifference. The Tigers slunk out of the AL East, away from traditional rivals they could no longer compete with. Free agents with other choices never hesitated to seize them.
At the end of the 2004 season, though, the Tigers had still won more games than they lost, 8150-7959. That’s good for a .506 winning percentage, eleventh-best in the majors and ahead of franchises like the Braves, A’s, and Mets. It’s also 191 games over .500, which seems like a reasonable figure. But it’s not, not for Detroit. In 1993, the Tigers were 518 games over break even, or two-and-a-half times better than they are now. When Trammell and Whitaker reached the majors for good at the end of 1977, the Tigers were 389 games ahead. After Al Kaline’s rookie year of 1953, Detroit had won 290 more than it had lost, good for an all-time winning percentage of .518.
The Tigers’ franchise winning percentage stayed at .518 until their last winning season in 1993. Since then, they’ve been 694-1021, good for a .405 mark, plunging the franchise record all the way to .506. Eleven years have been enough to wreck a long history of competitiveness. If the Tigers keep losing at this horrid pace, they’ll drop below .500 as a franchise early in the 2011 season, or if you’re an enternal pessimist, just about the time Jeremy Bonderman wins his second Cy Young Award as a member of the Diamondbacks. Perhaps the saddest thing about these Lost Years is that 2003’s historic 119 losses aren’t even that much of an outlier.
If the 2005 Tigers break .500, or make a run at second place in the watered-down AL Central, will that usher in a new era, one to which we can assign a less-depressing nickname? Clearly the answer is no – they need to sustain a decent (or even a good) run to change the way their fans and the competition perceive them. One 82-80 season won’t make a difference, just like 2000’s 79-83 season didn’t. But it sure was good to see the Tigers at the fringes of the wild-card race in July and August of 2000, to have something Tiger to discuss aside from new marks for futility. That’s what’s at stake this summer – the opportunity to be a Tiger fan, not a Tiger apologist, the opportunity to build a bandwagon, even a short-lived one, for people to jump on. Every sustained run starts somewhere.