How the 2021 Detroit Tigers defied the odds

Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch congratulates catcher Eric Haase.
Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch congratulates catcher Eric Haase. /
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The paint is now dry on the 2021 Detroit Tigers season, and it’s hard not to see a picture of success.

This is all relative, of course. The Detroit Tigers finished under .500 for the 5th consecutive year, and they never seriously challenged for the division or a playoff berth.

But for the first time in years fans saw signs of real progress, and the club has significantly outperformed its preseason expectations:

The Tigers outdid even the most optimistic projections by seven games. That’s all the more remarkable when we consider Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, and Julio Teheran — three-fifths of the rotation heading into the season — combined for just 25 starts this year.

The Tigers have had their share of pleasant surprises this year. Projection systems probably didn’t see them getting 41 home runs from their catchers, or Wily Peralta developing a devastating new pitch, or Akil Baddoo being one of the best Rule 5 Draft picks in recent history.

But that doesn’t seem like enough to outperform their preseason predictions by THIS much. And what’s more, the Detroit Tigers are even outperforming their actual production.

Wait, what does that mean?

The Detroit Tigers are Over WAR

The stat Wins Above Replacement (WAR) might still be a bit confusing or obtuse for fans, but, like it or not, it has become the common language of public player evaluation.

But WAR can also be used as a quick-and-dirty way to evaluate how well teams have performed. The basic theory is that a team composed entirely of replacement-level players would, through the sheer randomness of baseball, still manage to win about 48 games in a 162-game season.

If we start with a baseline of 48 wins, we can then head over to FanGraphs and look at the total offensive and pitching WAR for each team, add them both to 48, and get a decent approximation for how many games a team should have won.

Don’t worry, we did the work for you.

Below you’ll see a table with the three teams who under-performed the most relative to their fWAR totals this year:

That feels about right. In Arizona and Baltimore we have the two worst pitching staffs in baseball by ERA, while the Nationals just set a record for the most blown saves in one season.

Now let’s check in on the three teams who over-performed the most relative to their fWAR totals this year:

Well, would you look at that? Your scrappy 2021 Detroit Tigers managed to win about ten more games than should be expected. But what can explain this? We have some ideas: