What You Knew and Didn’t Know About the Tigers and Astros

Part of this is the easy part. The Tigers are good and the Astros are bad, and that much you knew. That much you’ve known for weeks, or months, or years I guess depending on things. The Tigers lost on Wednesday, but they lost because of Jose Valverde and James Shields, and they still have a comfortable lead in the American League Central. I’m writing this before there’s a Wednesday Astros result, but by the time you read this they probably will have lost, because they’re bad. Maybe I’m going to come away looking like an idiot, but win or lose, they’ll be in the AL West basement. The Astros were supposed to be terrible, and they’re ahead only of the Marlins, who’ve recently received a healthy new Giancarlo Stanton.

Now, the Tigers don’t have the best record in baseball. That belongs to the Cardinals, and the Tigers are a good distance behind. They’re also behind a bunch of other teams, and tied with the Orioles. Meanwhile, while the Astros have been dreadful, they do have a better record than those Marlins, and they’re theoretically within striking distance of the Cubs. Neither of these teams looks to be extreme. But by one important metric, the Tigers are on pace to be one of the best teams in a very long time. And the Astros are threatening to be one of the worst.

If you’ve hung around FanGraphs for a decently long time, you know there are better indicators of team quality than win/loss record. There are a bunch of other techniques, but one simple one is just adding up WAR. Sure, there are some issues, but there are way fewer issues than just totaling wins. With that in mind, the Tigers have completed 64 games, and we’ve got them at 26.3 team WAR. The Astros have completed 66 games, and they check in at 1.2 team WAR. The Tigers, thus, are on pace for a WAR of 66.6. The Astros are on pace for a WAR of 2.9. These are the best and worst marks in baseball, of course, and they’re of a certain respective historical significance.

Whenever you say “on pace for,” you know you’re taking a chance. We’re still not to the halfway point of the season, so for any extremes at this point, you should count on regression to the mean. But we’re also well beyond 60 team games played, for everyone. The sample sizes are significant. The Tigers are on pace for a historically great WAR. The Astros are on pace for a historically terrible WAR. We’ll look at them individually.


  • WAR: 26.3
  • WAR/162 Pace: 66.6
  • Rank all time: 3rd-best
Season Team WAR/162
1927 Yankees 71.4
1939 Yankees 67.4
2013 Tigers 66.6
1905 Giants 65.8
1931 Yankees 64.7
1942 Yankees 64.0
1998 Braves 63.6
1969 Orioles 62.9
2001 Mariners 62.7
1902 Pirates 62.3

The Tigers are on pace to win a perfectly reasonable 91 games. That should be enough to get them into the playoffs as Central division champions. But by WAR, they’re on pace to be one of the very greatest teams in baseball history, right up there with the best of the Yankees and eclipsing the 116-win 2001 Mariners with ease. When you watch these Tigers, you might not get the vibe that you’re watching all-time greatness. But by the numbers, that’s what they feature, eschewing the stars-and-scrubs approach in favor of stars-and-more-stars. The position players are carried by the obvious slugger, but the rotation has been unbelievable, in the present context and in the all-time context.

Best players

Worst players

Why they’ll be an all-time great
The rotation is obscene. Dave wrote about this at the end of May. With Rick Porcello suddenly striking batters out, all five of the starters would be top starters on other teams, and Drew Smyly isn’t bad as insurance. Cabrera, in his prime, is one of the best hitters ever, and Prince Fielder is obviously dangerous, and look at those performances from Avila and Martinez. Avila stands to improve, and so does Martinez, and if they don’t, the Tigers could make roster upgrades as they think about the playoffs. Nick Castellanos appears to have figured out Triple-A, clearing the way for him to figure out the majors, and that’s good young support.

Why they won’t be an all-time great
Sanchez has now missed a start with shoulder problems, and five-man rotations usually don’t hold up over full seasons. More baseballs should start flying over fences with the Tigers in the field, and there’s no quicker way for an ERA to rise. Jhonny Peralta probably isn’t an actual MVP candidate, and we have to think about regression to the mean. The Tigers have been extremely good, and that calls for probable regression. It’s hard to be this good for six months.


