The Best Tigers Team Ever

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

What I’m about to say might make some of you do a spit take and/or faint. If you’re prone to either of those, have a beverage in your mouth, or are a baseball fan prone to negativity, please sit down, swallow the most recent sip, and get ready. The 2013 Tigers are the best Tigers team ever.

I’ll obviously make a couple of qualifications. I’m only talking about the regular season and I’m comparing each team to its own era. I feel pretty confident that even the hapless 2003 Tigers could probably destroy the wonderful 1935 team, but we’re talking about each team in relation to its context. And by that measure, the 2013 club ranks at the top. Sort of. Technically they’re going to roll the odometer over into first place sometime this weekend, but I wanted to get a jump on it because I’m really into preparation.

This is a simple construct. I’m not counting wins and losses for a couple of reasons. First, wins or winning percentage don’t control for their competition. Winning 100 games when there were fewer teams and less reliever specialization is impressive, but I really don’t know how it compares to the modern day. We need to use numbers that control for the era, so we’re going to start with Wins Above Replacement (what’s WAR?), but I’ll run through some other numbers as well. Second, wins are tied to some aspect of randomness. Is a 98 win team better than a 95 win team just because the 95 win team lost some games at the end that didn’t mean anything? What I present below are each Tigers team’s total WAR (i.e. pitching + hitting + baserunning + defense). Please keep in mind the defensive and baserunning data from the past is an approximation and can’t be taken too seriously. That said, it’s the best information we have about those teams and we shouldn’t ignore it. Let’s take a look at the best Tigers teams by total WAR (cWAR) and also by WAR per Game because some teams played fewer games in a season.

Rank Season cWAR cWAR/G
10 1909 47.2 0.311
9 1968 48.7 0.301
8 1946 48.7 0.316
7 1940 49.5 0.321
6 1915 50.2 0.326
5 1961 51.0 0.315
4 1935 51.0 0.338
3 1984 51.9 0.320
2 2013 52.6 0.344
1 1934 53.3 0.346

So the current Tigers trail the leader by 0.7 WAR and are averaging about .35 WAR per game, meaning that they are expected to accumulate something close to 3.1 wins over the remaining 9 games. It’s hard to imagine they will fall short of taking the overall record and need just 3.6 WAR to lead the per game pace. Maybe they fall short of the record, but they’re already 2nd and have a great shot to be first.

WAR isn’t perfect, but it’s the best way to discuss total, cumulative value. We can break it down into individual components to understand how the team ranks a little bit better. First, the pitching staff, which as you know has been working on one of the best pitching seasons of all time as a starting staff. They rank pretty well among Tigers teams:

Rank Season pWAR pWAR/G
5 1942 23.9 0.155
4 2012 24.5 0.151
3 1940 25.1 0.163
2 1946 25.4 0.165
1 2013 26.2 0.171

They currently rank 25th in positional player WAR, but if you look only at what they do at the plate instead of defense and baserunning, you get a different picture.

Rank Season AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
10 1990 0.259 0.337 0.409 0.335 109
9 2011 0.277 0.340 0.434 0.337 109
8 1983 0.274 0.335 0.427 0.339 110
7 1986 0.263 0.338 0.424 0.338 110
6 1921 0.316 0.385 0.434 0.379 110
5 1915 0.268 0.357 0.358 0.350 111
4 1987 0.272 0.349 0.451 0.348 113
3 1993 0.275 0.362 0.434 0.354 114
2 2013 0.285 0.348 0.438 0.343 115
1 1984 0.271 0.342 0.432 0.345 115

This year’s team ranks 2nd, but only by the difference of a rounding error. Controlling for league and park effect, the 2013 Tigers and the 1984 Tigers are essentially offensive equals while the 2013 Tigers are easily the best pitching staff. Put that together and you have yourselves the best Tigers team of all time.

Now there are imperfections, but there are always such imperfections. Many believe this team has under-performed, but with a 5-4 final week, they’re headed for a 94 win season. That sounds pretty great to me. Maybe they haven’t punished the division like they did in 2011, but it’s important to remember to see your team in context. They’re the best hitting and pitching Tigers team ever. How much more could you ask of a team during the regular season?

The only reason they’re not blowing away the previous WAR record is that they don’t play great defense or run the bases too well, but even considering that they’re going to pass the record sometime very soon.

The World Series is the goal, but the season is the first step in that process. They could lose in the first round and the season would be a disappointment for sure, but to this point, this has been the best Tigers team we’ve ever seen. No matter what happens, that’s worth celebrating as the Tigers lock up the AL Central this week.

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