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The Tragedy of the Greatest Team to Ever Suck

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Many threads of late have bemoaned the fact that the careers of several all time great Tigers failed to bring a World Series title home to Detroit. This has led me to think about these past Verlander era teams quite a bit, and inspired me to make what we in the business call "an effort post", rather than another mediocre one liner.

Justin Verlander became a permanent big leaguer in the year 2006, and he remained with the Tigers until the 2017 season. During that time, the Tigers made the playoffs five times, six if you count the game 163 loss to the Twins, losing the World Series twice, and the LCS twice. They posted a combined record of 1,014-929. Verlander himself won 183 of those games. There were some amazing seasons in here, from the 2006 team that surprised everyone, the 2011 team when Verlander won 24 games on his way to an MVP award, to the 2013 team which seemed to come mere inches on a David Ortiz flyball from going back to the series again.

And yet, my favorite team of this era didn't make the playoffs, didn't accomplish much of anything, and ended eight games out of first place. That team was so close to being great, but a poorly planned pitching staff and some brutal luck with injuries left them forgotten to history. They truly were so close to greatness, and yet are unlikely to be remembered by many fans.

I'm talking about the 2007 Detroit Tigers.

After the 2006 team's surprising run to the World Series, Dave Dombrowski didn't sit around celebrating and planning his move to Boston, he acquired one of the most feared hitters of the generation to add to the existing lineup, none other than Gary Sheffield. The Tigers pitching staff was young and successful in 2006, and it seemed likely that the combo of Verlander and Bonderman would give them a deadly top of the rotation for years to come, but the lineup lacked oomph after Chris Shelton fell off the face of the earth, and outside of the well remembered defensive miscues, the biggest issue in the 06 series was that almost no one on the team remembered how to hit. This wouldn't be a problem in 2007.

The Tigers started the season with this lineup:

Catcher: Pudge Rodriguez

1B: Sean Casey

2B: Placido Polanco

SS: Carlos Guillen

3B: Brandon Inge

LF: Craig Monroe

CF: Curtis Granderson

RF: Magglio Ordonez

DH: Gary Sheffield

They also had the powerful bat of Marcus Thames on the bench.

The rotation consisted of: Verlander, Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, Nate Robertson, and Mike Maroth. The bullpen featured 2nd year flamethrower Joel Zumaya, old "reliable" Todd Jones, and solid arms like Fernando Rodney and Bobby Seay.

This looked like a team built for a repeat trip to the series, and through the first half of the year, it more than performed like one.

The Tigers entered the All Star Break with a record of 52-34, 18 games over .500 and in first place in the central. They had just had a thrilling walk off win over the Boston Red Sox, when Gary Sheffield, incensed at a HBP from Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, stole 2nd, and scored on a Pudge single in the bottom of the 13th. The Comerica Park crowd was going nuts, chanting "Gary, Gary, Gary...". While their were some warning signs in the starting rotation, the offense seemed unstoppable, and in Detroit, it felt like one of those "teams of destiny" that everyone else always seemed to get. The Tigers were getting unbelievable production from their core players, to the point where it seemed like they had 4 or 5 who could contend for the MVP. At the all star break, the starting lineup looked like this:

Pudge - .750 OPS, Casey - .759 OPS, with a .366 OBP, Polanco - .815 OPS with a .380 OBP, Guillen - .968 OPS with 14 homers and a .393 OBP, Inge - .761 OPS, with 11 hrs and 41 RBI, Monroe sucked with a sub .700 OPS, Granderson - .884 OPS, with FIFTEEN triples and 13 HRs in a half season, Magglio - 1.050 OPS, 46 walks, 13 homers, 70 RBI, THIRTY FIVE DOUBLES AT THE ALL STAR BREAK!, Sheffield - .970 OPS, 21 hrs, 52 walks.

These totals are all at the all star break. It's hard to imagine any current Tiger matching Guillen, Granderson, Magglio, or Sheffield. Even Polanco, Casey, and Inge would look amazing on today's team.

Everyone other than Craig Monroe was performing between average and MVP. This was one of the most incredible offenses to watch. It seemed like they were never out of a game, and double digit runs were always possible. It's easy to look at this and realize why the 2008 team with Miguel added was given so much (unfortunately ill conceived) hype.

