When the Detroit Tigers did something more rare than a perfect game

The Detroit Tigers were riding high in 2014 as the calendar turned to August. They held a five-game lead in the AL Central, and baseball was buzzing about their blockbuster acquisition of David Price at the trading deadline, presumably the last piece of their championship puzzle. All eyes were on Price the night of Saturday, August 2, and he wasn’t even playing–it was just his debut in the dugout in a Tigers uniform.

Lost in the shuffle that Saturday night was a notable historical footnote. Facing the Colorado Rockies at Comerica Park, the Tigers accomplished something they never had before in over a century of existence, and may not again for another century. They scored at least one run in each inning in which they batted.

I stumbled across this bit of trivia a couple years ago, and instantly questioned it. How could it be that this had never happened before, in thousands of games over more than a century of Tigers baseball? Scoring a run in an inning isn’t that rare or unusual. Is it that hard to do it eight or nine times in a row?

The short answer, after a little back-of-the-napkin math, is yes.

I remembered from math class that to get the probability of two things happening, you multiply the probabilities of them happening separately. So if getting heads when you flip a coin has a probability of 50 percent, getting heads twice in a row is 50 percent times 50 percent, or 25 percent. Three times in a row is 12.5 percent, and the numbers keep getting smaller the more consecutive times you want something to happen. The probability of getting heads eight times in a row is less than half of one percent.

That helped me think about scoring runs in consecutive innings. It’s hard to do anything with the probability of a coin flip eight times in a row. But how does scoring a run in an inning compare to flipping a coin? I found statistician Tom Tango’s “Run Expectancy Matrix,” which shows the probability of a team scoring a run with any combination of outs and baserunners in an inning, based on MLB games played since 1950. With no outs and no one on, the probability a team will score is around 27 percent–or about half as likely as getting heads when you flip a coin. That makes the probability of scoring in consecutive innings 27 percent times 27 percent, or just less than eight percent. The probability of scoring in eight consecutive innings is about three thousandths of one percent. (And that’s just the probability of scoring in any string of eight innings–not necessarily having all eight happen in the same game.) Thank goodness the Tigers had the lead at home in the 9th and didn’t have to bat, because the probability of scoring in nine straight innings is far less.

That’s why the Tigers’ feat on August 2, 2014, was so rare–rarer than a perfect game. The odds of scoring in eight consecutive innings are about 1 in 36,000. You are more likely to get struck by lightning than to see this happen at a Tigers game. At least it took the Tigers “only” about 18,000 games to pull it off.

The Tigers spread their offense out over those eight innings on August 2, scoring just once in six of them. Miguel Cabrera feebly got the effort started by hitting into a double play that scored Rajai Davis from third for the Tigers’ only run in the first, but he put the Tigers on the board more forcefully in the third with a moon shot solo home run to the bushes in center field. Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez also went deep; everything else was mostly RBI singles. Rick Porcello had a season-high 10 strikeouts over eight innings for his 13th win, but in a bit of foreshadowing, the bullpen came apart, allowing the Rockies to mount a three-run rally in the 9th before Phil Coke shut the door on an 11-5 win and the answer to a trivia question.

It may be another 114 years before the Tigers repeat their feat, but then again, probability is not destiny. Look no further than the Tigers’ opponent that night, the Rockies. In 1999, in just their seventh year of existence, the Rockies scored in every inning. They did it on the road, at Wrigley Field, meaning they had to bat nine times, becoming just the third team in modern MLB history to score in all nine innings. Then, just two years later, lightning struck twice: they scored in each of the eight innings they batted in a 15-11 win at Coors Field, becoming just the third MLB team to accomplish this twice (the White Sox joined them in 2016).

This sense that anything could happen–even something statistically improbable or historically rare–is the kind of thing that keeps baseball fans watching, game after game, whether their team’s fortunes look bleak, as the Tigers’ do in 2018, or promising, as they did in 2014. After all, Price’s brief tenure and the Tigers’ fast flame out in the 2014 postseason have already faded from memory, or at least we’d like them to. But in the midst of that burst of excitement, the Tigers quietly achieved a less significant but more unusual historical milestone.