While there was no Zubaz-level disaster event that could pinpoint the Detroit Tigers’ 2016 downfall, there were certainly games that stood out as obvious examples of turning points. That’s not to say that these five games were the exact places the season went awry, but they may have been instrumental to the final results.
Since the Tigers season ultimately came down to a one game make-it-or-break-it situation, these fives games might have made the difference between the postseason and an early golf season. They are not all games the Tigers lost, but each one impacted the final numbers in a substantial way.
1. Indians 7, Tigers 3
Date: May 3 | Starter: Justin Verlander | Recap
This 7-3 loss to the Indians confirmed that Cleveland was going to be a tough matchup for Detroit in 2016. The May 3 loss also marked the beginning of the Tigers’ longest losing streaks of the season: seven consecutive losses, followed by one win and another four losses. Seven of those 11 losses were beatings, with the Tigers losing by four or more runs. This was also before Justin Verlander had gotten himself on firmer footing. He went into the May 3 game with an uncomfortably high 6.49 ERA and fans were beginning to wonder if Verlander would ever return to Cy Young form again. It was certainly early in the season, but it firmly established that Cleveland would be tough competitors in the division, and would keep the Tigers on their toes for the remainder of the season.
2. Tigers 10, Royals 4
Date: June 16 | Starter: Justin Verlander | Recap
Not all of these turning point games are losses. Their June 16 game was a winner, with the Tigers taking the Royals 10-4, largely due to three memorable Victor Martinez home runs. But the Tigers lost more than they won that game. We all knew it looked bad when J.D. Martinez hit the outfield wall in the second inning. Soon after, he was diagnosed with a non-displaced fracture at the radial neck of his right elbow, an injury that ended up benching him until August 4. Though he returned with a spectacular home run against Chris Sale, his absence was felt. Martinez was worth 1.8 WAR in 2016, and if we consider the narrow margin by which the Tigers lost the season, the value they lost without Martinez might have been enough to tip the scales.
3. Indians 7, Tigers 4
Date: June 24 | Starter: Jordan Zimmermann | Recap
The Tigers gave up seven runs on 12 hits against the Indians, who they were still struggling to claim their first 2016 win from. Jordan Zimmermann, coming off a lights out April and solid-if-unremarkable May, was responsible for all seven of the Indians’ runs. While it did not equal the eight runs he allowed against Minnesota on May 16, it did mark a downward spiral for Zimmermann’s numbers. Wins are not a perfect measure of a pitcher’s success, but Zimmermann didn't win another game for the rest of 2016. His ERA continued to climb as well, ending the season with a 4.87.
4. Tigers 6, Mets 5
Date: August 6 | Starter: Matt Boyd | Recap
A mere two days after J.D. Martinez hit his triumphant welcome back home run, Logan Verrett of the New York Mets nailed Nick Castellanos with a hit-by-pitch to the hand. Though Nick worked through the game, when he headed back to his clubhouse, it was obvious he was seriously injured. Nick would be sidelined a fractured hand, and remain out of play until September 27. Like Martinez, he came back swinging, getting a double in his first at-bat after returning, but it wasn’t enough to course correct the team for the rest of the season. Nick’s WAR charts slightly below J.D.’s at 1.6, but his absence was felt on field as well, where none of the defensive replacements managed to muster Castellanos’ strong presence on the third base line.
5. Braves 5, Tigers 3
Date: October 1 | Starter: Jordan Zimmermann | Recap
This was supposed to be a sure thing. The Tigers were facing Braves pitcher Aaron Blair, who had a dismal win-loss record and an 8.02 ERA going into the game. The Tigers had just handily defeated the Braves in the series opener the night before, and had a fire under them to make the push for the second AL wild card spot. Then everything fell apart. Despite early scoring, the Braves took advantage of an uneven Jordan Zimmermann, ousting the pitcher in four innings and forcing Detroit into their bullpen. At the end of the day a sure-thing win was a loss, putting the Tigers into a must win situation on the 2nd, where even a gem by Justin Verlander wasn’t enough. This loss was really where the season ended.
Ultimately, no one game, or even five games, will determine the course of a season, but these five in particular stand out as game-changers, that impacted the Tigers in a serious way, and might have, in their own way, shaped the course of the season.