And yet...this team finished 88-74. They went a mere 36-40 in the 2nd half, missing the playoffs. How could this happen? Unfortunately, the team was struck with multiple devastating blows, most of them injury related.

The biggest one, and one that I'll always curse, was the veteran Gary Sheffield. Just prior to the all star break, he attempted a diving catch in the outfield, injuring his shoulder. The tough old sob that he was, Sheffield wouldn't miss any playing time, but we'd later find out that he had torn the labrum in his lead shoulder on this play. As you can imagine, a torn labrum makes it very difficult to bat. The .970 OPS, 40 HR, 100 walk pace Sheffield was on cratered. In the 2nd half he'd only hit .203 with a .624 OPS and 4 long balls. Carlos Guillen's body also began its long decline, with his defense at shortstop becoming more and more questionable, while he managed "only" a .747 OPS in the 2nd half.

Several other Tigers hitters fell off slightly in the 2nd half, and the strong power off the bench from Marcus Thames and Ryan Raburn could only partially offset it, but the biggest problem was the pitching staff.

Kenny Rogers had been struck down by old age, injury, and vengeful camera men, and would not contribute to the team. Bonderman would also struggle with minor injuries, limiting him to 170 IP, a precursor to his much more serious issues in 2008 which would essentially ruin a very promising career. Mike Maroth turned back into a pumpkin, with a 3.2 K/9 on the season. That's not a typo. Joel Zumaya's magical year proved to be just that, a year, as he too was struck down by injury, taking away one of the most powerful components of the Tigers pitching staff, an unstoppable 6th-7th inning reliever. The Tigers pitching staff, such a strength just a year earlier, began hemorrhaging runs.

In the end, the Tigers still scored a highly impressive 887 runs, 2nd most in the league to a powerhouse Yankees team, but they'd allow 797, 6th most in the league. With the loss of Sheffield's powerful bat, the offense simply couldn't produce enough to make up for the injury ravaged and over the hill pitching staff.

So, why do I still love this team? Because as amazing as Miguel Cabrera was, as amazing as his triple crown was, we'll likely never see another offensive team like this. You've already seen the all star break stats, but even with the rough 2nd half, the full season stats for some players are incredible.

Curtis Granderson finished with a .913 OPS from Center Field, but more incredibly, he had 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 homers, and 26 steals with only 1 caught stealing. It's hard to imagine a more exciting season than this from your leadoff man.

Magglio Ordonez would finish with a 1.029 OPS, finishing 2nd in MVP voting, and winning the batting title with a .363 average. He also led the league with 54 doubles, and added 28 HRs and 139 RBI.

While neither Granderson nor Ordonez would have the longevity with the team Justin Verlander had, I think most people around here who were following the team at the time still remember them as two of their favorite, and two of the best, Tigers.

And what about Verlander? Well, it wasn't his greatest year, but an 18-6 record, 3.66 ERA, and 183 strikeouts at the age of 24 was nothing to sneeze at. For him, it was just the tip of the iceberg, but for players like Ordonez, Guillen, Pudge, and even lesser players like Brandon Inge, it was their last chance to be a big part of something great. These were the players who turned the Tigers from a laughing stock, into a team that expected to compete every year for a decade.

I'll never forget the magical few months when it seemed like they'd cement themselves in history, even if their bodies betrayed them in the end.

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That was one my favorite seasons because of what Granderson and Ordonez did.  Those were two of the most memorable individual Tigers seasons of my lifetime.  That season actually sticks out more for me than some of their recent playoff seasons.   

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I know Cash hit 361 in '61 but I was too young to know anything about hitting and we didn't get to see that many of the games anyway, but watching Ordonez that year was like the ultimate clinic on hitting. He was in such a zone it seems like he was in control of almost every AB even if he made an out. It was the most masterful hitting I think I've seen. Cabrera is more dramatic and clearly more valuable as a hitter because of his power - but  because of that power he generally gets away with a less skilled approach than Magglio had that year.

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It’s like re-reliving a childhood trauma. Thanks. 

