Anyone who has read the book or seen the movie Moneyball knows the Oakland Athletics had a miraculous run in the early 2000s by focusing heavily on getting on base and team aggregate performance over individual player performance and traditional statistics like batting average and RBIs. These A's teams strung together 751 wins in 1,295 regular season games from 1999 to 2006 (where they were bounced in the ALCS by the Tigers thanks to a magical home run by my favorite player of all time). Fast forward 20 years and it is worth asking the question, could today's Tigers benefit from a Moneyball approach?
Fans today have endured a run of bad Tigers baseball dating back to 2017 and missed opportunities since 2011. (How do you get swept by the Orioles with a rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and David Price? I'm looking at you 2014 Tigers.) Part of the fun of the 2006 World Series run was that the Tigers had the worst record in MLB history just 3 years earlier and an AL Central foe had won the World Series while leading the division wire-to-wire the year before. Similarities to that year abound as many Tigers fans have pointed out. The Tigers were the worst team in baseball just two years ago and now the White Sox are the division leaders. There's a new manager in town who brings a winning pedigree, just as Jim Leyland did. So what is holding the Tigers back?
With a plethora of top draft picks in the last few years (and another one coming this year), you'd think the Tigers would be farther along in their rebuild. In reality, the only thing keeping the Tigers from another last place finish in the division is an unbelievably bad start from the Minnesota Twins that surely will end soon and the Tigers will be back in last. The 2017-2021 Tigers have been absolutely terrible at getting on base, limiting strike outs at the plate, and scoring runs.
In comparison to the rest of the league, it is easy to tell the Tigers are a well below average team.
Since the death of Mr. I., Mike Ilitch, the Tigers have not been handing out big paydays and have gotten progressively worse. However, the A's and more recently, the Rays, have shown that bigger payroll does not equal more wins. The Tigers can get better without breaking the bank if they focus on their considerable weaknesses. The most notable step in this direction has been the addition of Robbie Grossman from (guess who?) the Oakland A's. His .352 OBP and .739 OPS are #1 on the team in terms of "everyday players." He has shown considerable plate discipline and has been a catalyst in the lineup that they desperately need. He is also tied for second on the team in number of home runs on a team that has consistently lacked power since the departure of J.D. Martinez and Nicholas Castellanos, and during Miguel Cabrera's decline.
The other major piece that sets the Moneyball A's and the Tigers apart is the savvy work of a General Manager and front office who knows exactly what a player's worth is to their team. The Tigers seem to have drastically different values of the players on their roster and in other team's systems, and not in a good way. Exhibit A and B are obviously the Justin Verlander and J.D. Martinez trades and Exhibit C is the Matthew Boyd situation that has played out the last few years. It seems as the the Tigers are not confident in how they value their players and it is holding them back from improving the squad quickly. The A's have not had many instances of back-to-back losing seasons in the 21st century, while the Tigers are dragging their feet for another year in 2021.
It might not win the Tigers the World Series, but a Moneyball approach surely would put the Tigers on the path to more wins and in a better position to make some bigger moves that could propel them to the World Series. After all, the Tigers are in a much better financial situation now than the A's were at the turn of the century. This doesn't even take into account pitching, the most promising area of the team.
*All Statistics are courtesy of Baseball Reference. https://www.baseball-reference.com