  • WAR: 1.2
  • WAR/162 Pace: 2.9
  • Rank all time: 6th-worst
Season Team WAR/162
1979 Athletics -4.6
1963 Mets -1.2
1954 Athletics 1.0
2003 Tigers 1.7
1996 Tigers 2.2
2013 Astros 2.9
1977 Braves 3.3
1974 Padres 3.6
1939 Phillies 3.8
1928 Phillies 4.7

With the Tigers, when you watch them, you might not feel like you’re watching one of the best teams ever. With the Astros, when you watch them, you probably do feel like you’re watching one of the worst teams ever. Fundamentally, they’ve been awful, and in terms of performance metrics, they’ve also been awful, even though the team still has a better record than the Marlins. The Marlins have played without a healthy Stanton and without a healthy Logan Morrison. They also have some potential minor-league reinforcements. The Astros could easily finish with the worst record in baseball, and here it’s shown they’re on pace to best the 2003 Tigers by only 1.2 WAR. Those were the Tigers that lost 119 games. That Tigers team also had Carlos Pena on it. Interestingly, the 2003 Tigers additionally had Omar Infante, who’s a part of the present-day awesome Tigers. Anyhow, the Astros are on pace for the sixth-worst WAR ever, and they could conceivably end up the worst team since 1979. I ran this analysis back to 1900.

Best players

Worst players

Why they’ll be an all-time disaster
The pitching is very bad, and though Jarred Cosart is a quality prospect, he’s not fantastic and he’s not quite ready. Look up there at the list of the best players. Norris is a fine starting pitcher, but he could easily get dealt within the next few weeks, creating an opening likely to be filled by an inferior arm. There’s not a single standout among the position players, and Carlos Pena, also, could get moved. As much as the Astros have a developing farm system, they don’t yet have much that’s right on the verge. This was a team put together because the Astros had to put together a team. It wasn’t put together with a dream. It was put together out of necessity.

Why they won’t be an all-time disaster
Regression to the mean, again, because the Astros are on pace for less WAR than Matt Harvey has now. Justin Maxwell is due back from injury, and George Springer has been making a mockery of Double-A and might get the call. According to our projected standings, the Astros are projected for a .421 win% the rest of the way, which is basically a 67-95 pace. That’s bad, but teams finish with records like that every season, and that suggests a coming WAR climb. Remember that positive extremes are usually talent + unsustainability, while negative extremes are usually poor talent + unsustainability. The Astros might shed Norris, but they can’t shed much else.

The Astros have a realistic chance to finish with a worse WAR than the 2003 Tigers, but to do so they’ll essentially need to play at replacement level over the rest of the season. Only 48 teams ever have finished with a WAR under 10, and for the Astros getting out of that group could be a stretch. Meanwhile, the Tigers have a realistic chance to finish with the best team WAR since 1939. They’re on pace to beat the 2001 Mariners and the 1998 Braves, and numbers-wise a lot of this seems alarmingly sustainable. The Astros, probably, will improve, and the Tigers, probably, will get worse, but it’s the middle of June and we can talk about these extremes. That’s how extreme these teams have been.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

46 Responses to “What You Knew and Didn’t Know About the Tigers and Astros”

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  1. Mariner says:

    Makes me sad to see the 2001 Mariners on there. There’s always next year…

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    • Nick says:

      I’m not even saying “pitching wins!” or whatever but look at their staff. They had like two guys over 200 innings, ONE guy over 3 WAR. Their best pitcher was Freddy Garcia with a 3.48 FIP. Jamie Moyer lol, etc. They had a few studs in the lineup and a great (according to UZR ahem) defense. We all know the 116 thing was a fluke. They were not a special team.

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    • Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

      I’m going through a similar feeling, but for the 98 Braves. Really any of those late 90’s Braves teams that had to stumble upon those late 90’s Yankees teams.

