Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Friday, April 09, 2004

Break Up the Tigers

This madness has got to stop. The Detroit Tigers are ruining baseball as we know it.

Alright, maybe I'm being a little premature, but it's hard to ignore the 4-0 Tigers right now. That's right, I said 4-0.

For those of you who haven't gotten your ESPN fix yet, the Detroit Tigers came from behind on Thursday to beat the Twins, 10-6. With that victory, Detroit improved to a Major League best 4-0 this year. In 2003, the Tigers went 0-9 to start the season and ended up with a 43-119 record. They hold the dubious record of most losses in a single season by an American League team, and they didn't win their fourth game of the 2003 season until May 4th. For those of us counting, that's almost four weeks away. The Tigers would have to lose everyday for the next month to match last year's level of futility. Clearly, this is an improved team.

Furthermore, the Tigers have not won four games in a row to start the season since 1985. I was two years old then. It was that long ago. This four-game winning streak then is new territory for an entire generation of Tigers fans. The season, just a few days after I turned two, the Tigers opened with six straight wins en route to an 84-77 finish. If the Tigers pull off that feat this season, they would improve by 41 games over 2003. (On a side note, they could end up winning the AL Central with 84 victories as well, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.)

In reality, it's still the first week of games in April. It's doubtful that the Tigers are going to lead the Majors in runs scored as they do right now, and it's fairly impossible to belief that the Tigers will only surrender runs at the pace of three per game as they have in their first four outings. But could we expect the Tigers to maybe reach that 84-win plateau (and the postseason)?

A few months ago, as part of my fascination with last season's inept Detroit Tigers, I took a look at all of the teams that lost more than 110 games in a single season. I charted how these teams improved in the seasons following their loss-filled campaigns. Let's take another look at the chart. This time I've added these teams' records after the first four games of the following seasons.

RecordNext SeasonGames ImprovedRecord After Four Games
1962 Mets40-12051-111+100-4
2003 Tigers43-119NANA4-0
1916 Athletics36-11755-98+201-3
1935 Braves38-11571-83+32.51-3
1904 Senators38-11364-87+261-3
1952 Pirates42-11250-104+81-3
1965 Mets50-11266-95+16.52-2
1932 Red Sox43-11163-86+22.51-3
1939 St. Louis Browns43-11167-87+242-2
1941 Phillies43-11142-109+0.50-4
1963 Mets51-11153-109+20-4

As I discussed in my last post on this topic, the average improvement among the teams with more than 110 losses was 16.5 games. As this new chart shows, even the teams that improved more than 20 games, a truly astounding feat from season to season, started out slowly. The 1935 Braves improved by 35.5 games, but they were only 1-3 after the first four games of the season. Only a few teams managed to play .500 ball to open the season, and only one team, the 1940 St. Louis Browns, won Opening Day after losing more than 110 games.

In my original post on the subject, I was skeptical that the Tigers would set any sort of record for improvement. I wrote:
Is it really realistic though to assume that the Tigers will improve only by those projected 16 games? No and yes. No, because the Tigers' offense is radically better for next season. Rondell White, Fernando Viña, Pudge, and Carlos Guillen are all significant upgrades over last year's no-name offense. While Pudge's 23 win shares were the most he's had in four years, it's safe to say that he'll be better than Brandon Inge was behind the plate in Comerica last year. I don't think Pudge will reach 23 again, but he'll make a difference, as will the rest of the Tigers' additions. But the pitching has not improved. Detroit's pitching staff was not fooling anyone last year, and they won't be fooling anyone this year even with the help of Ivan Rodriguez.

In the end, I predict 95 losses from the Tigers. This would represent an improvement of 24 games over 2003, which is no small feat. But it's not really the "completely different season" that Pudge predicted. It's still a season of disappointment for the players and the fans, and it's most definitely a season at the very bottom of the mediocre AL Central.
Now, I would like to revise my prediction. While I know that it's dangerous to make any assumptions based on the first four games (baseball is a marathon, not a sprint), the Tigers have already set a new record for teams that have lost more than 110 games.

