Detroit Tigers: The 2021 season was good, not great

Austin Vicars
Sep 28, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Detroit Tigers outfielder Eric Haase (13) celebrates his run with first baseman Jonathan Schoop (7) against the Minnesota Twins in the ninth inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 28, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Detroit Tigers outfielder Eric Haase (13) celebrates his run with first baseman Jonathan Schoop (7) against the Minnesota Twins in the ninth inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports /
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In the future, 2021 may seem like a mediocre season of baseball in Detroit. With 4 games to go, the Detroit Tigers are 75 – 83 and in third place in the American League’s weakest division.

It’s hard to imagine someone being awestruck looking at this team’s baseball reference in 2040.
And yet somehow this  Detroit Tigers team feels different. While cliché, it does seem like a real culture change has happened in Detroit. You can feel it around town. People are excited about baseball again.

You know the current state of Detroit sports is rough when the Lions are this town’s last winning team – all the way back in 2017. Every single Detroit sports team is in a rebuild. But out of the dumpster fire emerges a small Tiger’s head, with AJ Hinch riding on its back. No, this team is not surpassing the elusive .500 mark, but this Tigers team has given people a reason to believe.

Okay, I promise I’m done with sports clichés but come on! This year’s team has outperformed all expectations and is a realistic, “best-case scenario.” According to vegasinsider.com, the Tigers had a projected win total of 68.5. After an 8-19 start in April, the Tigers weren’t even on pace to match that. But since then, the team has won at a .515 clip and only played one sub .500 month of baseball.

Like Rogelio said in his article, it has been a pleasant surprise to see Detroit floating around .500 all season.

The numbers inside the Detroit Tigers 2021 season.

The best part for Tigers fans is that this team plays their best baseball at Comerica Park, where they’re 42-39. It’s not only about the fact that they’ve been winning, but also how they’ve been winning. Against teams with winning records the Tigers are 38-34 and in close games (one run or extra innings) they’re 35-29. Despite injuries and a lack of depth, the Tigers have been able to stay competitive all year.

This year’s Tigers team should be celebrated for what it is. A nice surprise and a team that was able to win despite its shortcomings. It was certainly a fun season at the bare minimum. But what does the future hold?

Often “best-case scenarios” can breed unrealistic expectations or false hope. This isn’t to say fans shouldn’t be hopeful, they should. This is the best team this town has had in a while and has a lot of young talent going forward. But if the Tigers want to be real contenders, this roster has some major holes to fill.

Realistically there will be some regression next year, and the Tigers will not have as many “best-case scenarios.” The team still desperately needs pitching, and the hitting isn’t where it needs to be either. Some underlying numbers may be cause for concern.

The Detroit Tigers Pythagorean W-L is 73-85, suggesting some luck falling their way. Pythagorean W-L takes the team’s number of runs scored compared to runs allowed.  Bill James created this stat, and it has since been slightly modified for accuracy. You can see the formula for calculating Pythagorean W-L on MLB.com.

While the Tigers’ luck isn’t too drastic on the Pythagorean scale, other models have shown the Tigers to be one of the luckiest teams in baseball this year. Check out this week’s episode of the pod for a deep dive on that.

But it doesn’t take a particularly deep dive into the numbers to suggest some luck. The Tigers have a similar team OPS to the Royals, Indians, and Orioles. From the pitching side they’re in the bottom 7% of the league, allowing an average exit velocity of 89.6 mph, and hard-hit percentage of 40.7%. Which compares to the pitching of the Orioles and Twins. Ouch, man.

Another interesting stat is the Tigers’ 23rd ranked -9 wins against average. Every team ranked below them had the worst record, but 5 of the 22 teams ranked above them had the same or worst record. Let’s face it, this team had no business being this good, and yet here we are.

Luckily the Tigers are in a good position, they have young talent at the big-league level and a plethora of hitting prospects coming up. The problem is that most prospects don’t pan out and the Tigers can’t rely on their youngsters to carry the weight of a major league team.

Detroit has had a good hand, but they need to play their cards right to make the jump from competitive team to World Series contender. Anyone can go from bad to mediocre, but the real challenge is to take the final step in becoming a championship-caliber team.

If the Tigers plan is to sit back and wait for the farm system to save the day this team will be rebuilding again sooner than later. The idea that Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, Dillion Dingler, and Ryan Kreidler are all going to be All-Stars is a fan-driven fantasy. The Tigers would be lucky to see one or two of those guys pan out.

But with Akil Baddoo, Eric Haase, Kyle Funkhouser, Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Derek Hill, Daz Cameron, and Issac Paredes all showing promise in the majors this year, even the most negative outlook on player development would lend itself to the Tigers having options in the future.

There’s no doubt Hinch is aware of this team’s holes and Chris Illitch claims he’s ready to spend this winter. With money in the bank and some good young trade pieces, the Tigers could easily upgrade this roster.

If the Tigers can continue to develop their youngsters while bringing in some pitching, a shortstop, and preferably another outfielder, this team could be dangerous for years to come.

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