One of the most renowned notions in Detroit Tigers history comes from the great Sparky Anderson, whose 1984 squad set the record for most wins over the first 40 games in a season while going wire-to-wire to lead the franchise to its first World Series win since 1968. It was that season that inspired the 40-game metric — the concept that states that until a team has played 40 games, they are an unknown value.
In the years that have passed since that storybook finish for the Olde English D, the 40-game metric gets brought up every season early on as everyone tries to figure out what they have on their hands that summer. Sometimes, it provides a solid litmus test for the team the franchise is fielding, but others, not so much. Clearly, it is an inexact science but it has nonetheless found a way to perpetuate itself over a few generations of fans.
This week, I asked the Bless You Boys staff to provide their thoughts on the first 39 games of the 2023 campaign, per Anderson’s old adage. Here is what we have to offer.
Frisbee Pilot: Who was that football coach in that rant many years ago who, at a postgame presser, angrily yelled, “They were who we THOUGHT they were!”, or words to that effect? That’s the ‘23 Tigers for me.
They hit a bit more than they did last year on average, their pitching is holding up with some nice developing back-end-bullpen pieces (remember, kids, “relievers are fungible”), and while they’re not “owning the strike zone” like one Mr. Harris said he’d be aiming for, their strike-throwing is up and, heck, even Javy Báez is striking out less these days. I’ve also been impressed with the defense overall; sure, there are some embarrassing plays here and there, but even good teams have those.
Do they drive you crazy at times? Well, is the Pope Catholic? Yes, and yes. However... a little less crazy than last year, probably due to E-Rod’s nice string of starts lately. They always say that good starting pitching is contagious, so let’s see if his fine form of late can rub off on the likes of Faedo, Boyd and Wentz.
Brandon Day: Feels about as expected in terms of win total. They’ve played better than the sum of their parts with the aggressive substitutions, some timely hitting, and a pretty effective bullpen in winnable games, despite the lack of names involved. In short, they’ve been fun most of the time and usually do the little things right. They’re playing a style of ball that bodes well for the future when they hopefully can add another couple of legitimate hitters while maintaining the flexibility and well-rounded skillsets on the roster overall.
With the rotation short for at least another few weeks, I’d just like to see them stay within range of .500. If they can hang in there, get Manning and eventually Skubal back, and get Malloy ready for his call-up, they may be able to keep things interesting all summer long, and make those trade deadline decisions more difficult. That’s really all I’m hoping for, with the caveat that while Tork has swung the bat pretty well despite the weak results, we need to see the dingers start flying as the weather warms up. From Riley too, but he’s holding his own so far in terms of overall productivity.
Brady McAtamney: There’s clearly something there with this team. There are guys who can play and want to be there. They seem like a cohesive enough unit. Despite there only being a few actual MLB regulars, the grouping of fill-ins does a good job of patching the numerous holes in the lineup to keep this thing afloat. Now, are they permanent solutions? Hell no. But of the players who are playing 2-3 games per series, I expect at least a handful to still be around once the team becomes actually, legitimately competitive. Riley is here to stay. Javy has finally found his footing and, hopefully, can be consistently good. Tork’s beginning to provide a punch. Those three can, should and, I think, will be better as time goes on, too. Maybe a Kerry Carpenter, Zack McKinstry or Matt Vierling can blossom until a bona fide regular. And maybe, just maybe, Austin Meadows plays baseball again.
Then there’s the pitching. ERod and Lange are studs. No notes. I have faith in Manning. Foley has been quite good. Lorenzen, Englert and Faedo are adequate, I guess, for now. The rest… worries me. Boyd and Wentz fully suck. Cisnero inspires zero confidence in me. Vest and Holton have held up so far, but I’m not banking on that to continue. Alexander and Shreve (albeit to a lesser extent) are buns. And who the hell knows what’s going on with Turnbull outside of the fact that he’s been unequivocally awful?
Should Manning and, later on, Skubal return healthy and pitching the way we know they can, it gives us more options. Boot Wentz and Boyd to the bullpen. Hell, maybe even Beau Brieske can come back and eat some innings.
Anyway, all that to say that the Tigers are flawed. Nobody expected a World Series run. But there’s clearly stuff to like based on these first 39 games, and their mediocre record as opposed to an abhorrent one like we’ve grown accustomed to reflects that.
Mr. Sunshine: Better than expected, especially missing four major parts of the rotation (Skubal, Mize, Manning, Turnbull pitching injured), two outfield bats with pop (AMeadows, Carp), having two utter deadweight veterans (Cabrera, Schoop), a bullpen made of guys you’d never heard of before this season (Holton, our rule 5 Englert, Shreve), and hitters who hadn’t succeeded before this season.
The bullpen has by far been the most pleasant surprise. Lange, Foley, Vest, and Holton have ERAs below 2.60, with sustainable WHIPs too (at or below 1.0). Shreve’s been better, Englert has been surprisingly solid in longer relief, and while Cisnero and Alexander are shaky, there are reinforcements in Toledo if the team decides to move on.
Frisbee: Bang-on about Englert. What a nice surprise he’s been.
