Last week I wrote an article about the best Tigers offense of all times. Other than expressing an unconscious craving for more hitting and the glory days of 10-9 victories in 1993, the article had nothing to do with the present Tigers team.
Yesterday, looking at the game notes, I wanted to compare this team to the 2003 Tigers (always my touchstone for dreadful baseball). I discovered to my shock that this year's offense was actually worse than 2003. Hard to believe.
So, when I see some numbers like that, there are 2 temptations -- (a) to try to figure out what to do to make the team better, and (b) to see how bad the Tigers are from a historical perspective.
As far as making the team better (this year), I put my thoughts in a comment the other day. To sum up, aside from giving a few younger guys more of a chance, there isn't much we could or should do this season. Yes, we could promote Robson and Stewart, but that just makes the offense more interesting, not necessarily better and we risk using up service time for both players.
As for next year, I would point out that the 2004 Tigers actually were well above average offensively (108 OPS+), thanks to development by young players (Infante, Inge, Monroe, Thames, Munson) and the acquisition of Pudge Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen and Rondell White. This could be a whole separate article, but to sum it up, that is why the Tigers won 29 more games in 2004 than 2003.
Back to the historical perspective: If the Tigers finish the season with their present 81 OPS+, it would be the worst result for an American League team since the 2010 Seattle Mariners. Like the Tigers, those Mariners also featured a no-doubt Hall of Famer (Ichiro). Unlike these Tigers, Ichiro was healthy the entire year and had a typical Ichiro season. The Mariners also had a second Hall of Famer, Ken Griffey, Jr. who retired in early June, ending his last sad season with a 30 OPS+ season in just over 100 plate appearances. Finally, the Mariners' rotation featured a third potential Hall of Famer, Felix Hernandez
Aside from Ichiro and Russell Branyan, the rest of the team was well below average, and in some cases shockingly so. They also featured a number of past or future Tigers, including Josh Wilson (SS), Matt Tuiasosopo and Mark Lowe .
(pause for booing).
Despite a really excellent starting pitching staff featuring King Felix's only Cy Young award, as well as Doug Fister and Cliff Lee, those Mariners lost 101 games. What a waste of a pitching staff. Again, the Mariners could be a whole article in themselves, as they clearly expected to be a good team, trading before the season for Cliff Lee and signing Chone Figgins. It just did not work.
From a Tiger perspective, the 2018 offense is the worst since... the WWII era Tigers of 1942. With Hank Greenberg off at war, the 1942 Tigers had a team OPS+ of 79 despite good efforts from Rudy York, Pinky Higgins, Barney McCosky and some guys named Ned Harris and Don Ross. The issues were really at catcher, centerfield, second base and especially shortstop. The Tigers finished 73-81, in 5th place in an 8 team league (like the 2010 Mariners, they had great pitching). The 1942 Tigers featured 2 Hall of Famers, Charlie Gehringer and Hal Newhouser.
You might be asking -- since the pitchers hit, were the 1942 Tigers really worse than our 2018 swingers. The answer is "no" The non-pitcher OPS+ for the 1942 Tigers was a relatively respectable 87. So, apples to apples, the 2018 Tigers are worse. I would note that Dizzy Trout (pitcher) actually out-hit shortstop Billy Hitchcock.
Only one other Tiger team was indisputably worse than this years hitting-challenged team -- the 1902 Tigers, who managed a whopping 72 OPS+ (non-pitcher OPS+ 76), making them clearly the worst-hitting Tiger team of all time. That team finished 52-83, 7th in the American League (which was in its second season). Featuring a lineup composed of players nicknamed Deacon, Pop, Kid, Kid, Doc, Ducky, Dick (possibly his real name) and Jimmy, and bench players Sport, Fritz and Erve, the Tigers were clearly a colorful team -- possibly the only double play combination ever where both players were nicknamed kid.
It must have been exciting when they twisted one -- Kid to Kid to Pop at first base. By the way, Pop was 28, and Kid Gleason, the second baseman was 35, so there must have been an accident with a contraceptive and a time machine.
Anyway, they couldn't hit worth a damn -- Kid Gleason had started as a star pitcher in the 1890s, but wasn't much of a hitter.. Things were so bad that Utility man Joe Yeagar also started at pitcher 15 times, and pitcher George Mullin had the highest batting average and second highest OPS+ on the team.
Honorable mention to the 1931 Tigers who had a 82 OPS+ despite Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer and a pretty good starting offense (the bench was terrible).
To answer the fundamental question, has it ever been this bad before? It has... way back in 1902.