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    • Baltar says:

      The absence of those Mariners from the list was my 2nd biggest surprise.
      The biggest was the absence of the 1908 Cubs (Tinker to Evers to Chance) with the best regular season record ever and a World Championship.

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  2. Jaack says:

    Also of note is the general awful from the 1979 A’s. Their 7th best batter by WAR was relief pitcher Dave Heaverlo, who failed to reach base in his one plate appearance.

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    • baycommuter says:

      And the next season they had a winning record and two seasons later they had the best record in the American League. Shows how fast things can change.

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  3. Rob says:

    Mr Sullivan:

    With all due respect adding up WAR for a team may not give you a strong indication the team will win. As a fan of Detroit during last years MVP voting I added up WAR for the 2012 AL teams and attempted to statistically correlate WAR to team wins. The correlation was not strong. Now this could have been a 2012 American League fluke. I do not have the exact numbers in front of me but do have them saved at home if you would like to review them.

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  4. chasfh711 says:

    As much as I enjoy seeing my favorite team talked about in these terms, especially after having wandered in the desert for a dozen years not so very long ago, I have to question the efficacy of the entire concept of WAR when I compare your calculation of the Tigers’ team WAR not only to their actual record, but to their pythag as well.

    According to your March 2013 article on unifying replacement level, a team with an overall 0.0 WAR would finish roughly around a .294 winning percentage, or “exactly” 47.7 wins. So a team on pace for a 66.6 WAR should end up around 114-48, rounded off and minus luck either way. That’s a .704 WPCT.

    Right now, the Tigers are 36-28. That’s a .563. I know you guys don’t do pythag, but if you calculate that out—or easier yet, simply lift it from BR—you come up with 40-24, which is a .625. Pretty darn good. But nowhere near .704.

    If the Tigers were performing to the level that their WAR suggests, they would be around 45-19 minus luck or, accounting for the four games they “lucked” themselves out of, they’d be 41-23. That’s even better than their current pythag projects.

    All of which is the long, circuitous way to get to the question: how can I as a Tiger fan be excited by your contention that my team is on pace to be “one of the very greatest teams in baseball history”, when not only does their actual record not suggest that, but the record they should have based on their run scoring and prevention doesn’t even suggest that?

    In other words, who am I to believe? Your WAR or my lying eyes?

    What am I missing in all this?

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    • Ummmm says:

      Just be thankful you have the best team in baseball regardless of record.

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    • It’s not just WAR. Check out the 2nd-order and 3rd-order win%. http://www.baseballprospectus.com/standings/

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      • Myran says:

        Does WAR correlate REALLY well with 3rd-order win%? Seems like they are coming the same conclusion.

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      • chasfh711 says:

        Well, OK, that’s great and all, but again: how can this be so far off not only from their actual record but their pythag?

        If it was the difference between a .700 2nd or 3rd order and a .675 pythag, OK, I could shrug it off. But the Tigers are at a .625 pythag. That’s an 11% difference. That’s pretty big.

        What can account for that? Is that kind of humongous difference common?

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    • GoodEnoughForMe says:

      Just enjoy the fact that we can “underperform” all year and still easily win the division, and that we have to be considered the AL favourite come playoff time.

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      • ….assuming Dombrowski improves the bullpen, right?

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        • GoodEnoughForMe says:

          I would say that the bullpen doesn’t need much improvement, just tweaking. It’s pretty much middle of the road, which is good enough to carry us. Valverde is the weak link. Alvarez should be given a chance to do some middle-relief, too. That said, I wouldn’t mind another arm, but I don’t want to see us move Porcello at this point, incase Sanchez’ shoulder issues are more serious. The potential Peralta suspension issue is another thing to keep an eye on.

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    • rusty says:

      Murray Chass, is that really you?

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      • chasfh711 says:

        Just because I’m actually asking questions about how the numbers don’t gibe? Really?