Peter Kwasniak: So, back at the end of March, when the BYB staff all picked their predictions for the season, I was the most negative and predicted a finish of 71-91. My reasoning was simple. This team burned me last year by getting my hopes up and I wasn’t about to let that happen again.
This was largely the same team that woefully underperformed last year, less key bullpen pieces. They had swung some trades that made sense and brought in some interesting potential but it felt like a shuffling of minor parts. I figured that while they would get a reprieve from being a case study in Murphy’s Law, the losses in the bullpen would hand them more late-inning losses than wins. And through April 14th, it seemed I had been largely correct, and possibly too optimistic. And then that day, Báez made his baserunning blunder and everything came to a head and AJ Hinch benched his star player to send a message. Well, it’s been a month since then, and by golly, it seems to have worked.
Let me hit you with some selected stats. Prior to April 15, here’s how the Tigers were doing.
- Record: 3-9
- Runs per game: 3.0
- wRC+: 60 (30th in MLB)
- EV: 88.0 MPH (23rd in MLB)
- Hard Hit: 37.3% (18th in MLB)
- O-Swing% (via Statcast): 32.6% (27th in MLB)
Now here’s how they’ve been in their last 30 days, since April 15.
- Record: 15-12
- Runs per game: 3.81
- wRC+: 90 (23rd in MLB)
- EV: 89.9 MPH (6th in MLB)
- Hard Hit: 41.5% (9th in MLB)
- O-Swing% (via Statcast): 28.8% (18th in MLB)
It’s not an elite run-scoring offense but the quality of the at-bats has gone up considerably. They are staying more disciplined in the zone, and they are driving the ball hard when they connect. This is the approach Scot Harris has preached since day 1. My gosh, just look at Javy Báez: 47.7% O-Swing in 2022 (dead last among qualified hitters).
This year he’s up to 42.3% which is… okay, it’s second-worst in MLB, but still if they can teach Javy to lay off junk 5% less, this is encouraging. Javy is currently sporting his lowest career K% (16.4%) and second-highest BB% (5.3%). If this is the Javy we’re going to get the rest of the year, well then this team will probably be watchable. And more than that, it’s a team I can do something I wasn’t able to do all of last year: hope on.
Right before the last series against Cleveland, I found myself looking at Adam’s preview and looking at the pitching matchups. I found myself thinking, “They can win this series”, and I had to fight myself on that though because I DID NOT WANT TO HOPE ON THIS TEAM.
And you know what? They won that series. Boy, it’s been a LONG time since I was able to look at upcoming schedules and feel optimistic about matchups. But here they are about to kick off 12 games and they have a real chance to do something they haven’t been able to do since 2017, and that’s have a winning record outside of April. They need to go 8-4 to do it, and…as much as I don’t want to do this… they totally can do this! Wow, this team is fun again.
Ashley MacLennan: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Tigers so far, which isn’t to say they’ve been great, but after many seasons of wincing my way through abysmal performances, I no longer feel like I need to drink every time I watch a Tigers game, so that’s something.
Cam Kaiser: The Tigers are slightly better than I expected them to be, but it’s how they’re winning games that is giving me hope. They really only have three guys playing every day in Baez, Greene, and Tork, and are using platoon advantages to the extreme similar to the Giants under Gabe Kapler.
They’re getting the most out of a bullpen that could use more high strikeout arms. They’re playing excellent defense. These are the little things you need to do to win when you lack talent. For years, Detroit has failed to win within the margins.
This 40-game stretch shows a total shift in organizational philosophy, and even if this season ends with the Tigers finishing outside of the playoff picture, the style of play and management is a great sign of things to come in the Scott Harris era.
David Rosenberg: So it hasn’t been the disaster of a season we all expected from the Tigers, but there’s not that much to latch on to when you look at the big picture. This club still has a ways to go before it competes for the playoffs, and the biggest questions right now are the same ones that have kept the Tigers in limbo for a few years (e.g. do they trade the pieces that are doing well for the future?).
E-Rod and Lange are clearly talented, but is that enough to build around? Same goes for Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and Zach McKinstry.
Javy playing better since the benching might be the most encouraging sign for me through the first 40 games, but it’ll take an equally competitive next 40 games to convince me that this organization is finally headed in the right direction under Harris.
Adam Dubbin: To say the least, I have been pleasantly surprised at how well this team has played against non-AL East squads so far, and if you Porcello out those games this is a competitive-looking team. Of course, it does not work that way, so my approach is comparing the current status of the team to my preseason prediction of 75 wins.
Given that Detroit’s current win percentage is .462 if you spread that rate across a full 162-game schedule you get... 74.8, which rounds up to 75. So I cannot act too surprised at how the Tigers have done thus far but I will admit that the contributions both on the mound and at the plate have come from sources I did not exactly expect.
It is a long summer so there will be plenty of ups and downs, ebbs and flows, flotsam and jetsam, yadda yadda yadda, but my takeaway as we round the quarter point of the season is that just as Frisbee pointed out, these Tigers are who we think they are. Or at least, who I thought they were.
Now that you have heard our collective take on the current state of the Detroit Tigers, let the rest of us know how you feel in the comments below!