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The Tigers’ quest for 65 wins

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Winning 65 games shouldn’t be hard and yet

MLB: Game One-Detroit Tigers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Unless the unthinkable happens, the Detroit Tigers are about have their fifth straight losing season. Tigers fans have weathered worse stretches. Detroit had twelve straight losing seasons from 1994 to 2005, and that streak included the 2003 Tigers who were one of the worst teams in major league history. That streak had teams that were at least watchable, though. Every three or four years, the Tigers came close to .500. They had 79 wins in 1997, 79 again in 2000, and a modest 72 in 2004 after losing 119 the year before.

The Tigers are currently in danger of doing something they’ve never done before though. The Tigers could have their fifth season in a row with a winning percentage of .400 or lower. A measly 65 wins is enough to give a team a .401 winning percentage, but Detroit has failed to reach that threshold every year since 2016. In 2020, 24 wins would have meant a .400 team, and the Tigers won 23 while playing 58 games.

The Tigers have been this consistently bad before, but they’ve never been this consistently terrible. Their longest-such streak like was way back in the fifties when the 1952 and 1953 Tigers had winning percentages of .325 and .390 respectively. Never before have the Tigers failed to win 65 games or more three times in a row and they’ve already done it four times.

According to PECOTA, the Tigers will finish with 65 wins. FanGraphs is a little more optimistic at 72 wins. Unless everything goes right, it’s going to be the same soup in Detroit, and we’re talking about a nasty soup.

This is more or less the same team that was on pace for 64 games over a 162-game season. The key changes are Robbie Grossman starting over Harold Castro in left, José Ureña replacing Jordan Zimmerman in the rotation, and Nomar Mazara slotting into right over Victor Reyes.

Collectively, those free agent signings make the Tigers about a win better, perhaps two if you’re feeling optimistic. It doesn’t speak well for the state of MLB if the response to a terrible team signing three free agents is “Wow! They’re sort of trying,” but wow! The Tigers are sort of trying.

That’s more than could be said of the Rockies who haven’t signed a player to a guaranteed major league contract since 2018 or the Pirates whose sole free agent signing this winter was Tyler Anderson. Dave Dombrowski isn’t on the one’s and two’s anymore, but the sense is that when the time is right, they’re going to spend.

Grossman is an interesting pickup. He’s coming off a career-year in Oakland in which he hit .241/.344/.482 for a 127 wRC+. At the plate, Grossman has mostly survived because of his patience and discipline. Though he’s played most of his career at the height of the juiced ball era, Grossman has never hit more than 11 homers in season. A swing change led to a power surge in 2020, and he hit 8 dingers in 192 plate appearances. That’s pace of 25 over 600 chances.

Of course, the ball will be deadened in the upcoming 2021 season, and Grossman is the sort of player that’s going to be heavily affected by it. He’s also going to one of the toughest parks for home run hitters especially lefties. Grossman is a switch-hitter, of course, but all 8 of his homers came from the left side in 2020. Thankfully, Grossman can still get on base by way of the walk.

If the deadened ball hurts Grossman, it should help Matt Boyd, Casey Mize, and Tarik Skubal who all struggled with the longball in 2020. In 120 23 combined innings, Detroit’s incumbent ace and the dueling heir-apparents combined to give up 31 homers. That comes out to a 2.31 HR/9 and a 20.4 HR/FB%. This rebuild is supposed to succeed on starting pitching, but of those three, Skubal came out of 2020 with the lowest FIP at 5.75.

A handful of starts don’t mean much, and Mize and Skubal had combined to throw 0 innings above Double-A prior to the major league debuts. Regardless, Detroit would be feeling better if Boyd pitched like he used to and if Skubal and Mize got off to strong starts. Spencer Turnbull is an oft-overlooked rotation piece, many contenders would love to have him as their number four or five, but even on the Tigers, he’s not supposed to be the ace. If Turnbull winds up having the best season again, it’ll either mean that Turnbull really turned things up or the Tigers rebuild could use some re-tinkering.

That seems unlikely, though. There are valid injury concerns around Mize, but so long as he’s healthy, his stuff should play. Mize spent the winter re-thinking his approach in regards to his splitter. It’s easily his best pitch and considered to be the best secondary pitch in MLB Pipeline’s Top-100.

Mize has even taught his splitter to Skubal who passed Mize in prospect rankings last year. Really, the loud contact was the only blemish on Skubal’s record last year, and there’s a lot more noise in a pitcher’s xwOBA against than in their strikeout or walk rates. Skubal had a healthy 12.9 percent swinging strike rate, and that translated to him striking out 27.6 percent of the batters he faced. Meanwhile, he walked a modest 8.2 percent of opposing hitters. Neither of those marks is elite but they are both more encouraging than the home runs were alarming.

If Mize, Skubal, and Boyd all perform the way we know they can, it’s not hard to squint and see the Tigers blowing past their projections and winning 70 or even 75 games. That’s still not good, but it’s approaching watchable. Considering how poorly the last four years have gone, that’d be a welcome improvement.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.