This question came up on Twitter the other day and I think it’s instructive. A follower asked something to the effect of “do you really think last year’s team was better than this year’s team?” Based on the context of the conversation, he clearly though the 2014 version of the team was better than the 2013 version. My answer was the exact opposite. The 2013 Tigers were better. I’m almost positive of this fact.
Which brings us to a sticking point. How should we judge the quality of a team? Simple wins and losses are a reflection of how well a team performed in a set of 162 individual contests, but there are all sorts of things that can happen over 162 games that can muddy the waters. Yes, you would rather win 95 games with a team that’s supposed to win 86 than win 90 games with a team that’s supposed to win 100, but that’s not an interesting question. The interesting question is which team was better. One team won more games, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I’d rather have a team with the best offensive and starting pitching in the league by a lot that loses close games because they have a bad closer than a team that is middle of the road in offense and pitching but never blows a save.
Let’s look at some numbers!
2014: .573 (through 96 games)
Right off the bat, the 2013 Tigers were more successful! So even if you disagree with me about the value of actual wins and losses in a talent evaluation capacity, 2013 was better.
Runs Per Game
2013: 4.9 R/G, 3.8 RA/G
2014: 4.7 R/G, 4.3 RA/G
2013 Tigers way ahead.
2013: 113 wRC+, 26.2 WAR
2014: 111 wRC+, 14.4 WAR (24.3 WAR pro-rate)
2013: 3.44 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 25.4 WAR
2014: 3.84 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 9.9 WAR (16.7 WAR pro-rate)
2013: 4.01 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 4.1 WAR
2014: 4.36 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 1.0 WAR (1.7 WAR pro-rate)
91-71 via FanGraphs with both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus suggesting they’ve actually over-performed in the W/L column to date. Last year, Baseball Prospectus’ models suggested the Tigers actually played like a 104 win team, despite winning only 93. In other words, last year they under-performed and had a better record than we expect an over-performing 2014 team to achieve.
I don’t at all mean to single out Eric. I mean this as a demonstration of principles. The 2013 Tigers were a better team in pretty much every way (maybe a wash defensively?) we measure performance and likely too in the W/L column. This wasn’t difficult to see coming. They made moves that made them worse. Some were out of necessity, some were out of foolishness, some were gambles. They hit on Joba, JD Martinez, and Kinsler. They whiffed on Fister, Nathan, and kind of Davis.
I’ll be perfectly honest and remind you what I said at the time. Joba was a fine risk, but not one that I thought would be a difference maker. Wrong. I don’t think I wrote about JD, but a minor league deal is never a mistake. Loved the Kinsler trade, but did not expect it to work out this well. No one did. Hated the Fister deal, was confused why you would sign Nathan but didn’t think it would be horrible, and felt like the Davis move was a fine gamble but also slightly strange in context.
Essentially, the Tigers got worse. Some of it was unavoidable. Verlander, Sanchez, and Scherzer simply weren’t going to repeat their performances. Iglesias got hurt. Hunter is aging. The Tigers were going to be worse if they kept the same roster together, but they didn’t just do that. Some moves worked, but on balance it was a downgrade. It’s probably not going to cost a playoff trip, but it might cost them in October. Thankfully, Dombrowski has a week or so to plug the holes. And it’s time to to empty the chamber because they’re never going to have a better chance with this core.