Detroit Tigers Newsletter: Some things never go out of style, like Beyoncé and 119 losses

Detroit Free Press

No matter how you measure it, 20 years is a long time.

Like, say, nine “Fast and the Furious” sequels — No. 2 came out on June 6, 2003, while No. 10 just hit theaters about six weeks ago.

Or 3,124 hits — yes, we’re talking one whole Miguel Cabrera career, as the Detroit Tigers slugger (then playing for the Florida Marlins) made his debut two weeks after “2 Fast 2 Furious,” on June 20, 2003.

Three weeks after that, Beyoncé hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a little ditty called “Crazy In Love” — the first of seven No. 1s for Queen Bey.

As you might have noticed, some things never go out of style, even after two decades.

On July 12, 2003, the day “Crazy In Love” hit No. 1, the Tigers lost their 67th game (in 91 tries), en route to an American League-record 119 losses that season.

And now, 20 years later — or nine “Fast” flicks, 3,000 Miggy mashes or seven Beyoncé bangers, however you want to count it — another franchise is making a run at that record — and could lose for the 67th time before next week’s All-Star break: The Oakland Athletics, who arrive in Detroit for a three-game set beginning Tuesday.

Hello, and welcome to The Biggest Losers Newsletter!

Don’t get us wrong — we’re hardly nostalgic for that “Summer of L” the Tigers (and their fans) went through, back in ’03. But, as they say, if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be the best at it. (In the AL, at least. The 1962 New York Mets still have the modern MLB record for losses, at 120.) And here come these upstart A’s, with their $57 million payroll — that’s not quite two Miggy contracts — and their 63 losses in 86 games. The 2023 A’s are on pace to lose 119 games — just like the ’03 Tigers.

And so, we got to thinking: Which team is actually worse?

We may not be fully able to answer that till we get to October, but we can at least break it down through 86 games, then and now. Let’s go through the figures and the faces, awarding one point to the better team in each category (as best we can figure), through the first 53.1% of the seasons:

THE WINS: Let’s start with some basic stats. Through 86 games, the ‘03 Tigers had just 21 wins, while the ’23 A’s have 23. Then again, the ‘03 Tigers were a bit unlucky; their expected wins (based on runs scored and allowed) was 26, while the luck of the ‘23 A’s has been nearly neutral, with 22 expected wins. Winner: Push.

AT THE PLATE: How about the offenses? The ’23 A’s are averaging 3.57 runs per game, while the ’03 Tigers mustered just 3.28 a game. Score one for the A’s! The Tigers’ offense, meanwhile, is even worse compared to its run environment; MLB teams in 2003 (the full season, not just 86 games, sorry) averaged 4.73 runs a game — the Tigers were 1.45 runs per game below that. However, 2023 teams are averaging just 4.57 runs a game — a full run more than the A’s. Winner: ’23 A’s.

ON THE MOUND: It’s almost the opposite story for the squads’ pitching staffs. (Oh, they’re both awful, don’t worry.) The ’03 Tigers gave up 5.22 runs per game, while the ’23 A’s are allowing 6.33 a game. How bad is that 6.33, by the way? That’s a pace of 1,025 runs this season! Only four MLB offenses have scored more than that in a year: the 1950 Boston Red Sox (1,027 runs) and the 1930, 1931 and 1936 New York Yankees (1,062, 1,067 and 1,065, respectively). In short, Oakland arms are delivering results like they’re facing Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey and Lou Gehrigevery game. It’s even worse when, again, we consider the run environments; the ’23 A’s are allowing 1.76 more runs than the league average, while the ’03 Tigers were just 0.49 runs over theirs. It’s an even starker difference if we compare ERAs; 45 unearned runs allowed by the Tigers left their ERA at 4.57, not far off the league ERA of 4.39, while the A’s have only allowed 33 unearned runs; their 6.07 ERA is 1.78 runs off 2023’s league mark of 4.29. Winner: ’03 Tigers.

C: BRANDON INGE VS. SHEA LANGELIERS — Inge, 26, was hitting just .150 with four homers when he was demoted to Triple-A in mid-June, after 58 games behind the place. (Recalled in early August, Inge put up a respectable .258/.309/.405 slash line the rest of the way.) Langeliers, 25, is faring slightly better, at .202 with nine homers. Winner: ’23 A’s.

