Detroit Tigers Newsletter: 2023 squad already challenging some of MLB’s worst teams

Detroit Free Press

Perhaps you’ve seen — or shared — that meme going around social media these days, as the weather oh-so-slowly transitions from “freezing” to “really cold, but sunny, so where’re my shorts?” detailing “The 11 seasons of Michigan”: “Second winter,” “mud season,” “summer,” “second summer,” and so on.

It’s not that far off the roller coaster we often go through with the Detroit Tigers every season, and especially this one.

We’ve burned through the hopeful season, aka “fool’s spring” — getting shut out on Opening Day and then no-hit for six innings in Game 3 will do that — as well as the “spring of deception,” aka, Second Opening Day, or, by Freep style, simply “the home opener.”

(In case you missed it, either in a parking lot downtown, or, y’know, actually working, you can relive the Tigers’ 6-3 loss to Boston on Thursday through the eyes of the Freep’s Jeff Seidel, who was fresh off seeing some winning baseball in Houston.)

And now, with all the fun baseball holidays exhausted, and some 80-degree days on the horizon, it’s time to review where the Tigers are at through nine games: Two wins. Seven losses.

Oh.

Hello, and welcome to the Mud Season Newsletter!

Seven losses in the first nine games may not seem like a lot — nine games, after all, is just 5.6% of the season; that means there’s at least 94% left. And yet, it’s still the Tigers’ worst start since 2008 — Miguel Cabrera’s first season in Detroit, in case you needed evidence of how long ago that was.

(And yes, the Miggy Magic was still present at the home opener, from his surprise first pitch with some Detroit sports legends, to his RBI single that reminded the Freep’s Carlos Monarrez of better days.)

The Tigers opened at 1-8, then won just 74 games all season. And that was with a Miggy who led the AL in homers.

Even worse, this season’s 2-7 record doesn’t really appear to be a fluke. With 62 runs allowed and just 27 scored, the Pythagorean projections puts the Tigers at … 2-7. Even worse than that, their minus-35 run differential is one of the worst through nine games since World War II. Here the list of all 15 MLB teams — again, over the past 78 seasons — that have been outscored by that many runs through nine games (and yes, there are a couple of other Tigers stinkers on there):

15. 2023 Tigers: -35

This year’s Tigers were bombed by the Rays (21-3 in three games), won a series in Houston (while being outscored, 17-15, in three games) and then were bombed again by the Red Sox (24-9 in three games). But it could always be worse …

14. 2021 Athletics: -36

These A’s gave up at least eight runs in each of their first five games, snapped a six-game skid to open the season with a one-run win in the 10th inning, then lost the next day … and then ripped off a 14-game winning streak (including a four game sweep of the Tigers by a combined 21-6 score). It was a weird season in Oakland, as the A’s finished 86-76 — not bad, but six games out of a playoff spot.

13. 2002 Tigers: -37

Losses in the first six games by a combined 40-13 score were enough to convince new team president Dave Dombrowski to fire GM Randy Smith AND manager Phil Garner. It didn’t help, as the Tigers lost five more en route — 11 straight to open the season to a 55-106 record and merely the No. 3 pick (right-hander Kyle Sleeth) in the draft, due to tiebreakers.

12. 1989 Yankees: -38

This Yanks squad won its opener, against the Twins, by two runs and its ninth game, against the Blue Jays, by two runs. It also lost the seven games between those by a combined 57-15 score. Why, yes, there was a midseason managerial change in the Bronx! It didn’t help much, with New York finishing 74-87.

T-9. 2007 Nationals, 2003 Tigers, 1962 Mets: -40

The Mets opened 0-9 and went on to lose an MLB-record 120 games. The Tigers opened 0-9 and won five out of their final six to only lose 119 and avoid breaking the Mets’ record. The Nats? They opened 1-8, but finished with three months of .500 ball (41-41) from July 1 on. So maybe there’s still hope?

