By Jim Baker
Special to Page 2

The hell with next year.

That's what you should be thinking if you are a Tigers fan. The last thing on a Detroit rooter's mind right now should be next year or the year after that or, heaven forbid, the year after that. No, a Tigers fan should be spending every moment relishing the greatest three-year turnaround ever -- from a 43-119 record in 2003 to a possible 100 wins in 2006 -- and one of the best single-season turnarounds.

The rest of us, though, can wonder if an improvement like this is sustainable. Are the Tigers, led by their young pitching staff, a dynasty in the making or a one-year fluke?

Lots of teams improve by 20 games. It happens nearly every season. If, however, the parameters are set as going from 75 wins or fewer to 95 wins or more -- as the Tigers will do this year -- the company becomes more select. We chose these thresholds because 95 wins will usually land one a title of some sort or, at least, into the midst of a pennant race. Prorating for the 154-game schedule, only 20 teams have done it since 1901:

75 OR FEWER WINS TO 95 OR MORE WINS
Year Team 1st year 2nd year Improved 3rd year 4th year 5th year
2001-02 Anaheim 75-87 99-63 .148 77-85 92-70 95-67
1999-00 St. Louis 75-86 95-67 .120 93-69 97-75 85-77
1999-00 White Sox 75-86 95-67 .120 83-79 81-81 86-76
1998-99 Arizona 65-97 100-62 .216 85-77 92-70 98-64
1992-93 Philadelphia 70-92 97-65 .167 54-61 69-75 67-95
1992-93 Giants 72-90 103-59 .192 55-60 67-77 68-94
1990-91 Minnesota 74-88 96-67 .129 90-72 71-91 53-60
1989-90 Pittsburgh 74-88 95-67 .129 98-64 96-66 75-87
1983-84 Cubs 71-91 96-65 .158 77-84 70-90 76-85
1968-69 Mets 73-89 100-62 .166 83-79 83-79 83-73
1960-61 Cincinnati 67-87 93-61 .169 98-64 86-76 92-70
1953-54 N.Y. Giants 70-84 97-57 .166 80-74 67-87 69-85
1952-53 Braves 64-89 92-62 .179 89-65 85-69 92-62
1945-46 Red Sox 71-83 104-50 .214 83-71 96-59 96-58
1929-30 Washington 71-81 94-60 .143 92-62 93-61 99-53
1913-14 Braves 69-82 94-59 .157 83-69 89-63 72-81
1911-12 Washington 64-90 91-61 .183 90-64 81-73 85-68
1908-09 A's 68-85 95-58 .177 102-48 101-50 90-62
1902-03 N.Y. Giants 48-88 84-55 .251 106-47 105-48 96-56

 

As you can see, a disproportionate number have done it in the last 15 years. First, some quick takes on the older teams and then a closer look at the more recent franchises.

1902-03 Giants: The arrival of John McGraw saw the Giants jump to second, then the pennant, then the world championship. They remained competitive but were no match for the great Cubs onslaught that followed.

1908-09 A's: 1908 was basically an aberrant season for Connie Mack's men, their only losing campaign in the first 14 years of their existence. 1909 was a return to form that held for a half-decade and resulted in three world championships and a pennant.

1911-12 Senators: Bob Groom's best season complemented another insane year from Walter Johnson, giving Washington a respectability it had not known before. It lasted for a while, but it would be another 13 years before they saw a season like 1912 again.

1913-14 Braves: Very few of the so-called "miracle" teams were really miracles. Let's be honest, none of them would get anybody canonized. The 1914 Braves come closest, though. If there's any team that best resembles the rise of the current Tigers, it would be these Braves. Their 2003 equivalent came in 1911 when they went 44-107, a .291 winning percentage that looks downright robust compared to the Tigers' 43-119 showing in '03. They hung on in the first division for two years before returning to the grind house for the next 15 years.

1929-30 Senators: After winning back-to-back pennants in 1924-25, the Senators did not sink too far out of the picture -- just far enough in '29 to barely qualify for this list. For the first three years of their bounce-back they were consistently excellent, and it then paid off with a pennant in 1933 when the Yankees slipped and Connie Mack went all Scrooge again.