1B: CARLOS PEÑA VS. RYAN NODA — In his first full season in Detroit after coming from Oakland in 2002’s Jeff Weaver deal (as depicted in the film “Moneyball”), Peña had a .725 OPS that was fifth on the roster, despite only 10 doubles and six homers. Noda has shown OK power — 15 doubles and eight home runs — and a stellar eye for the strike zone; his 57 walks lead the AL, a big chunk of his .784 OPS. Winner: ’23 A’s.

2B: RAMÓN SANTIAGO VS. TONY KEMP — The 23-year-old Santiago mustered just seven extra-base hits (all doubles) in 210 plate appearances (for an odd slash line of .228/.286/.266) while ceding the job to 29-year-old Warren Morris, the hero of LSU’s 1996 College World Series title, in early June, with Morris posting a .771 OPS for a month. Kemp, 31 is putting up Santiago-esque stats (.191/.286/.286). Winner: ’03 Tigers.

3B: ERIC MUNSON VS. JACE PETERSON — A breakout half for Munson, the No. 3 overall pick (gulp) by the Tigers in 1999, at age 25 brought 12 homers (second on the roster) and a solid .764 OPS. (He’d finish the season with just 18 homers, though.) Peterson is probably a better hitter than his .614 OPS suggests — but at 33, his ceiling is pretty clear … and pretty low. Winner: ’03 Tigers.

SS: OMAR INFANTE VS. NICK ALLEN/KEVIN SMITH/ALEDMYS DIAZ Infante was just 21 and at the start of a long MLB career, but he had almost zero power in the first half of 2003, with just four doubles and one triple while hitting .213. The A’s have shuffled their choices at short a lot, but for few returns — their .604 OPS at the position is the second-worst in the majors (just behind the Tigers, actually, at .607). Winner: Push.

LF: DMITRI YOUNG/CRAIG MONROE VS. JJ BLEDAY/SETH BROWN/BRENT ROOKER — That is a lot of names to process, but we can distill it down to this: Young and Rooker were the squads’ All-Star reps in these seasons, with Young popping 17 homers in 84 games and Rooker launching 13 in 71. (Monroe had nine homers in our 86-game set, but crushed 14 more in his final 65 games of ’03.) Winner: ’03 Tigers.

CF: ÁLEX SÁNCHEZ VS. ESTEURY RUIZ — A single for Sánchez presented him a chance to swipe second, too, as he swiped 15 bases after his late-May trade from the Brewers to the Tigers. Which was good, ‘cause he stunk at getting past first any other way, with just three doubles, two triples and one homer (and nine caught-stealings, oof). Ruiz certainly has more pop, with 19 doubles, and way more speed, with an MLB leading 42 steals (though his eight caught-stealings are also tops in the majors). Winner: ’23 A’s.

RF: BOBBY HIGGINSON VS. RAMÓN LAUREANO — The worst year of Higginson’s Tigers tenure, with a .664 OPS to open the year, coincided with his biggest salary — at $11.85 million, he was the most expensive Tiger by more than $3 million. Laureano is more of a bargain — at $3.55 million, he’s only the fifth-highest-paid Athletic — but his .635 OPS before hitting the injured list in late June doesn’t exactly scream “savings.” Winner: ’03 Tigers.

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DH: DMITRI YOUNG VS. BRENT ROOKER — It’s a rematch from left field, which should tell you something about the defense of Young and Rooker. Still, the Tigers got a .937 OPS in 40 at-bats from Kevin Witt (and a .397 OPS in 78 at-bats from Dean Palmer), while the A’s have gotten a .525 OPS in 33 at-bats from Jesús Aguilar. Winner: ’03 Tigers.

THE ROTATION —The Tigers threw Jeremy Bonderman to the wolves at age 20; despite his 75 strikeouts in his first 97 innings, he racked up 13 losses — one of three Tigers starters on pace to lose 20 games. (Only Mike Maroth made it, however, thanks to a timely move to the bullpen for Bonderman late in the season.) Amazingly, the A’s have no pitcher on pace to lose 20 games — mostly because they have just one pitcher (JP Sears, who sports a solid-for-this-squad 4.43 ERA and will take the mound on Tuesday) on pace to make 30 starts. Of their five other pitchers with at least seven starts this season, all five have ERAs above SIX. Winner: ’03 Tigers.

THE BULLPEN — This might be the biggest difference between the two teams; the ’03 Tigers used 12 relievers for a combined 4.28 ERA over 275⅓ innings. The ’23 A’s relievers — all 25 of them — have combined for a 5.76 ERA in 358 innings. Not only has no team in baseball gotten less from its relievers than the A’s, with minus-3.4 WAR, it’s not even close — the next worst bullpen (Washington) has produced plus-0.2 WAR. Winner: ’03 Tigers.