8. 1952 Athletics: -41

How rough was the A’s 1-8 start as their time in Philadelphia wound down? They scored nine runs in Cleveland off future Hall of Famer Bob Feller (who’d led the AL in wins the previous season while finishing fifth in MVP voting) — and still lost, 21-9. Still, Philly had a star of its own in left-hander Bobby Shantz, who finished ’52 with 24 wins and a 2.48 ERA to win the 1952 AL MVP, as they became one of two teams on this list to finish with a winning record (79-75).

7. 1994 Twins: -41

A 14-0 loss to the A’s and a 15-0 loss to the M’s threw off the run differential of this squad, which rebounded from its 2-7 start to post winning records in May 16-8), June (15-12) and August (6-4). Would the Twins’ surge have continued? We’ll never know; the 1994 strike shut everything down in mid-August.

T-4. 1990 Braves, 1974 Padres, 1955 Orioles: -42

These teams finished with 94, 102 and 97 losses, respectively, but only two finished with the worst record in the majors. The O’s (in their second season in Baltimore) were shut out just once, but also gave up at least 12 runs four times in their first nine games, and finished four games up on the truly woeful ’55 Washington Senators and six games behind a worse team on this list. The Padres whiffed on their No. 1 overall draft pick but still won 11 more games the following season, while the Braves completed one of the great rebuilds of all time, going from worst in the majors to the 1991 World Series.

3. 2023 Athletics: -45

This season’s A’s have something in common with this season’s Tigers — MLB gave them three early games against the buzzsaw-esque Rays. And while the Tigers were almost competitive with Tampa Bay for two of their three games — 4-0 on Opening Day and 5-1 two days later seem almost pleasant — the A’s were not, losing 9-5, 11-0 and 11-0 for a series margin of 31-5 on Friday-Sunday.

2. 1988 Orioles: -48

To everyone calling for Tigers manager A.J. Hinch’s head — the O’s fired manager Cal Ripken Sr. after six straight losses (with a minus-38 differential), but things didn’t get much better under replacement Frank Robinson. Baltimore lost its first 21 GAMES before going 54-86 en route to 107 losses. (It did get better in 1989, however, as Robinson led the Birds to an 87-75 record that would have been playoff-worthy if the wild-card system had been around.)

1. 1955 Athletics: -57

The first of 13 seasons in Kansas City did not start well for this chaotic franchise, which rostered 53 players ranging from ages 16-39. Still, they probably weren’t as bad as their 2-7 start, which included a 16-0 loss to the Tigers in Detroit and a 29-6 loss to the White Sox at home, suggested; they rebounded to go 63-91, better than two of the AL’s seven other teams at the time.

So what can we take from these squads? The 13 teams on the list with completed seasons combined to go 802-1,226 over their full seasons, a winning percentage of .395 that’s equivalent to 64-98. Small wonder that just two finished with winning records, and six finished with a winning percentage below .400. In short — barring a sudden 2021 A’s-like flip by, uh, this week — we can probably start thinking about next summer’s draft already. (Though, oddly enough, just five of the 13 squads finished dead last in the majors; it looks like the A’s will be the Tigers’ prime competition there, too.)

Then again, if the Tigers don’t start scoring a few more runs soon, we can probably starting thinking about “false fall” already, too. Y’know — Lions season.

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Punch at the plate, pain in the ’pen

Of course, that the Tigers aren’t particularly good isn’t that surprising. Even the wildly optimistic projections had them topping out around 80 wins. But are the Tigers really as bad as they looked in St. Petersburg? Or as good as they looked in Houston (before they looked bad for a game)? Or as bad as they looked against the Red Sox this weekend? The Freep’s Evan Petzold pondered this, with some sage advice from manager A.J. Hinch: ” I don’t have time to reflect a ton, and it’s probably a good thing when you come off the Tampa series, but I also told our guys in our hitters meeting, we also have to leave Houston in the rear-view mirror.” Head here to find out why it’s not all bad, despite that ugly run differential.

Ready to cook?