But seriously, an epic post/article.  This was the time when Ordonez would say Zen-like things about hitting such as “don’t lunge, let the ball come to you.“ 

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7 minutes ago, IdahoBert said:

It’s like re-reliving a childhood trauma. Thanks. 

But seriously, an epic post/article.  This was the time when Ordonez would say Zen-like things about hitting such as “don’t lunge, let the ball come to you.“ 

"When I try to do too much, I don't do too much."

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Didn't Polanco also go from all-defense/no-bat in 2006 to great-defense/200+ hits in 2007?  I'll check in a second.

My favorite memory of 2007 was going to the last game of the season with my sons in Chicago against the Chux.

We killed them like 13-2 or something....Ordonez, Grandy and Polanco had good games.

When Ordonez got his last hit, my sons and I were right behind home plate at the Cell chanting "MVP! MVP!"....it was awesome.

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Yep, 200 hits....374 wOBA, 125 OPS+, 5.3 WAR for Placebo.  Only the third best hitter on the team that year.  Yikes.

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Guillen and Sheffield also had monster seasons, both over 120 RC+.

Each of their top 5 guys had at least 92 runs created, and combined for 550 runs created -- !!!!!

Incredibly, the Yankees were on a completely different level, if that's possible:

- 6 guys at 99 RCs or higher, combined for 684 RCs *head explodes*

- all 6 guys had K rates below 17%

Holy mackerel, that is two killer lineups.

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On the flip side, the Tigers gave almost 600 IP to pitchers who struck out 6 or less per 9 IP. 

Only two guys (Byrdak and Rodney) hit 9 Ks per 9 IP.

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16 hours ago, Charles Liston said:

Has a message board post ever won a Pulitzer?

Did you misspell Putzlier?

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True, I didn't mention once in my post how the Tigers would have won 3 or 4 of those World Series titles if only Ron Gardenhire had been managing the club at the time.

I was so close to glory, alas

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That really was a fun team to watch. I remember watching ESPN around the all star break and Buster Olney saying how he talked to a few different GMs and they all said the Tigers were the best team in baseball. Shame the injuries derailed the team the way they did. 

Bonderman especially fell apart in the second half. It looked like he was gonna take that next step to be a great SP and he and Verlander would anchor our rotation for the next decade. Then he went on to post a 7.38 ERA in the second half.

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21 hours ago, tiger337 said:

That was one my favorite seasons because of what Granderson and Ordonez did.  Those were two of the most memorable individual Tigers seasons of my lifetime.  That season actually sticks out more for me than some of their recent playoff seasons.   

Agreed. Of their 4 straight division title teams, 2013 is really the only one I enjoyed more than the 2007 team. I really believe that with a healthy Cabrera the Tigers were the best team in baseball that year, and with Smyly and Benoit they actually had a strong back of the bullpen for once.

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23 hours ago, pyrotigers said:

Magglio Ordonez would finish with a 1.029 OPS, finishing 2nd in MVP voting, and winning the batting title with a .363 average. He also led the league with 54 doubles, and added 28 HRs and 139 RBI.

Losing to a steroid-using Arod is a bummer, in hindsight. 

However, there’s likely a good chance that Magglio was too.

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2 hours ago, Tenacious D said:

Losing to a steroid-using Arod is a bummer, in hindsight. 

However, there’s likely a good chance that Magglio was too.

True, there's a pretty good chance any player was back then. But, I just assume the pitchers were too so the season was still impressive :)

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13 hours ago, lordstanley said:

Don't forget this moment:

 

Wow, thank you. I actually had thought about the post earlier and this was one of the main things I was going to mention (as it happened before the season started going off the rails) and then somehow I totally forgot.

A great addition to the story

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29 minutes ago, Charles Liston said:

Boy there were some nice fielding plays in that game.

Neifi Perez' one positive contribution to the Tigers. I wonder if he would have snagged that if he weren't on PEDs.

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1 hour ago, lordstanley said:

Neifi Perez' one positive contribution to the Tigers. I wonder if he would have snagged that if he weren't on PEDs.

I think Neifi took a bad first step and then recovered really well.

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Those were the days my friend,

we thought they’d never end.

 

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