After Sparky’s magical “40-game mark” the jury is still out on this Tigers team

Sparky Anderson during spring training in the 1980s. (Photo by Detroit Free Press)

It’s been nearly 20 years since Sparky Anderson managed his last game with the Detroit Tigers.

A whole lot of baseball history has taken place in the Motor City since then.

Sparky has left an indelible footprint on our sports landscape. But one of his most enduring legacies has been his philosophy that you need to play 40 games before you can judge a baseball team.

This has become a kind of all-encompassing mantra in this town. It is a belief system that I don’t think you’ll find in any other baseball city.

Listen to sports talk radio in Detroit in April and May, and you’ll hear a plethora of older fans calling in to say they are reserving judgement until the 40-game mark, because “That’s what Sparky always used to say.”

I’m not sure exactly when Sparky said it for the first time. It may even have been when he was in Cincinnati managing the Reds. But I do know that he said it quite often (most every season, in fact), to the point where it became an eternal truth, another aphorism from The World According to Sparky.

After a while, it became a cliché. To the cynics, it was simply Sparky’s pat answer to explain away a slow start. After all, if he could get people to wait 40 games, it would gain him more time to try and figure things out.

That may have been true. Sparky was, after all, a great salesman. But the idea of waiting 40 games before passing judgement is an idea not altogether without merit.

Forty games is a good sample size with which to gauge a team. It is roughly one quarter of the season, and by that time things have likely shaken out to the point where a team knows what its strengths and weaknesses are.

After 40 games, depending on the scheduling, teams have faced their main division rivals in both a home and away series. They’ve had an opportunity to size up the competition, and where they stand in comparison.

The weather has begun to warm up. Veteran players are hitting their stride, and the flaws of rookies are being exposed.

And it is not always simply a question of wins and losses. What Sparky was getting at was that the 40-game mark should be sufficient to indicate where a team was likely headed, and what it needed to do to improve.

Still, it is interesting to look at the Tigers’ last several World Series years, and see where the team’s record stood at the 40-game mark.

In 2012, Detroit got off to a very slow start, and was in third place with a record of 19-21.

The 2006 club was in first after 40 games, at 27-13.

The 1984 Tigers, of course, started the season historically great at 35-5.

The 1968 club wasn’t too bad, either, in first place (barely) with a 24-16 mark.

Here we are in 2015, and after 40 games the Tigers had a record of 23-17, and were in second place, 2½ games behind the division-leading Kansas City Royals.

Some people buy into Sparky’s magical 40-game mark. Others dismiss it as snake oil.

What are our thoughts on these 2015 Detroit Tigers after 40 games?

First, it is wonderful to see Miguel Cabrera back and healthy once again. That alone makes these games worth watching.

After David Price, how much can we trust this pitching staff? Anibal Sanchez is an enigma. Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon have been pleasant surprises, but can they keep it up over the course of a long season? Kyle Lobstein has been solid, but he is not going to remind anyone of Justin Verlander. You do remember Justin Verlander, don’t you?

Joakim Soria is the real deal, which really shouldn’t surprise anybody.

I think the Tigers can forget about getting any significant contribution from Victor Martinez for the rest of the season. When and if he comes back, he is not going to be anywhere near 100%. It is imperative that Dave Dombrowski acquire a veteran left-handed power bat. Bringing in Ryan Howard on a rent-a-player basis, provided the Phillies can eat most of his bloated contract, is intriguing.

The Tigers can hit. What they can’t do consistently enough is drive runners in.

They need to somehow find a way to stop hitting into double plays.

Jose Iglesias has been playing like an all-star.

Whether this team has the goods to keep pace with Kansas City remains to be seen. In any event, it should be an interesting summer.

Bring on the next 122 games!