You know what’s not ugly, though? The Tigers’ new clubhouse! (Look, they’re 2-7 already; you were expecting an ode to Jake Rogers? We’re saving that for National Mustache Day.) But seriously, the players are already reaping the benefits of Comerica Park’s interior renovation in Year 24, with left-hander Tarik Skubal — who has some extra time to ponder it as he rehabs from last year’s surgery — delivering the ultimate compliment: “It’s probably the nicest kitchen I’ve ever been in.” Head here to get further rave reviews from Our Man Petzold.

BAAAAAAADDDDDDOOOOOOOO!!!!*

While we’re on the topic of the injured list — gee, it feels like 2022 all over again — the Tigers made their first in-season move as outfielder Austin Meadows headed to the 10-day IL on Saturday with a return of last season’s anxiety issues. In his place, the Tigers called up Akil Baddoo from Toledo; he already has as many total bases (five) in two games as Nick Maton and Ryan Kreidler combined. Head here to get the plan for Meadows from Our Man Petzold.

*Your spelling may vary.

Ryan’s hope

Yes, Ryan Kreidler, like so many other Tigers, is struggling at the plate, with two hits (both singles) in 14 plate appearances. But the Tigers aren’t worried, and neither is his family, thanks to Kreidler’s consistency off the field and with his glove; head here to find out from Our Man Seidel why that is.

Mark your calendar

After today’s day off, it’s a busy week for the Tigers, with a three-game set in Toronto from Tuesday-Thursday, followed by a three-game set in Detroit against San Francisco (including the first night game of the season on Friday, featuring the new LED lights installed at Comerica Park a couple months ago). But before then, the Tigers will have to get through a tough Blue Jays team that swept the Royals and took two of three from the Angels. Spencer Turnbull is set to make his third start of the season in the series finale Thursday; Our Man Seidel chatted with the right-hander before his home opener start last week; head here to find out why he says “pitching with conviction” is one of the things he needs to do the most.

4 to watch

It’s a righty-heavy week vs. the Blue Jays and Giants, so maybe that bodes well for …

MATT MANNING: No Tigers starter has been better at throwing strikes in the actual strike zone than Tuesday’s starter in Toronto, at 51.7%.

NICK MATON: “Wolfie” has struggled at the plate, including four strikeouts Sunday, but he’s still bringing the energy.

ZACH McKINSTRY: In case you were wondering who would fill the “Kody Clemens mop-up arm” role, McKinstry threw an inning Saturday — and gave up a home run. Oops.

JONATHAN SCHOOP: The veteran infielder is platooning and facing mostly lefties; the Tigers aren’t set to face another one until Friday. Oops.

Happy birthday, Trey!

Tigers right-hander Trey Wingenter turns 29 on Saturday. The Alabama native has been busy this season, his first in the majors since 2019 due to injuries, with appearances in four of the Tigers’ nine games. That included picking up the Tigers’ first win of the season with a scoreless 10th inning last Monday in Houston, and Our Man Seidel was there for a wild finish.

Other Tigers birthdays this week: Frank Lary (would have been 93 on Monday; died in 2017), José Cisnero (34 on Tuesday), Barney McCosky (would have been 116 on Tuesday; died in 1996); Woodie Fryman (would have been 83 on Wednesday; died in 2011), Kyle Farnsworth (47 on Friday), Steve Avery (53 on Friday); Brad Ausmus (54 on Friday).

TL;DR

That 2008 season when the Tigers started 1-8 we mentioned earlier? That was Jim Leyland’s only losing season in eight years as the manager in Detroit. Now approaching 10 years since his retirement from managing (in which time the Tigers have had just two winning seasons), Leyland is spending more time on the golf course. Our Man Monarrez caught up with him there last month and discovered something new: Jim Leyland is the world’s most courteous golfer. Let’s just end our day with a moment of Zen from The Skipper: “When you manage, maybe the pitcher had a bad game or we didn’t hit or something. OK. But this? You’re on your own. You’re on that island by yourself. I liked that. I like it a lot.”

(We were just kidding about that “Lions season” stuff, by the way. We all know “Lions season” NEVER actually stops.)

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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