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.