The last time Tigers fans have entered a season with such high expectations was spring 2008, and before that… maybe 1987? Maybe never. Clay Davenport’s most recent simulations give the Tigers a nearly 70% chance to make the playoffs – a number exceeded only by the Texas Rangers. Of course, our memories are long enough to remember the catastrophic failure of that high-budget 2008 team, right?
It’s worth looking back on what exactly caused that team – a heavy favorite to win the AL Central and a decent bet for a World Series crown – to slip beneath the waves. Remember that this is not a team that barely missed out in a long playoff chase (like last years Red Sox) or a team that made the playoffs only to make a quick and quiet exit (like last years Phillies) but a team that finished last in a relatively weak division.
We all know what caused the 2009 Tigers to miss the playoffs: Aubrey Huff, Jarrod Washburn and a pitch that hit Brandon Inge‘s pants. It’s easy to put your finger on something that turns a near-success to failure. The 2008 debacle went much deeper and therefore has more blame to go ’round. We all like to blame Edgar Renteria, the shortstop acquired in the offseason to fill the Tigers biggest positional need. He did – of course – underachieve, with an OBP of only .317 compared to the .349 that was projected for him (by ZiPS). That’s a contribution to failure – but probably not more than a single measly win. Jacque Jones was a flop and off the team quickly, but Marcus Thames and Matt Joyce hit well in the extra PAs they got as a result.
Brandon Inge and Gary Sheffield similarly underachieved, but both came within about 50 points of their OPS projection. The rest of the Tigers batters: Carlos Guillen, Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Placido Polanco and Curtis Granderson, all hit pretty well. We may, however, have expected a bit more than we should have from all of these guys. With 3 definite underachievers and only one definite overachiever (Granderson) the Tigers offense didn’t perform quite as well as should have been expected – but the Tigers were still 3rd in the AL in OPS and 4th in runs scored. The gap there would be due to poor clutch hitting, which seems to have cost the Tigers in the neighborhood of 3 wins in 2008. In short, the offense was quite good but not necessarily good enough for the team to simply bash its way to 90 wins. To the extent that many of us expected that it would, that was more a product of our wishful thinking than any realistic expectation for the season – and realistic expectations for the season were still very high.
Where the team really fell apart in 2008 was in pitching and defense. It’s difficult, statistically, to separate the two – of course – so we’ll have to lump them together. By UZR, the Tigers’ defense cost them 6 wins in 2008 – with, surprisingly, much of that coming from ‘statistically bad’ defense in center field from Curtis Granderson. Ordonez in right and Guillen at third did little to help matters. Another way to say this same thing was that Tigers pitchers allowed more hits and more runs than we would have expected based on their peripheral stats – and that, obviously, was also true. That’s not the whole of it, though, not by a long shot.
The Tigers bullpen was a shambles. At closer Todd Jones couldn’t strike out a cardboard cutout and Fernando Rodney couldn’t find the strike zone. Joel Zumaya hardly pitched and Bobby Seay – while his peripherals were good – didn’t convert that into outs and holds. Some of the rotating cast of bullpen filler pitched well (like Aquilino Lopez and Jason Grilli) but most did not and, as we all know, a bullpen can’t be good with a hot mess in the 9th. By WPA, the Tigers bullpen was in the neighborhood of 4 wins below average – third worst in the American League.
The rotation was as bad or worse. Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis were both expected to eat 200 innings with a 4.3 ERA. Bonderman matched that ERA almost exactly, but after 13 starts he was done. Willis tried in vain for 7 starts to find some piece of the strike zone and the rest is history. Galarraga had a tremendous year filling in for Willis and the collection of starters (Eddie Bonine, Freddy Garcia, Chris Lambert and Zach Miner) did as well or better than we should ever expect from organizational starters 7-10. Miner and Garcia were actually pretty decent. The three studs remaining from the opening day roster, on the other hand, did not do what we should have expected – though each of them made at least 28 starts. ZiPS projected a 3.76 ERA for Verlander – he ended 2008 with a 4.84. ZiPS projected a 4.11 ERA from Kenny Rogers, he ended 2008 with a 5.70 ERA. ZiPS projected a 4.45 ERA from NatE. Robertson – he ended up with a 6.07. Had Bonderman and Willis not gone down, perhaps either Rogers or Robertson would have been benched early – but as it was?
Overall, the Tigers wound up with the 3rd worst ERA in the AL, the 3rd fewest pitching WAR (in theory separate from the impact of defense) and the 3rd lowest pitching WPA. The team should have been expected to have – perhaps – the second best offense in the AL (as opposed to the fourth) and the gap between what should have been and what was came to perhaps 5 wins. The team should also have been expected to have a pitching staff slightly above average and the gap here between what should have been and what was came closer to 12 wins.
Teams everywhere with high expectations should be wary of bad clutch hitting, a collapse at the top of the bullpen and injuries and ineffectiveness in the rotation. These are, for all teams at all times, the things most likely to go wrong and they certainly crippled the 2008 Tigers.