Now that the euphoria is abating over there in the Michigan/southwest Ontario region -- well, maybe not, since the Detroit Lions actually won a football game yesterday -- the question lingers: How did the Tigers fool us? Why didn't any of us see this coming?
Yours truly is going to try to figure out how the Tigers became baseball's first bona fide Miracle team (see note at end) since the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins went from worst to first back in 1991. What ties do the Tigers have to the other Miracle teams of the past?
Bill James once looked for common threads between three "Miracle teams" -- the 1967 "Impossible Dream" Boston Red Sox and the 1969 Miracle Mets, who were preceded by the long-forgotten 1961 Cincinnati Reds. Those 1960s teams had respective improvements of 20, 27 and 26 wins -- in line with Detroit's 24-win improvement.
James said there were four things that could explain such a turnaround, and all were evident in those three teams he studied:
- The team can make some trades (or in this day and age, sign free agents).
- They can come up with some young players.
- The young players they have can come through big.
- They can have guys having career years.
(The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, p. 270-271)
Hardball Times has Win Shares (WS) from the past three seasons. Comparing the '05 Tigers, who were such a bleh team that one could, as I did before a Saturday night game in mid-August, walk up to a ticket window and get bleacher seats 30 minutes before the start of a game, with the '06 Tigers, what's the difference?1. Trades and/or free agents.
Lefty Kenny Rogers (15 WS) was signed as a free agent and did better than the guy he essentially replaced in the rotation, Jason Johnson (9 WS in '05). Closer Todd Jones (12 WS) was an improvement over '05 closers Troy Percival and Ugie Urbina, both of who are probably never going to pitch in the majors again. (Percival had too much pain to pitch, although he hasn't retired yet; Urbina's facing an attempted murder charge in Venezuela.)
Oh, and on June 8, 2005, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski made a trade that worked out great, sending the Phillies Urbina and backup catcher Ramon Martinez in exchange for second baseman Placido Polanco, who just won ALCS MVP honours.
The general manager on the other end of that trade, Ed Wade, was fired at the end of that season. Trading Polanco wasn't the reason, seeing as he was a bench player in Philly, but it seems that Dombrowski couldn't have picked a better GM to gull into making the familiar mistake of giving away something of value just to have "another catcher" and "another arm for the bullpen."
2-3. Coming up with young players, who in turn come through big.
Centre-fielder Curtis Granderson, in his first full season, earned 20 Win Shares, third-best on the team. In '05, Granderson and weak-hitting Nook Logan, who played centre most of the year, combined for 11 WS. That nine WS boost translates into three more wins.
Then there's the trio of young starting pitchers: in '05, Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth, and Nate Robertson combined for 25 Win Shares. This year, with Justin Verlander replacing Maroth in that trio, they combined for 43. That's 18 additional Win Shares, which translates into six more wins -- one-quarter of Detroit's improvement.
Also, Jim Leyland got more out of 21-year-old flamethrower Joel Zumaya, righty Fernando Rodney and lefty Jamie Walker as the primary setup men than former manager Alan Trammell did out of Rodney, Walker and any other Detroit reliever in '05.
4. Key players having better seasons.
Shortstop Carlos Guillen (eight WS to 26), catcher Ivan Rodriguez (11 to 25) and right-fielder Magglio Ordoñez (8 to 20) were all much more productive after subpar or injury-shortened '05 seasons. Together, they improved by 44 Win Shares -- more than 60% of the team's total improvement.
So there you have it. Rogers and Jones showed they could still pitch. Granderson was up to playing centre-field every day and the trio of young starting pitchers, minus Maroth, who was plagued by elbow problems that led to Leyland leaving him off the post-season roster, each improved.
Lastly, and most importantly, Guillen, Ordoñez and Rodriguez all had bounce-back years.
Other parts of the team -- Polanco and Brandon Inge in the infield, Craig Monroe in the outfield, the cast of thousands in the first base and DH spots -- stayed the same. But once the Tigers got into the playoffs, though, they showed they belonged.
You would probably find similar trends in other teams that improved by 20-plus wins over a season. It doesn't take a complete overhaul. It just takes key players improving (and staying healthy), some young guys coming forward and others just maintaining their historical mean.
All of this begs the question: Why didn't we see this coming? How were we fooled? Probably since, as sports fans, we know better than to get too optimistic. You know going into a season that for every area where a team improves, it's likely to regress in some other aspect.
If anything, we condition ourselves not to see it coming -- so when it happens, we can act surprised.
P.S. WHAT ABOUT THOSE OTHER WILD CARDS?
Wild-card teams who came out of nowhere to win the World Series, such as the 1997 and '03 Florida Marlins, or '02 Angels, don't qualify for Miracle consideration: it's just not the same if you got in the playoffs in that fashion. The Tigers seem a little different, since they were in first place all season before faltering in the final week to concede the Central Division title to Minnesota. Besides, they won 95 games, which is usually enough to win your division about 75% of the time.
(By the way, major man hugs to Baseball-Reference.com and Hardball Times for their statistical data.)
MLB Playoffs: Taguchi! (Gesundheit) (Sat., Oct. 14)
Who's World Serious? (Oct. 10)
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