1945-46 Red Sox: It's easy to get better when you've got Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and Rudy York instead of Skeeter Newsome, Johnny Lazor and Catfish Metkovich. Boston did sustain its success and, with a couple of different bounces here and there, could have had a dynasty in the late '40s.

1952-53 Braves: Like the 1990-2001 Braves team that just missed making this list (the '91 Braves won 94 games), this version never looked back. 1953 was their first year in Milwaukee, and although they didn't come close to a pennant after 1960, they never finished below .500 while playing in Wisconsin.

1953-54 Giants: The sweep of the Indians in the '54 World Series would prove to be the last hurrah of the Giants as a New York entity. After slipping under .500, they returned to .500 in their first year in San Francisco in 1958 and stayed there for 14 years. A West Coast championship continues to elude the franchise, however.

1960-61 Tigers: The Tigers went 27-9 against the expansion Senators and the Angels in 1961, greatly helping their improvement. It did not prove sustainable.

1960-61 Reds: Cincinnati played about as well the following year, but the Giants and Dodgers played better. The Reds remained competitive for most of the rest of the decade before putting it all together in the '70s.

1968-69 Mets: The Mets were called a miracle team, but the '68 club wasn't all that bad, really. Now, if they'd won it all in 1967 after what had come directly before -- that would have been a true miracle. In the two seasons after '69, Tom Seaver maintained his greatness while Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry did not get back to the heights of the championship season. The '72 team was so decimated by injuries that not a single player had over 100 hits. They were outscored by 50 runs but, owing to a 33-15 record in one-run games, managed to stay above .500.

1983-84 Cubs: It didn't take the Cubs long to go back to being the Cubs. Let's say this: Chicago doesn't waste a lot of effort on mediocre seasons. If they bother to finish over .500, they usually make the playoffs. This is the third-worst post-rise showing of any team on the list other than the '92-93 Phillies and Giants.

Now, for the more recent teams:

1989-90 Pittsburgh Pirates
Won-Loss: from 74-88 to 95-67
Runs Scored: up 15%
Runs Against: down 9%

How did they get better? In 1989, the Pirates were essentially a two-man offense, with Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds doing most of the heavy lifting. Not only did Bonds take his game to another level the next year -- he had been improving incrementally to that point -- but Andy Van Slyke bounced back from injuries to play more like he had in 1988. Second baseman Jose Lind was one of the great offensive black holes in '89 but came back to at least be above replacement level. Shortstop Jay Bell had his first full complement of at-bats and played well. Catchers Mike LaValliere and Don Slaught were on base a lot. On the pitching side, John Smiley collapsed but Zane Smith, acquired from the Braves, picked up the slack to back ace Doug Drabek.

What happened then? The Pirates got better and won two more division titles in '91 and '92, although they lost Bonilla to free agency after '91. In 1992, they secured Van Slyke to a lucrative long-term deal but failed to do so for Bonds. When he left for the Giants in '93 and Van Slyke went down with injuries, there wasn't much left. When Drabek split for Houston via free agency, Steve Cooke was the only pitcher to post a sub.-4.00 ERA as '92 playoff hero Tim Wakefield collapsed (5.61 ERA) and Bob Walk (5.68 ERA) got old. They've been living in sub-.500 hell ever since.

1990-91 Minnesota Twins
Won-Loss: from 74-88 to 95-67
Runs Scored: up 17%
Runs Against: down 11%

How did they get better? The Twins and their World Series opponent, the Braves, became the first teams since the 1890 Louisville Colonels of the American Association to go from last place to first. Unlike the Colonels, the Twins and Braves didn't need a players' revolt, the formation of a new league and the jumping of the champion to a rival loop to help make it happen.

Sending for the services of free agents Chili Davis and Jack Morris and adding them to competent players like Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Brian Harper and Shane Mack did much to turn it around. Rookie Chuck Knoblauch was a big upgrade over Al Newman at second base, and Kevin Tapani deserved a much better fate than seventh place in the AL Cy Young voting. He was actually better than teammates Morris, who finished fourth, and Scott Erickson, who finished second. Twins pitchers got seven first-place votes with winner Roger Clemens getting the rest.

What happened then? They held it together one more year and then faded. Morris left via free agency for Toronto, although John Smiley picked up the slack the first year. Tapani and Erickson never hit the heights of '91 again, Davis left after '92, and Mack tailed off as well.