So who’s better at the 86-game mark, the ’03 Tigers or the ’23 Athletics? In the 14 categories we covered — which, yes, might understate the importance of pitching, as well as just how bad Oakland has it this season — we give the Tigers a 8-4 edge with a pair of ties. So will the A’s keep sinking far enough to challenge the Tigers’ AL record for losses? We’ll have a much better idea after this week’s series at Comerica Park.

Mark your calendar

As far as we know, presents — other than perhaps a freshly grilled brat or a chilled canned beverage of choice at a barbecue — aren’t usually exchanged for the Fourth of July. And yet the Tigers got us two of them: The returns of left-handers Tarik Skubal and Eduardo Rodriguez against the A’s on Tuesday and Wednesday! (The Freep’s Jeff Seidel was in the park in Ohio for Skubal’s final rehab start Wednesday. Get the report from him here.) Skubal will be making his first big-league appearance since Aug. 1, 2022, a span of 337 days, while Rodriguez’s IL stint will have been much shorter — just 38 days. Head here to find out from the Freep’s Evan Petzold what the workload plans look like for the duo this week. After the three-game series with the A’s wraps up on Thursday, the Tigers return to the slaughterhouse of the AL East, the division they opened the year going 2-14 against, as the Toronto Blue Jays hit Comerica Park for the final series before the All-Star break.

Tigers’ birthdays this week: Frank Tanana (70 on Monday), Jason Thompson (69 on Thursday), Josh Harrison (36 on Saturday).

Mike check

That wrap-up game against the A’s, by the way, will feature the Tigers’ lone All-Star this year, starting pitcher Michael Lorenzen, taking the mound. The right-hander was MLB’s surprise pick Sunday for the Midsummer Classic (slated for July 11 in Seattle) despite less-than-stellar numbers over the past month. (How much of a surprise? He made our list of candidates at the beginning of June, but not the updated edition on Saturday, thanks to a 6.28 ERA over his past five starts. Whoops.) Still, Lorenzen didn’t let the surprise diminish the honor; head here to find out from Our Man Petzold why Lorenzen called the moment “a dream come true.”

Relief from relief?

Yes, you read that right: The Tigers will have three straight games with a set starter. And then two more against the Blue Jays, with Reese Olson penciled in for Friday night and Matt Manning on Saturday afternoon before the cycle starts again, like a  … what’s the word? … rotation? Of course, the Tigers are finally getting their starters back in order just as they appear to have mastered the “bullpen” game; they’re 6-1 this year when mixing and matching relievers for all nine innings. What’s the secret? Head here to get the report from Our Man Petzold on why the Tigers have seemingly embraced “unpredictability,” according to manager A.J. Hinch.

That’s the power of glove

Of course, the demands on the pitching staff go down a bit when Javier Báez is turning in Gold Glove-level defense at shortstop. After a pair of games with an error last week, Báez doubled down on his infield practice in Denver over the weekend, delivering “the best defensive play of the year” — and also hit a grand slam Sunday afternoon. Our Man Petzold has the story on how El Mago’s study session paid off in a big way.

3 to watch …

MASON ENGLERT: The rookie reliever has found an extra boost with a new throwing program.

ERIC HAASE: The veteran catcher is looking for a boost, with his power waning along with his playing time.

CASEY MIZE: Could the 2018 No. 1 overall pick return in 2023 after last year’s Tommy John surgery.

And one to grow on

The continuing adventures of 2020 fifth-round pick Colt Keith is beginning to feel like a recurring segment in this newsletter, much like a couple other prospects we could think of. The 21-year-old made his Triple-A debut Wednesday, and what a debut it was: 3-for-4 with a homer in a wild win over the Guardians’ affiliate from Columbus, Ohio. Head here to find out from Our Man Seidel how an ex-coach with a horse head got him motivated. That was followed two days later by a 3-for-5 performance (with another home run) on Friday night. Columbus finally held him hitless Saturday and Sunday (though Keith walked in both games to keep his 10-game on-base streak going).

TL;DR

And just as some things are timeless — ahem, the entire “Fast” franchise, the Bey Hive, Miggy blowing through a stop sign from the third-base coach — there are some things whose time is not quite here. Such as “colachup,” the — and we are NOT making this up — cola-infused ketchup that Pepsi has created and will be offering for one day only at Comerica Park (and three other ballparks) on Tuesday. Colachup … on a hot dog? That’s like pairing Beyoncé with … Ed Sheeran, or something.

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

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