So then, what can we expect from the Tigers? Right now, I would guess that the Tigers will have a decent season, by their standards. I would even say they'll approach .500. Will they match the 1985 Tigers 35-5 start? It's doubtful. I stand by my statement that the Tigers' pitching is not vastly improved. In 1985, the Tigers were coming off a World Series championship. They had Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Walt Terrell, and Frank Tanana in their starting rotation, and none of those pitchers sported an ERA over 3.85 that year. The year before, the highest ERA of that group belonged to Frank Tanana, and his ERA was only 4.15. In 2003, the Tigers' lowest ERA was 4.67.

While the 2004 Tigers are an improved offense team, and the 30 runs are a good indication of that, their pitching is not that much better than it was last year. The Tigers are still relying on the inexperienced arms of Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth, and Nate Cornejo. Without Dmitri Young in their lineup for the next six to eight weeks, the team is already weaker than they were four days ago. If Pudge were to go down, the Tigers would be in trouble. But as my girlfriend Sarah has said, "The Tigers are so cool." And this team certainly deserves some praise for their quick start. Whether these four games were a fluke exposing the lack of pitching from which the Blue Jays' bullpen suffers or a good indicationn of the Tigers' new look on the field, only time will tell.

On a related note, I would like to take a brief look at what accounts for the Tigers' seemingly fast recovery. Looking at the chart, an interesting economic trend emerges: except for the 2003 Tigers, none of the teams on that list lost their 110 games during the free agent era. For the most part, those teams lost their 110 (or more) games and then fielding the same rotation and same lineup the following Opening Day. This winter, though, the Tigers ownership realized they had to improve the team. If they did not show any commitment to winning, they would see attendance numbers dwindle down to nothing, and they would see revenue plummet. So in order to satisfy the demands of today's fans, they went out and spent a lot of money. They signed Ivan Rodriguez to an above-market value contract and picked up Rondell White, Fernando Viña, Carlos Guillen, Jason Johnson, and Ugueth Urbina. Considering how different the 2004 Tigers are from the 2003 team, it's not that surprising to see such a high level of improvement at the start of the season.

Match-Ups of the Weekend

Friday, April 9 at 7:35 p.m.: Philadelphia Phillies @ Florida Marlins
Carl Pavano and Eric Milton square off in the first of 19 games the two NL East competitors will play against each other. I expect these two teams to battle for the top spot in the East, and while the Phillies' offense (most notably, Thome and Abreu) is off to an early start, the Marlins pitching has been sharp so far.

Saturday, April 10 at 7:05 p.m.: Toronto Blues Jays @ Boston Red Sox
Two aces who didn't have their best stuff on Opening Day take the hill for these two AL East competitors. Halladay, who didn't win his first game until May 1 last year, will look to regain his form after losing to the Tigers, and Pedro will look to regain his velocity after topping out around 90-91 mph against the Orioles.

Sunday, April 11 at 1:05 p.m.: Chicago White Sox @ New York Yankees
Mike Mussina will face off against Mark Buerhle on Sunday at the House that Ruth Built. This start will be a real test for Mussina. So far, in two road starts against the Devil Rays, Mussina has seemed lost on the mound. He hasn't been hitting his spots, and he's been giving up a lot of runs. Mussina will face a tougher lineup in front of a home crowd Sunday, and if he doesn't rebound, the New York media may begin to seriously question Mussina.

Trivia Question of the Day

As I was researching the Detroit Tigers, I came across an interesting stat, courtesy of Baseball-Almanac.com. The Boston Red Sox have a lifetime record of 8165-7753, good for winning percentage of .513. While the Red Sox have a losing record against the National League in interleague play, they have winning records against all but two American League teams. Can you name those two teams (without cheating)? If you think you know the answer, leave me a comment. I'll reveal the answer on Tuesday in my next post.

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