As for the '91 Braves, they jumped to first behind a young trio of pitchers named Smoltz (24 years old), Glavine (25) and Avery (21). Sound familiar, Tigers fans? Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman are 23 and Joel Zumaya is 21. Of course, in 1993 the Braves added Greg Maddux added to the mix.

1992-93 Philadelphia Phillies
Won-Loss: from 70-92 to 97-65
Runs Scored: up 28%
Runs Against: up 3%

How did they get better? To begin with, the '92 Phillies were not as bad as their 70-92 record indicated (they were outscored only 717 to 686). The biggest difference between the '92 and '93 teams was a healthy Lenny Dykstra. In '93, he hit a career-high 19 homers and had the second-best year of his career. Lineup stalwarts Darren Daulton and Dave Hollins actually had better seasons in '92, while John Kruk was essentially duplicating a fine effort. Jim Eisenreich, in a platoon role with Wes Chamberlain, was a big improvement over the Chamberlain/Ruben Amaro tandem from the year before. Shortstop was a major black hole in '92, and rookie Kevin Stocker helped there as a midseason call-up. Unlike any of the other teams on this list, the Phillies allowed more runs in their improvement year than they had the year before. Ace Curt Schilling fell off from '92, but Terry Mulholland stepped up his performance.

What happened then? Owing to the strike and injuries, Dykstra barely matched his 1993 plate-appearance total in the rest of his career. Daulton and Hollins were never the same, either. Schilling battled injuries for three seasons. Tommy Greene, who had pitched well in '93, was never the same again. The Phillies never replenished their injured stars and stayed below .500 into the 21st century.

1992-93 San Francisco Giants
Won-Loss: from 72-90 to 103-59
Runs Scored: up 40.7%
Runs Against: down 1.7%

How did they get better? In 1992, the Giants used five different men in left field, chief among them Mike Felder and Kevin Bass. All told, they were about two wins above replacement level. Free agent Barry Bonds was 10 wins better than replacement level. Third baseman Matt Williams had a brutal season in '92 and was much more like himself the next year ('92: .227/.286/.384; '93: .294/.325/.561). Second baseman Robby Thompson made a great leap forward, too, although 1992's best player, Will Clark, had an off year. Mark Carreon did a lot of damage in just 169 plate appearances. The Giants improved despite giving one out of every 11 plate appearances to Darren Lewis. On the mound, Bill Swift was the team leader in both years but was much better in '93 (21-8, 2.82). For the first time in his career, John Burkett posted an ERA that was better than league average, won 22 games, and set a career high in innings pitched. The bullpen trio of Kevin Rogers, Mike Jackson and closer Rod Beck was outstanding.

What happened then? Giants starting pitching did not show well over the next three years. Swift battled injuries, but the overall decline wasn't necessarily a surprise -- other than Swift and Burkett, no '93 starter made more than 18 starts (for example, Trevor Wilson and Bud Black combined for 34 solid starts, but it was the last hurrah for both).

They also stopped scoring five runs per game as they had in '93. As a group, these teams got a lot worse the first year after their rise and then got slightly worse each of the next two seasons. Of the 20 teams, however, only these Giants followed the exact pattern of dropping off each year.

1998-99 Arizona Diamondbacks
Won-Loss: from 65-97 to 100-62
Runs Scored: up 37%
Runs Against: down 17%

How did they get better? From 1901 to 1976, about one team in every 120 pulled off this trick. Since then, it's been about one team in 75. One of the reasons for this increase in frequency is the quick fix of free agency. The Diamondbacks were able to piece together a winner faster than any other team in history, thanks, in part, to that. Their most important acquisition was Randy Johnson, who responded with one of the best five- or six-season runs of the expansion era. First-season ace Omar Daal was even better in '99, and free agent Greg Swindell did good work in the pen. Matt Mantei was acquired from Florida midyear and saved 22 games down the stretch. The D-Backs also pulled off one of the most one-sided trades of modern times, getting Luis Gonzalez from the Tigers for Karim Garcia. That alone represented a seven-win swing between the seasons.

What happened then? The team stayed competitive in 2000, adding Curt Schilling, won it all in 2001, won even more games the following year but then lost in the playoffs. In other words, they made about as much from their rise as one could hope.

