Few would call a team that won its division, 93 games, and fell just two games short of winning a pennant unlucky. But in many ways the Tigers were just that. Depending on what statistic you want to use the Tigers ranged from really unlucky to “you’ve got to be kidding me” unlucky.
What if Secretriat had had to run every leg of the Triple Crown in a downpour? He would have likely still won all three races, but some mudder would have probably made a race or two much closer than it should have been. The Tigers played the entire 2013 season as if they were dealing with a muddy track.
Yes, they still won the division, but by only one game. Yes, they won 93 games, but they should have won 99 games, based on their run differential (using the now commonplace Pythagorean formula). Plumbing further, the Tigers, by some additional statistical estimates, should have won even more games. According to Baseball Prospectus’ third-order wins calculation (which is adjusted for competition and based on a team’s underlying statistics, such as men on base for and against, extra base power for and against, base stealing for and against, and so on) the 2013 Tigers should have won 104 games. Another way to illustrate this, using a statistic gaining more widespread acceptance, is to look at team OPS. The Tigers OPS differential, which is factored by subtracting the Tigers OPS on offense from the OPS their pitching staff allowed, was +99. No other big league club had a differential above +90. The Red Sox, who won 97 games, posted the next highest differential at +85. In third place were the Dodgers at +72. The Braves, Cardinals, and Pirates, all of whom won more games than the Tigers, were all below +60. The Indians, who finished only a game behind Detroit, were +35. The Tigers blew away the rest of major league baseball.
A few structural reasons partially explain why the Tigers so grossly underperformed their Pythagorean record. Failure to perform in high leverage situations is the hallmark of teams that fall short of their expected win totals. And inconsistent bullpens are usually the chief culprit. The Tigers unreliable bullpen certainly contributed to Detroit’s 20-26 record in one-run games and abysmal 6-13 record in extra inning games. So did the Tigers wretched base running. They tended to move station to station, rarely taking the extra base and stopping at third after a single to the outfield an exasperatingly high number of times, even with two outs. To paraphrase something Jonah Keri at grantland.com wrote during the playoffs about Miguel Cabrera’s base running ability, it seemed half of the Tigers lineup ran the bases as if they were carrying a piano and a Molina brother on their back.
There are other reasons as well for bloated Pythagorean imbalances, including defense and situational hitting. But luck is also a factor. That 6-13 record in extra innings is part structural and part good ole fashioned luck, or in the Tigers case bad luck. And luck, as every baseball fan has been told since the day he discovered the game, evens out; if not during the season, then during the next season. With few exceptions the historical record supports this. At some point overachievers will pay for their deal with the devil and underachievers will receive their just reward.
This talk of underachievement and luck begs the question: If the Tigers had returned everyone from the 2013 team in 2014 does that mean that the 2014 Tigers would win 104 games, as the most sophisticated analysis says they should have in 2013? At first blush, this idea seems crazy. For starters, there are those stubborn structural reasons that no doubt contributed to the Tigers underachievement. For argument’s sake, let’s say the bad bullpen and base running accounted for half of the Tigers Pythagorean shortfall and bad luck the other half. That means the Tigers, with better luck, should win anywhere from 96-101 games in 2014 with the same roster from the year before.
But every season has performance anomalies that probably will not repeat themselves the next season. Did the Tigers enjoy more positive or negative anomalous performances in 2013?
Johnny Peralta and Omar Infante (who had his best year ever) both enjoyed atypically great seasons. They were two of the Tigers best hitters in 2013. But they are both on the wrong side of 30 and have histories of up and down yearly swings. Miguel Cabrera also enjoyed an historic season but only for the first 4.5 months. Moving along, the starters were mostly lights out. Could the Tigers really expect that same kind of dominance in 2014?
As for anomalies on the negative side in 2013? Fielder had his worst year since his rookie season. Cabrera played with a mountain of injuries over the last six weeks. Andy Dirks also played with a bum leg for most of the season. Alex Avila underperformed in the first half and Austin Jackson missed a few weeks due to injury. Both turn the magical 27 in 2014. And finally, Verlander wasn’t really Verlander until the end of the year.
Shake it all up, add some better karma, say in extra innings, and the Tigers very well could have won 100 or more games in 2014.
Now, say you’re Dave Dombrowski and you understand all of this. You also understand that your payroll has limits, that many of your stars will be due massive raises soon, and that your division is, well, pretty mediocre. The 2013 offseason may be the perfect time to retrench financially while not materially threatening your vice grip on the division. On paper you may be 5 wins worse (although that is debatable; by some projection systems the Tigers are only 2-3 games worse), but that is 5 wins off of the 96-104 games you should have won in 2013. That makes you a 90+ win team in 2014, which should still be enough to win easily a division in which the second place team (Cleveland) had a third-order wins total of 86 and the third place finisher (KC) had 79 third-order wins.
You can argue that Dombrowski’s moves this offseason, although improving the long-term financial health of the franchise, were the wrong moves. The Fister trade remains a head scratcher, not so much for the trade itself but for the return. The bullpen moves to date further reinforce the notion that this is Dombrowski’s most glaring weakness. Losing two of the Tigers top three power sources also unsettles. But Dombrowski is on solid footing in terms of the timing. He was working with a karmic cushion, one that allowed him to do some trimming that better positions the franchise for the future and at the same time changes the mix of a ball club that needed more balance. And this balance should shore up some of the structural issues that contributed to the Tigers underachievement in 2013.
On paper, the Tigers may not be as good in 2014 as they were on paper in 2013. But the results may be the same. I trust Dombrowski sensed this and moved aggressively to take advantage of it. Tiger fans of today and tomorrow will mostly likely thank him.