I don’t shake my fist at clouds, and I like a good time like the next guy, but I also know when I’m being sold a rotten piece of fish.
The sudden rise of the Detroit Tigers as darlings of sports media in Detroit is that stinking piece of fish. Hold your noses, people.
The hype over the Tigers, who are undefeated since the All-Star Break, and posted (modest) winning records in both May and June, is nothing more than hype. Sorry, not sorry. I have to be honest with you, dear reader. This is not a team turning a corner, this is a team still blocks away from reaching the corner. And they could very well take the wrong turn.
Why Fans And Detroit Media Are Hyping the Tigers
This season started like most recent seasons: the Tigers lost six of their first nine, and ended April with a three-game losing streak. Their record was a putrid 8-19, good for last in the AL Central. The offense averaged 2.8 runs per game, and the pitching staff had an ERA over 4.75 for that first month.
In May and June, the team propped themselves up and started to get good enough pitching to be competitive, going 14-12 in both months. That was the first time since 2016 that the team had two consecutive winning months. HUZZAH!
With the recent string of success since the All-Star Break, the Tigers are 36-27 since May 7. That’s the fifth-best record in the American League and the ninth-best in MLB.
The Tigers, according to the media, are winning with cute “small ball,” played by adorable unknown players who have “learned to play the game the right way.” Young pitching is maturing in front of our eyes, giving the ragtag lineup of non-stars a chance to scratch and claw (Tigers do that!) to victory.
That’s the narrative you’ll get if you tune in to the Tigers Live broadcasts or read a column from one of the Tigers beat reporters. It’s nonsense, of course. But it’s a story, and stories have to be told and sold.
Why The Detroit Tigers Are Still A Bad Team
They Lose to Good Teams
Someone once said “It’s always the small pieces that make the big picture.” Someone else said “There is no magic in magic. It’s all in the details.” That last one was from Walt Disney.
The point is: details matter. When we examine the fine print of the Tigers 2021 season we find lots of detail that doesn’t look good.
So far, the Tigers have been a little bit lucky. They’ve been outscored by 53 runs this season and their expected W/L percentage would put them at 42 wins, They have 45 wins. That’s not unheard of: teams can exceed their W/L expectancy by as many as 7-8 games for a season, but it’s not typical. And teams that exceed their win expectancy are always overdue for a decline. The Tigers are playing like a 76-win team. But they’re really more like a 68-70 win team. Or to put it another way, this is a team that will almost certainly lose 90 games.
Why get excited about a 90-loss team?
The 2021 Tigers are 10-17 against teams that are on target to make the playoffs, and they’ve been outscored by those teams by 48 runs. Against the rest of the league, Detroit is 35-34. Which means the Tigers are mediocre enough to play mediocre teams to a standstill.
The Prospects Aren’t All Going to Pan Out
The Tigers have been focusing on young pitching the last few years. They have Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning in the rotation, three pitchers under the age of 25 and learning how to win at the big league level. The team also has draft picks, including the #3 overall selection in this year’s MLB Draft, and a promising arm out of Texas they nabbed at the tail end of the first round.
But here’s what baseball teams don’t want you to focus on: most prospects don’t pan out. Most professional ballplayers, who matriculate through the minor league system, either wash out and never make The Show, or they have a brief career. The player who ends up having a career of even 4-5 years is rare. And this is the case for players picked in the first rounds of the draft too.
Remember Alex Faedo? He was taken with Detroit’s first pick in the 2017 MLB Draft. A tall, impressive pitcher who led Florida to the College World Series national title. He was touted as a future ace, a cornerstone of the rotation in Detroit for years. He underwent Tommy John surgery last year and won’t pitch again until possibly late in 2022. Prior to his injury, Faedo struggled with his control and had an ERA over 4.00 in two minor league seasons.
Then there’s Beau Burrows, a high school pitcher the Tigers took with the #22 pick in 2015. He pitched for the organization for parts of seven seasons and pitched in only six games in Detroit. He allowed eight runs in 8 ⅓ innings, and is now with the Twins farm system. He was supposed to be a “can’t miss” blue chip prospect. He missed.
Remember Kyle Funkhouser? When he was selected in the early rounds of the 2016 MLB Draft, Tigers fans, prompted by the Detroit front office, heralded him as a future ace. A can’t miss star. Funkhouser is on the Tiger roster this year…in the bullpen. He’s having a decent season out of the bullpen, but he’s no star, and the team will be lucky to get 75 innings out of his “golden arm” this year.
Young players are the lifeblood of the sport, but the facts are that the overwhelming number of players you’ll see at a minor league game will never play in the majors or will only taste a small stay up there. Among all the “can’t miss” prospects, a team is lucky to have 2-3 become significant contributors to the big league club.
Here’s how professional sports team get their fans to buy into a long rebuild process:
- Convince them that the team can’t afford to pay greedy MLB players lots of money and must invest in cheaper, young players.
- Tell them that a rebuild will allow the fans to watch young, unspoiled prospects blossom into ballplayers.
- They hype “Top 100 Prospects” lists to create an illusion that unproven athletes have guaranteed future value, and therefore the organization knows what they’re doing.
- The team demonizes other organizations who spend money and compete every year as being “big market.”
- Create a culture of “being in the know,” so fans feel like they know something other fans don’t, like listening to a band before it makes it big. As long as fans think they are on the inside of a soon-to-be winning team, they can feel special and ignore the string of 100-loss seasons.
- They fool fans into believing that losing for several years is “just part of the natural cycle of being a sports fan.”
The Tigers have a few promising young pitchers at the big league level. They have a very bad offensive team and a mediocre defensive unit (ranked 24th out of 30 MLB teams in defensive efficiency in 2021). They can be fun to watch, but this is a team that’s still several years away competing for a playoff spot.