1999-2000 Chicago White Sox
Won-Loss: from 75-86 to 95-67
Runs Scored: up 26%
Runs Against: down 5%

How did they get better? The White Sox caught the scoring wave and rode it to the top of the league, averaging six runs per game. Frank Thomas roared back after two contextually down years. In 1999, the White Sox allowed Mike Caruso to come to the plate 564 times -- many of them at the top of the order -- but replaced him with Jose Valentin. The swing from one of the worst players in the majors to one of the better shortstop seasons of 2000 earned the team about six wins. The pitching pretty much held its own, with Jim Parque showing the most improvement while Mike Sirotka continued to pitch well. In the bullpen, Keith Foulke wasn't quite as good as he was in '99 and Sean Lowe was quite a bit worse. Bobby Howry and Bill Simas added solid depth, however.

What happened then? Thomas missed most of 2001 and the team leveled off, even though it was a pretty young team -- Thomas was the oldest regular at 32, and third baseman Herbert Perry and Valentin were the only other 30-year-olds in the regular lineup. None of the marginal pitchers -- Parque, Sirotka, James Baldwin, Cal Eldred, Kip Wells -- improved much or remained healthy.

They played well in 2003, but the Twins played better and won the division. By 2005, GM Kenny Williams had essentially retooled the team, with only Paul Konerko, Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle and an injured Thomas still around for the World Series title.

1999-2000 St. Louis Cardinals
Won-Loss: from 75-86 to 95-67
Runs Scored: up 10%
Runs Against: down 8%

How did they get better? A team that just makes this list, the Cardinals benefited greatly by acquiring Jim Edmonds from Anaheim in spring training for Adam Kennedy and Kent Bottenfield. He helped overcome Mark McGwire's playing time being cut in half and a downturn in fortunes for Fernando Tatis. Fernando Vina came over from the Brewers and solidified second base. Will Clark showed up late in the season as a fill-in for McGwire and put together one of the best runs of his career. The Cards unloaded their two most effective starters from '99 (Bottenfield and Darren Oliver) but replaced four-fifths of their rotation to good effect. Darryl Kile and Pat Hentgen arrived via trades from Colorado and Toronto, respectively, while Andy Benes was a free-agent pickup from Arizona. Rookie Rick Ankiel was dynamite in his one lucid season.

What happened then? 2000 brought the Cardinals into an era that continues through today. Since then, they've had just one substandard season (2003), although it looks as though they're getting a free pass from the rest of the division this year.

2001-02 Anaheim Angels
Won-Loss: from 75-87 to 99-63
Runs Scored: up 23%
Runs Against: down by 12%

How did they get better? Garret Anderson, Adam Kennedy and Tim Salmon all made marked improvements from '01 to '02. Although they weren't what you'd call outstanding, Scott Spiezio and Darin Erstad were much better than they'd been in 2001 when they were operating at replacement level. The addition of Brad Fullmer was a big boost, as well. 2002 was also the one season that Ramon Ortiz figured it all out and got his ERA under 4.00. Jarrod Washburn was good in '01 and even better in '02. Then there was the story about the best bullpen in the league that got even better in the playoffs when they added Francisco Rodriguez.

What happened then? The Angels lost 14 points in team batting average the next season after leading the majors in that category. For another team, that wouldn't have been as much of a problem, but it was for the Angels since they were one of the least-prolific walking clubs in the game. The bullpen continued to be a strength even while the starters were practically disappearing. Four of their top five pitchers in '03 were relievers. The Angels weren't down long, however. New owner Arte Moreno infused the team with free agents to keep the downturn at just one year.


So, what does fate have in store for the Tigers? Only five of the 20 teams got better in the following season, so it might be a bit much to hope that this is an early-'90s Braves dynasty in the making. There's no reason the Tigers shouldn't stay competitive, though. A realistic view would have the Tigers remaining competitive in their division for two or three years, by which time they will -- like all teams -- have nearly made over their roster from this year. How well they do that -- and this management team seems rather adept at such matters -- will determine their fate.

Until the future, however ... there's still this year's fate to be determined.

Jim Baker is a contributor to Page 2 and also writes for Baseball Prospectus. Sound off to Page 2 here.




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