After a tremendous start to the season (9-1), to say the Tigers collapsed would be an understatement. It was true that the team was in the latter stages of its possible championship window, with an aging roster and recent additions David Price and Yoenis Cespedes not under contract in 2016, but the team was hoping to squeeze another October run before an inevitable offseason roster overhaul.
Needless to say, a record of 65-88 following the first two weeks of the season meant that the roster overhaul happened sooner than the offseason, with Price, Cespedes, and Joakim Soria all traded in late July. Furthermore, the overhaul didn’t end with the players, as General Manager Dave Dombrowski didn’t last more than a few days after making the difficult (but correct) decision to eliminate even the slimmest of chances that the team could make a late season run.
There were a number of reasons for the downfall. Victor Martinez’s four year contract through 2018 immediately began looking like a liability. Nick Castellanos’s promise was not turning into production, as he put forth a second straight subpar year at the hot corner. Miguel Cabrera was still Miguel Cabrera when healthy, but he missed 42 games due to injury, the most in his entire career since his 2003 rookie season. The Tigers’ bullpen was not a roster strength, though Dombrowski had spent the last few years faking his way through the season with a subpar bullpen (even if it blew up in the team’s face in multiple offseasons).
However, despite all of those things, the chart below shows why the Tigers’ overall collapse occurred as quickly and dramatically as it did.
American League Starting Pitching WAR Rank, 1997-2015
The chart above shows all American League starting pitching staffs that led the league in Wins Above Replacement from 1997 to 2015, and that staff’s WAR ranking the following season. For example, in 1997 the Yankees starting pitchers led all starting pitching staffs in WAR. They also led the league in 1998, and in 1999 had the second highest WAR (the Pedro Martinez-led Red Sox took over top honors for the next two years).
Though it’s difficult to stay on top in professional sports, if a team has a quality pitching staff one year they’re likely to rank near the top of the league the following season as well (and in many instances remain in the top spot). Collapses like the Tigers had in 2015 have simply not happened in the past 20 years in the American League. The biggest fall in ranking a team had before Detroit’s 2015 collapse was the 2012 Yankees, who led the league in 2011 and fell to fifth place in 2012. From 1997 to 2015, starting staffs who led the league in WAR also led the league in WAR the following year 9 times, and the other 9 times the staff fell from the top spot. On average, before the Tigers’ collapse the average WAR ranking for staffs following the year they led the league was second place.
It’s not terribly surprising that the Tigers ranked as poorly as they did. A total of 12 starting pitchers took the bump for the team, and though Randy Wolf’s “return” made for a nice story (sort of), when a pitcher who missed the entire 2013 season and hasn’t posted a sub-5.00 ERA since 2011 makes 7 starts, a team can’t be expected to have an elite staff.
Overall the starting pitchers had shockingly-low WAR of -8.1. What makes that even more astounding is that David Price posted a WAR of 3.5 for the team before being traded to Toronto. By definition of WAR, had Price’s starts been taken by a replacement-level pitcher who posted a WAR of 0.0, the team’s WAR could have sunk even lower to -11.6. (Of course, given the Tigers’ inability to find even replacement-level production from other stopgap starters, this theoretical WAR could be reduced even further.)
While many agreed that Dombrowski didn’t deserve to be fired (especially mid-season), it quickly became clear that his offseason trades before the 2015 season did not work out. Shane Greene could still have a semi-productive career, but hasn’t yet proven to be the cost-controlled asset in the rotation the Tigers hoped he would be. Alfredo Simon was a bit of a flyer, but when a team’s rotation is led with 31 starts by a player with negative WAR, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the rotation.
Of course, the rotation isn’t expected to be nearly as bad in 2016. The team would be foolish to expect the same production seen a few years ago from both Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, though if at least one of those pitchers can stay healthy and reasonably productive in 2016 (not a completely unreasonable assumption), the rotation will immediately be much better off. It’s fair to assume that at least one of the pitchers acquired in the David Price trade (Matt Boyd or Daniel Norris) will remain in the rotation for most of 2016. Beyond that, new GM Al Avila will have some work to do to fill out the rest of the rotation, though that’s a good start for any team who suffered such a monumental collapse from its starters the year prior.