DETROIT – You’ve probably heard it a hundred times over the last month.
“Anything can happen in 60 games.” “All it takes is one hot streak.” “Everybody has a chance during a shortened season.”
But do they really?
The Detroit Tigers are the ultimate case study. As losers of 114 games a year ago, they were the worst team in Major League Baseball by a wide margin.
This year, in a 162-game marathon, they had no chance to finish anywhere near a playoff spot. In a 60-game sprint, maybe that chance rises to a fraction of a percentage point.
- Tigers send 19 players to Toledo -- 37 left competing for 30 roster spots
- How will Tigers fill final rotation spots after Jordan Zimmermann injury?
- 5 ways the Tigers appear to be much better this year
Sure, a roster of 26 professional baseball players has a chance to win any game on any given night. And yes, there’s much less time for statistical anomalies to normalize and teams to regress to their actual skill level.
People like to point to 2018 as an example of how the Tigers could stay in contention throughout 2020. It’s not a bad comparison. An equally bad roster was 28-32 through 60 games that year, with 17 of those losses by two runs or fewer.
In the words of JP from Angels in the Outfield, “It could happen!”
But again, even saying the Tigers have a 1-in-100 chance feels generous. Everything has to go right for a franchise that has seen pretty much everything go wrong for half a decade. Not convinced? Here’s a look at what it would realistically take to get this team to the postseason.
What is a playoff team?
First of all, how many wins will it take to make the playoffs this year?
Since MLB implemented the wildcard game in 2012, here’s a look at the worst winning percentage of any postseason participant:
- 2012: .542 (Tigers/St. Louis Cardinals)
- 2013: .556 (Cincinnati Reds)
- 2014: .543 (Oakland Athletics/Pittsburgh Pirates/San Francisco Giants)
- 2015: .531 (Houston Astros)
- 2016: .537 (Giants/New York Mets)
- 2017: .525 (Minnesota Twins)
- 2018: .556 (Atlanta Braves)
- 2019: .549 (Milwaukee Brewers)
Yes, there’s a higher likelihood of volatility in 2020, but since we have no precedent for this type of season, let’s stick with what we know and assume the Tigers would need to win, at the very least, 52% of their games to sneak into the playoffs.
A 32-28 record equates to a .533 winning percentage. Two teams with worse winning percentages have gotten into the postseason since 2012. A 33-27 record would be a .550 winning percentage, which is higher than all but two of the teams above.
For the sake of this argument, say the Tigers have to find a way to win 32 of 60 games.
Schedulers were in a tough spot this year, with little time to innovate. They had to use interleague play to some extent because with 15 teams in each league, not doing so would force two teams to be off every single night.
So they did what they could to make sure division races were as fair as possible. Each team will play division opponents 10 times as well as 20 total games against the teams in the corresponding geographical division in the opposite league.
That means the Tigers will get 10 games against the Twins, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox while playing a combined 20 games against the National League Central Division.
Here’s the catch: While this format creates a mostly level playing field for divisional races, it gives certain divisions significant advantages in the wildcard race.
And that’s exactly what the Tigers would need.
There’s almost no scenario in which the Tigers finish ahead of the Twins or the Indians in the Central. Every single player in the Twins’ starting offense might be better than the Tigers’ best hitter, while the Indians are anchored by two superstar hitters and two bonafide aces.
Barring major injuries or an outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19), Detroit can only get into the playoffs one way, and that’s as the third team in the division. If the AL Central gets three teams in the postseason, it’ll only be because of the way the schedule sets up.
While the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Astros and Athletics duke it out with the likes of the Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Mets, the Tigers will have a much easier interleague draw.
There isn’t a dominant team in the NL Central, at least on paper. The Reds got much better this offseason, but they’re largely unproven. The Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers have bad starting rotations and questions in the bottom thirds of their lineups. Pittsburgh is just bad.
Say, theoretically, the Twins, Yankees and Astros win the three AL divisions. Then, give the Indians the first wildcard spot. If the Tigers stumble into contention, Tampa Bay and Oakland figure to be the most likely challengers. (Yes, the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels improved this offseason, but the below argument can also be made of their schedules.)
The Tigers play 23 games against the Royals, Pirates and White Sox (more on them in a moment) and 17 additional games against the rest of the unproven NL Central.
