Expectations for the Tigers are now much different than in the past

With baseball's best general manager in the front office, will it matter who is managing the Detroit Tigers?

With baseball’s best general manager in the front office, will it matter who is managing the Detroit Tigers?

The history of the Detroit Tigers franchise is a landscape of peaks and valleys, but the peaks are usually fairly short and sweet. Tiger fans, for that reason, historically haven’t expected to be rooting for a perennial contender. Unlike the followers of the Yankees or Dodgers or even the 21st century Red Sox, Detroiters haven’t required a championship-caliber club year in and year out to keep coming out to the ball game. But the Tigers are not used to being long-term doormats either. About once a generation or so, Detroit roars to the top of the heap.

Counting as “contenders” all the teams that finished first or a fairly close second in their division, the Tigers have been contenders in 1907-15, 1934-37, 1940, 1944-47, 1950, 1961, 1967-69, 1971-72, 1983-88, 2006, and 2011-13. The total of contending seasons is thirty-five out of 113—just over 30 percent.

But notice how the peaks are concentrated and how long some of the valleys were. The two biggest down periods were the recent seventeen-season stretch from 1989 to 2005 and the prolonged drought of 1916-33, a span of eighteen seasons (though it wasn’t completely uninterrupted failure: the Tigers did finish a distant second in 1923 and won even more games (86) the following year while finishing third.)

The recent prolonged slump was actually the most dismal. It spanned the last years of Tiger Stadium and the disastrous first half-decade at Comerica Park. Since 2006, though, Detroit has been at least decent, playing .500 ball or better under Jim Leyland every year except for 2008.

The peaks-and-valleys record for the entire franchise history reflects how difficult it can be for an American League club outside of New York to remain consistently at championship caliber and how long it usually takes to get back to the top after a great squad ages and unravels.

But it seems clear that expectations are different now that the Tigers, under the growing wealth and impatience of Mike Ilitch, are among the top-spending teams in baseball. If you consider the period beginning in 2006 to be a positive span (only a World Series title has eluded the Tigs) it’s already arguably the longest bright spell since the heyday of Ty Cobb a century ago. And it promises to continue to lengthen. The Tigers will be prohibitive favorites to win the American League Central Division again this year.

That’s likely due more to Dave Dombrowski’s strategic genius than to Ilitch’s largesse, although you can’t have one without the other. I just received my copy of the 2014 Baseball Prospectus, which I consider to be today’s baseball bible. Its overview essay on the Tigers tracks, with typical BP analytical measurement, the astounding Dave D record of success as the shrewd general manager of the Tigers. Bottom line: the Prospectus calculates Dombrowski transactions have netted 100 wins for the team over his tenure–based on WAR calculations for the performances of the players he’s gained minus the performances of the players traded away. By that metric, Dombrowski has been more valuable to the Tigers than Miguel Cabrera.

The essay concludes, however, with the same sort of puzzlement most commentators and knowledgeable fans express about the Doug Fister trade, speculating that either Dombrowski made his first big boner or, giving him the benefit of the doubt he’s earned by his track record, that he is again working his voodoo magic based on his private hidden knowledge about the vast potential of Robbie Ray.

Whichever is true, money alone can’t end the 30-year drought without a World Series winner in Detroit. The Tigers’ 2013 payroll of $153.2 million was fifth-highest in the majors and netted ninety-three wins (sixth-highest), and the team’s inability to reach the World Series disappointed Tiger fans and led to significant tinkering with the team. As we embark on the Brad Ausmus era, I would argue that expectations of Detroit baseball fans have changed significantly from the historical norm. Nothing short of a World Series win would satisfy many Tiger followers. A century ago was the last time that Tigers rooters expected consistent greatness year in and year out — and coincidentally, that was the last time the man who was considered to be his era’s greatest offensive performer wore a Detroit uniform.

3 replies on “Expectations for the Tigers are now much different than in the past

  • Marvin Sonne

    World Series or bust. As John Belushi shouted in Animal House….”When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Let’s do it!”

  • Michael David

    That does seem to sum it up. Most Tiger fans are expecting the team to break through and win the Series any year now. Many think that should have happened the last two seasons, also. Ausmus obviously has plenty of pressure, but at the same time fans feel very optimistic with him at the helm, feeling that Leyland just couldn’t manage to win the big one.

  • larry

    Fans want to see the Tigers head back to the post season . Yes a rookie manager can lead this team to the top . Fans are expecting a team that can compete.

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