The 2003 Detroit Tigers are remembered as the worst Tigers team of all-time. However, the 1996 Tigers aren’t too far behind.
Most Detroit Tigers fans are aware of the futility that was the 2003 team. They lost a record 119 games, and are considered alongside the 1962 Mets as one of the worst teams in baseball history.
Among those years of futility was the 1996 Tigers, a team that deserves their own place in the hallowed halls of subpar baseball lore. The 1996 Tigers went 53-109, finishing last in the American League in nearly every hitting and pitching category imaginable. It was a remarkably bad season, and one that deserves further attention for those fans who love wallowing in Detroit’s self-pity.
The Tigers hit better than they pitched in 96, which says a lot more about their horrific pitching than it does their hitting. Lead by Bobby Higginson, the Detroit Tigers hit .256/.323/.420 with 204 home runs, 783 runs scored and 1,413 hits. They finished dead last in hits, batting average and on-base percentage while leading the AL in strikeouts. Their only redeeming quality was their power, as their 204 home runs ranked seventh in the AL.
Slugging first baseman Tony Clark paced the team with 27 round-trippers, with Higginson and Cecil Fielder chipping in 26 apiece. Melvin Nieves had 24, and Travis Fryman hit 22 – giving them five hitters with 20+ home runs.
Their infield in particular was a complete disaster. Lou Whitaker retired the year previously, and Alan Trammell probably should have. Trammell only played in 66 games, hitting .233/.267/.259 with a horrendous 34 OPS+. His replacements didn’t fare much better, with Andujar Cedeno (.196 in 52 games) and Chris Gomez (66 OPS+ in 48 games) taking the majority of reps.
Whitaker was replaced by Mark Lewis, who hit .270/.326/.396 with 11 home runs and an 82 OPS+. While he was serviceable, he was no Whitaker at the keystone.
While the Tigers were one of the worst rated offenses in the entire American League, it was their pitching that really held them down.
Whoo boy. Detroit’s ERA on the season was a staggering 6.38. Six point three eight. Wow. Sure it was in the heart of the steroid era and in the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium, but those excuses don’t quite make up for that disparity.
The Tigers had 14 pitchers make two or more starts. Only three of them had an ERA under 5.00. One of those was Brian Moehler, who only started two games. The other two were Justin Thompson (4.58 in 11 starts) and Omar Olivares, the team’s ace with a 4.89 ERA in 25 starts.
Meanwhile, ten(!) of them had an ERA at or above 6.77. That included some real gems, like Todd Van Poppel (11.39 ERA in nine starts) Clint Sodowsky (11.84 in seven starts) and Greg Gohr, who had a 7.17 ERA in 16 starts.
The bullpen was not better. 27 different pitchers took the hill for the Tigers in 1996. Only one of them, Joey Eischen, had an ERA below 4.18. He threw 25 innings. Gregg Olson lead the team with eight saves, posting a 5.02 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 28 walks. Greg Keagle was counted on for 87.2 innings, posting a 7.39 ERA and nearly as many walks (68) as strikeouts (70).
I could go on, but it’s pretty clear this was one of the worst teams of all-time. The Tigers had a chance to build their farm system in the following draft, but used the first overall pick on reliever Matt Anderson. Yikes.