Tampa Bay has 10 games against the Baltimore Orioles and six games against the Miami Marlins. The other 44 games include the Yankees, Braves and Nationals, as well as potential contenders in the Mets, Phillies and Blue Jays.
Oakland has 10 games against the Seattle Mariners and eight games combined against the Colorado Rockies and Giants. But the other 42 games include the Astros, Dodgers and Angels, as well as potential contenders in the Texas Rangers, Diamondbacks and Padres.
Detroit absolutely needs the schedule to be a major advantage. It doesn’t have interleague games against powerhouse teams like the Dodgers, Braves and Nationals, and there isn’t a behemoth like the Yankees or Astros in the AL Central.
To have any chance to compete, the Tigers would need to do something like this:
- 15-8 against the Royals, Pirates and White Sox.
- 10-7 against the Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs.
- 7-13 against the Indians and Twins.
You can see based on those records there’s almost no way the Tigers can pull it off.
If it’s going to happen, every single one of the below factors also have to be true.
White Sox have to bust
The Tigers need the White Sox -- this year’s darling sleeper in the American League -- to be a disappointment. If the White Sox are up there with the Twins and Indians, not only do they bump the Tigers to fourth in the division, they also represent 10 more tough games, which makes up 18% of Detroit’s schedule.
Chicago added an elite catcher in Yasmani Grandal and solidified both the lineup and rotation with Edwin Encarnacion and Dallas Keuchel.
Eloy Jimenez is a year older after a quietly solid rookie season. Mega prospect Luis Robert joins him in the outfield after an electric showing in summer camp.
The White Sox are so intriguing because they have a wider range of possible outcomes than any team in baseball.
They could win 40 games if Robert and Jimenez play like superstars, Keuchel and Giolito are aces, veterans Encarnacion, Grandal and Jose Abreu mash in the middle of the order and unproven starters Reynaldo Lopez and Dylan Cease live up to their prospect pedigrees.
But it seems just as likely that Lopez and Cease struggle, considering that’s all they’ve done so far at the MLB level. Jimenez could hit a sophomore slump. Robert hasn’t even debuted yet. Keuchel, Encarnacion, Grandal and Abreu are all on the wrong side of 30.
It’s so hard to project a team with so many different variables, especially in a unique season. The White Sox could be a playoff team. They could also finish with a losing record.
For the Tigers to be contenders, the latter must be true.
Considering how historically bad the Tigers were offensively last season, any glimmer of hope for 2020 lies heavily on the shoulders of the starting rotation.
Essentially, the Tigers have to have three and a half aces this season, or else they’ll be out of the race before the end of August.
Luckily, Matt Boyd was an ace for the perfect length of time a year ago.
In Detroit’s first 60 games of 2019, Boyd made 13 starts, posting a 3.01 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and .625 opposing OPS while striking out 97 batters in 77.2 innings and inducing whiffs on 13% of his pitches.
There’s a reason Boyd was the hottest name in free agency at that point.
Boyd believes he got too predictable later in the year, so he added a curveball in the offseason, and it looks to be a useable change-of-pace pitch. Yes, he was facing the Tigers’ offense during summer camp, but the results were undeniably impressive.
Even Boyd wasn’t as impressive this offseason as Spencer Turnbull, though. If anyone outside Detroit had been paying attention to the Tigers over the last month, Turnbull would be a popular breakout candidate. His fastball and slider are nasty, and his off-speed pitches are improving.
Nobody could touch Turnbull during either phase of spring training, and he trained hard mentally and physically this offseason. He has to carry that dominance into the regular season to give the Tigers a chance.
The third ace would almost certainly have to be Casey Mize. No, the Tigers don’t want to start his service clock too early. But a long-term injury to Jordan Zimmermann opened up a spot in the rotation, and the prorated service time rules mean he would only have to miss one turn through the rotation for the Tigers to salvage an extra year of control.
If they actually want to compete, Mize will be up by early August. He’s the No. 7 prospect in all of baseball and further along in his development than most pitchers two years removed from being drafted.
The half-ace represents Daniel Norris, who rejoined the roster Tuesday after overcoming a positive COVID-19 test weeks ago.
In this era of baseball, even aces are mostly held to around six innings per start, and that’s why Norris could be a half-ace. He pitched exactly three innings in each of his last nine starts of 2019, as the Tigers decided to limit his workload. The results were encouraging.
