Why the numbers are lying about the state of Detroit’s pro sports scene

Detroit Free Press

Detroit’s major professional sports teams have struggled. This isn’t news.

Though for FiveThirtyEight — a website that built its statistical bona fides on interpreting political polls, but has since expanded into the numbers of sports —  the Motor City’s sporting misery was worth investigating.

The site’s Andrew Mooney published an analysis this week detailing the degree to which the Lions, Pistons, Wings and Tigers have stunk recently.  

His findings?

They are bleak, as you would guess. Basically, no city has it as bad as us. Not in the last 25 years, anyway.

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He used math to prove it.

Mooney came up with a Z-score — also known as a standard score, or a way to measure a data point against the mean — using winning percentages to rank the misfortune. (A city had to have at least three professional teams from the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and WNBA to make the study.)

Detroit, he wrote, is in the midst of “an unprecedented three-year run of ignominy.”

But then you knew that. Or at least felt it.

Perhaps you didn’t know that in the last 25 years, no city has experienced more losing than Detroit did in 2020. And that Detroit has three of the worst 11 years — 2019 and 2021 also made the cut.

Other cities have bad years. Just not a stretch of years, as we have recently.

Take Houston, for example, which saw its teams lose more in 2013 than any non-detroit city during the analysis’ span. But at least the Texans had a winning record the next year.

Also, since all that losing in 2013, the Astros won a World Series — using a Detroit pitcher, thank you — and the Rockets played in the conference finals … twice. So enough about Houston.

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But this is about Detroit, and its historic three-year run — and the numbers FiveThirtyEIght used to give weight to what you’ve been feeling.

The problem is, maybe you aren’t quite feeling the way you did, even six months ago. In that time, the Tigers, while still under .500, have topped most win predictions played winning baseball for three full months — the longest such stretch since 2016.

Also, the Pistons showed pluck and youthful promise throughout the winter and then won the NBA draft lottery and selected Cade Cunningham No. 1 overall. Cunningham then showed during Summer League in Las Vegas that he has the skill and talent to become special.

The Red Wings, meanwhile, still feel a long way off and didn’t have the same lottery luck.

And yet …

There are a few pieces already in town, general manager Steve Yzerman has a track record, and, well, it takes forever to rebuild a franchise in the NHL. Wings fans understand this. The faith remains.

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Then there are the Lions, who play in a league designed for the quick turnaround, which only makes the 60-some years of searching in the dark even more painful.

Then Sunday happened, bringing a brand-new reign of confusion.

Do you focus on the first 54 minutes of the Lions’ opener against San Francisco? When the 49ers reminded you what a Super Bowl contender looks like and the Lions reminded you of, well, the past 60-some years of futility?

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Or do you zero in on the last 6 minutes or so, when the Lions scored 16 quick points and had a shot at a tie?

Well, you’re a Lions’ fan, you’re conditioned to dream. Call it an evolutionary survival skill.

Even so — even if you’ve written the Lions off — there’s no denying the Tigers pumped a little juice into our sporting scene this summer, and there are more promising youngsters on the way, not so far off in Toledo.

The Pistons did, too, especially if you stayed up late for Cunningham’s star turns in Vegas.

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Even if you’re not too hopeful about the Wings yet, that’s still two out of four, depending on where you fall with the Lions.

The Tigers’ few winning months in 2021 haven’t done enough to keep Detroit from making FiveThirtyEight’s misfortune list. Nor will the Lions likely shift the equation any time soon.

But there is misfortune. And there is misfortune. And it’s not all created equally.

Two years ago today, the Tigers were the worst team in baseball, with just 45 wins in 149 games. The Wings were about to start a season in which they’d finish 29 points behind the next worst team. The Lions were unbeaten — at 1-0-1 — but would lose 12 of their next 14 games. And while the Pistons were coming off a playoff appearance — a sweep by Milwaukee in the first round — in no way did that team feel like it had a future.

I would posit that despite the numbers detailing how bad the Detroit sporting scene has been, the feeling is different than it was in 2019. And that as bad as it’s been, even with those records for “ignominy,” our teams won’t stay down forever.

Now, about those Lions …

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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