Tommy Lasorda once said, “No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one third of your games. No matter how bad you are, you’re going to win one third of your games. It’s the other third that makes the difference.” Aside from not giving any practical insight (is he saying you only have to try in a third of games?), it doesn’t always turn out to be true. A third of a season is 54 games, and since 2000, we’ve seen three teams fail to win one third of their games: the 2018 Orioles, the 2013 Astros, and the 2003 Tigers. The 2019 Tigers might be joining this dubious group.
The Tigers are 35-81 which is the worst record in baseball. FanGraphs projects them to finish the year at 53-109. and PECOTA projects them to finish 54-108. Unless they go on a torrid run, it will be the third year in a row they’ve failed to win 65 games or more. It’s almost impressive how averse they’ve been to winning considering they play in the weakest division in baseball. Unlike the Orioles, they don’t have the Yankees stuffing them into a trash can and taking their lunch money 19 times a year. The Marlins have turned in a relatively respectable showing in a division with four teams above .500.
If there’s any solace to be found in Detroit, it’s that barring a complete disaster, the Tigers won’t end with a worse record than the 2003 team who finished at 43-119. The bad news is that this might be a less talented group. As a whole, Tigers positions players have combined for -1.9 fWAR this year while the 2003 crew came in at -1.2. Now that Nicholas Castellanos is a Cub, that number doesn’t figure to improve.
If they don’t get any better or worse, Tigers position players will finish as the worst squad since the 1998 Twins and the seventh-worst in the expansion era.
Worst Teams of the Expansion Era by Position Player WAR
The pitching staff led by Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, and Daniel Norris has kept this team from challenging the 40-120 1962 Mets, but almost nothing has gone right on offense for the Tigers. After a 19 homer and 2.5-win season, Jeimer Candelario took a major step back, and now he’s on the injured list with a sprained thumb. Candelario has been a bit unlucky, as his batted ball profile hasn’t changed significantly. If anything, he’s hitting fewer ground balls and more line drives. He’s hitting the ball as hard and as often as before. His strikeout and walk numbers haven’t budged. He’s suffered from a .255 BABIP and only 8.9 percent of his fly balls are leaving the yard.
Before suffering a season-ending wrist fracture, JaCoby Jones had hit a little better than he did last season. Per Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate ranked in the 89th and 88th percentiles respectively. Still, he was a below-average hitter on the whole as he put up just a 92 wRC+. The major concern was how his defense cratered following a full-time switch to center field. In 2018, he split time evenly between left field and center, putting up a combined 21 defensive runs saved in 2018. In 2019, that fell to -13.
Christin Stewart has put up roughly average strikeout and walk totals, but the power hasn’t come. After averaging 25 homers the last three seasons in the minors, Stewart has just nine homers in 399 major league plate appearances. His .154 ISO puts him in the company of Alex Gordon and Jason Kipnis, and that’s not where a power hitter with no position wants to be.
Not everything has been an abject failure, however. Niko Goodrum has been solid everyday player, and he can competently play all around the infield. With a .341 BABIP and an unusually high line drive rate of 28.7 percent according to FanGraphs, one has to hope that he’s not having his best year when everyone else has crumbled to dust around him or is bumping into him when he tries to catch a ball.
ZiPS projects him for just 1.4 fWAR over the next two seasons, but maybe some of his improvements are for real.
Travis Demeritte, whom the Tigers acquired in the Shane Greene trade, isn’t a highly regarded prospect, but he’s been given a shot at the big leagues the vacancies left by Castellanos and Jones. So far, he looks like he belongs. Who knows how much longer that will last, but his performance is no more unlikely than Aristedes Aquino’s.
Even with rebound seasons from Candelario and Jones as well as the possible debut of Casey Mize, 2020 will probably be another losing season. The Tigers have an intriguing farm system, but their top talent is in Double-A or below. With Mize on his way followed by Matt Manning, Riley Greene, and Isaac Paredes, this has to be the nadir for the Tigers. Things couldn’t get worse, right?
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.