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No, the 2019 Tigers are not as bad as the 2003 team

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It’s close, but the 2003 club still appears to be worse than the current Tigers.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Since you have found our small corner of the internet, you might be aware of how bad this 2019 Detroit Tigers squad is. The team is currently 39-89, the worst record in Major League Baseball (the Orioles currently sit at 43-88). That record is good for a .305 winning percentage.

So, how historically bad is this team? Thankfully, we have a great benchmark for determining the significance of our beloved team’s poor play: the 2003 squad. The ‘03 Tigers were the worst team in American League history, finishing 43-119 (a .265 win percentage). They finished one game short of the 1962 New York Mets for the worst record by any team ever (This feat is particularly impressive, as the Mets were an expansion team in 1962).

To contextualize the pain, here is how the 2019 Detroit Tigers stack up to the historic 2003 team.

The Lineups

The 2019 Tigers have a historically poor offense. No qualified hitter on the roster has an OPS+ at or above 100. In other words, every single hitter on this roster is below average. At the very least, the 2003 Tigers had Dmitri Young as an imposing bat. Young posted a .297/.372/.537 line in 155 games, good for a 136 wRC+. You would think Young’s 1.9 fWAR in 2003 would be much higher, but he somehow cost his team 28.3 runs in the field, per the defensive component of fWAR. If you were around to watch Young play the field during his tenure in Detroit, that should kind of make sense to you. That said, Young was never worth worse than -8.1 runs in his other three seasons as a Tiger (granted, he played fewer games in those seasons).

Dmitri Young tangent aside, both offenses are truly terrible. The 2003 Tigers combined for -1.2 fWAR at the plate and in the field, by far the worst in baseball that season (the Mets were 29th at a 5.1 team fWAR among hitters). That said, the ‘03 Tigers were not the worst team at the plate or the worst team in the field that season! Their -162.3 combined runs below average combined offensive fWAR component falls over 16 runs short of the Dodgers’ -178.7 mark, while their -59.2 combined runs below average defensive fWAR component was better than three teams that season: the Red Sox (-61.5), the Yankees (-72.0), and the Blue Jays (-88.7). So, if there’s one takeaway you can take today, it’s that the Tigers would have had one of the best defenses in the AL East in 2003.

It may or may not surprise you that as of August 14, the current Tigers have combined to be even worse than the 2003 team at the plate and in the field; they sit at -1.7 combined fWAR in those areas. As fWAR is a cumulative statistic, we can’t compare the offensive and defensive fWAR components until the season is complete. However, it’s worth noting that the 2019 squad is currently the third-worst fielding team in baseball (ahead of only the Mariners and Orioles), and they are the second-worst offense in the league (the Marlins somehow have a significant league in this category). Just by the cumulative fWAR numbers alone, the 2019 Tigers are worse.

Who’s Worse?: 2019

The Rotations

This one isn’t particularly close. The 2003 squad was much worse, as their 4.0 fWAR total for starting pitchers that season was tied for second-worst in baseball with the Rangers (only the Devil Rays were worse). The 2019 team, meanwhile, has combined for a 9.0 team fWAR among starting pitchers in 33 fewer games, good for 14th in Major League Baseball. The gap here is huge, as great performances by Matthew Boyd (his two recent blow-up starts aside) and rookie Spencer Turnbull have greatly exceeded the performances of 2003 staff leaders Nate Corenjo (1.6 fWAR in 194.2 innings) and Jeremy Bonderman (1.3 fWAR in 162 innings; at least he was able to put up a stellar 5.6 fWAR mark in 2006!).

Who knows, though? With Turnbull and Daniel Norris approaching inning limits, and Matthew Boyd struggling in recent weeks, perhaps the 2019 team can play catch-up to the ‘03 squad. In a bad way, of course.

Who’s Worse?: 2003

The Bullpens

Yep. These are Tigers bullpens, alright. The 2003 squad combined for -1.1 fWAR as a bullpen, second-worst to only the Cardinals (-1.8 fWAR). The 2019 team’s bullpen is actually a decent bit better, as they have combined for 0.3 fWAR, 24th in Major League Baseball and ahead of three playoff contenders: the Phillies, Mets, and Braves. Turns out, the Tigers would have one of the best bullpens in the NL East this year. (If you’ve paid any attention to the NL East, this shouldn’t surprise you. In fact, it should surprise you that our bullpen is worse than the Nationals bullpen.)

Who’s Worse?: 2003

Wins and Losses

The 2019 team has gone 39-88 with a 40-88 pythagorean expected win-loss record, as they have scored 470 runs and have allowed 718 runs. Extrapolated to a full season, this would mean the Tigers score 590 runs, allow 902 runs, and win 49-50 games (they are currently on pace for 49.41 wins) with a pythagorean expected win-loss record of 49-113 (I rounded up from 48.6 expected wins, by the way, so if you’re feeling pessimistic, let’s say 48-114).

Of course, we know this team is trending downward, so it will be interesting to see if they hit the 48-win mark trail off further as the season winds down. The 2003 team, meanwhile, famously finished 43-119. That said? The team posted a 49-113 pythagorean expected win-loss record.

All in all, there is a very real chance that the 2019 Tigers finish worse than that. After all, this team sat at 13-14 after April and is 17-57 since June (that’s a .298 win percentage). The Tigers have been on a bit of a run recently, with four wins in their last 12 games. This actually boosted them from a .210 win percentage since June 1 to the current .298 win percentage. (For context, the 2003 squad finished April with a 4-20 record and then went 29-80 from June to the end of the season, a .266 win percentage). After a few recent wins, the Tigers are not currently in danger of chasing the ‘03 squad’s infamous 43-119 record. If the Tigers had kept their .210 win percentage pace going for the rest of the year prior to their 4-8 run, however, they would have been expected to win 44.45 games.

Who’s Worse?: Toss-Up

Conclusion

The 2003 Tigers are worse than the 2019 Tigers. While the 2003 squad boasted a superior team offensively and defensively, their pitching was significantly worse. That said, the 2019 squad (and its historically poor offense) has a very real chance at taking the ‘03 team’s crown as worst team in franchise history. Should this team continue at the same pace it has played at since June, they will finish four or five games better than 2003.