Norris posted a 3.33 ERA, a .683 opponents’ OPS, a 1.00 WHIP, struck out a batter per inning and increased his swinging strike rate to an elite 14% during that stretch.
The Tigers would have to piggyback Norris with Michael Fulmer or Tyler Alexander, but they could reasonably combine to give the team a chance to win every fifth game.
Boyd, Turnbull, Mize and Norris would all have to cash in close to their best-case scenarios to keep the Tigers afloat. That’s a lot to ask, which is why a Tigers playoff run seems so unlikely.
Even knowing how bad the Tigers were last season, it’s mind numbing to think that in the most power-centric season in MLB history, nobody from Detroit even sniffed 20 home runs.
Why did Al Avila sign C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop this offseason? Dingers. Why is Christin Stewart getting every opportunity to be an everyday player? Dingers. How does pretty much every playoff team generate offense in today’s game? You guessed it.
Cron and Schoop have been everything Avila imagined during exhibition games. Cron hit four home runs and was robbed of a fifth during summer intrasquad games. Schoop was an extra-base hit machine.
Stewart is a bit of a wildcard. He hit a bunch of doubles in intrasquad games, but his minor league track record says over-the-fence pop is his calling card. He certainly isn’t in the lineup for his defensive prowess in left field.
Cron, Schoop and Stewart have the potential to hit double-digit home runs in a 60-game spurt. That would be around a 30-homer pace.
Cameron Maybin hit 11 home runs in 82 games last season. Austin Romine has hit 18 homers over his last 505 plate appearances. Niko Goodrum, Miguel Cabrera and Jeimer Candelario could hit a handful apiece. Even JaCoby Jones has been known to launch from time to time.
The Tigers don’t have a single player, other than maybe Cabrera, who projects for a high on-base percentage, so they’re simply not going to manufacture many runs with prolonged rallies. They absolutely have to hit the ball over the fence, and that’s a lot to ask for a team that was historically inept at doing so last year.
This season, more than perhaps any in history, will test middle relief pitching. Starters aren’t completely stretched out and injuries are more likely than ever after the start-and-stop nature of the offseason. Relievers are going to log a higher percentage of innings.
That’s why MLB is allowing teams to keep 30 players for the first two weeks of the season and 28 players for an additional two weeks after that.
Past inconsistencies aside, Joe Jimenez and Buck Farmer should be more or less solid at the back end of the bullpen. But Ron Gardenhire has to figure out how to get them the ball with a lead.
Gregory Soto and Jose Cisnero look great on paper, with high-90s fastballs and off-speed pitches that move all over the place. But can they limit the free passes? Can they keep the ball out of the middle of the plate? That remains to be seen.
Bryan Garcia and Rony Garcia have exciting upside. If they can emerge as additional setup options, the bullpen will start to look much deeper.
The Tigers definitely have more quantity than quality in the bullpen. There are reasons to believe all 10 or 11 relief pitchers who make the Opening Day roster could be useful weapons. It’s also true there isn’t a single proven arm in the bunch.
Detroit is going to have to scratch and claw its way to every lead, so it can’t afford to give away games in the middle and late innings. That’s not the greatest concern heading into 2020, but it could end up being a backbreaker.
It’s technically true that the Tigers’ chances to contend improved with the shortened season, but let’s be real: It’s just not going to happen.
So much has to fall into place for it to work out, and while the roster has improved dramatically since last season, there are at least 11 teams -- excluding the Orioles, Royals and Mariners -- with much better rosters in the American League.
We’ll know by Aug. 9 whether the Tigers have plans to stick around this season. They’ll have played seven games against the Royals and Pirates by then, as well as 10 games against the Reds and Cardinals. If they manage to have a winning record at that point, with Mize in the rotation, you never know.
But this season is more about sorting out who deserves to stick around next year when the organization’s top prospects start to debut. Do Norris and Fulmer still have spots in the rotation when Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal show up? Is Candelario a roadblock to Isaac Paredes? Can Goodrum be a full-time shortstop or should Willi Castro get a shot?
Tigers fans should focus more on the individual positives for 2020, such as Boyd and Turnbull taking steps forward or Stewart finally showing his power.
In the end, I think the Tigers will finish around 24-36 and have a top seven pick in next year’s draft.