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        • rusty says:

          Well, not exactly — it was joke, but based on a few things, and since you apparently were offended more than my intent, I’ll list them:
          – The superficial similarity of the handle “chasfh711″ with “Chass”
          – The misidentification of the author of this post (Jeff Sullivan) with Dave Cameron, who wrote the article you reference (“According to your March 2013 article on unifying replacement level,”)
          – The rhetoric used in the line “In other words, who am I to believe? Your WAR or my lying eyes?”
          – The fact that your claim, although specific to the 2013 Tigers, 65 games in to the season, expresses fundamental doubt about the quality (wins) that WAR is intended to estimate

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        • chasfh711 says:

          Nicely articulated reply. Maybe even a little overarticulated. :) But then, that’s frequently my MO, so who am I to judge?

          Point by point:

          – Got it.
          – “Your” means the plural “your”, meaning Fangraphs, not Sullivan himself.
          – I just love the phrase “lying eyes”. I’ve been dying to use it appropriately at some point.
          – A little hyperbolic maybe, but I also believe it’s possible, maybe even likely, that WAR has not evolved to its final form. So I don’t think questioning the efficacy of this exact definition of WAR is out of bounds, particularly since it points to such a discrepancy with actual or pythag record.

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  5. Scuds says:

    Hopefully, Astros finish 37 and 58 or better so I collect on my stupidly optimistic over bet. Toronto, LAA, LAD unders are comingly along nicely.

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  6. Baseball says:

    And yet, the Angels are only 5.5 games out of last place, and the Indians are only 4.5 games and Royals 5.5 games out of first…with losing records. I don’t think the Tigers or Astros are in any danger of being kicked off of their respective perches as best or worst teams in their respective divisions, but it does seem like the Indians and Royals have a lot more to crow about than the Tigers considering the enormous disparity in talent levels–and that the Angels and not the Astros are the team in total f’ing disarray.

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  7. Nickname Damur says:

    Don’t know if you could have used 1899 stats, Jeff, but I would have loved to see the Cleveland Spiders in there.

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  8. Hurtlockertwo says:

    The Tigers won’t be an “all time great team” unless they win, period. It doesn’t matter how you measure it, they still have to win. Adding up WAR and declaring a team the best all time didn’t work for the 31 Yankees, 98 Braves and the 2001 Mariners.

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  9. MGL says:


    I know you mentioned it, but please, please, please don’t use “on pace for”! Woops, you already did. If you want to estimate a final number for anything, especially when the current number is far from the mean (I can’t emphasize that “especially” clause enough!), then take what is already done and add in what is expected.

    Even though 60 games is “a lot” to simply multiply their existing WAR by 2.7 is ridiculous. Maybe not as ridiculous as doing that at 10 games or 20 games, but, it is going to yield an answer far higher (the Tigers) or lower (the Astros) than what is correct. Unless of course, our estimate of the Tigers’ and/or Astros’ true talent going forward is around the same as it has been thus far (in WAR).

    The only thing worse than using “on pace for” to make a point, even a casual one, is saying, “This is not quite correct (or some such thing),” as you did, and then doing it anyway!

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    • I never would’ve written this in a research journal, for the reasons you state. It’s not fair and accurate science. But I think it is of interest, and I think it can be written about, so long as you’re clear about the reasons why it probably won’t work out. The Tigers and Astros will almost certainly regress, but I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with structuring a semi-casual article around a few numbers that place them in a historical context. I didn’t set out to mislead.

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    • Word says:

      Jeff is pretty up-front that a lot of his work is just intended to be interesting. No one’s trying to draw sweeping conclusions at this point, and if they are, they misunderstood what Jeff articulated pretty clearly in the piece. Maybe chill and just enjoy some extreme statistics — not because anyone thinks they’re likely to hold up, just because they’re fun.

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  10. The Party Bird says:

    For those wondering how a team with a good-but-not-great record like the Tigers could be on such a tremendous WAR pace, take a gander at their clutch stats. 29th in pitching clutch and 24th in hitting clutch. Obviously this probably will not continue because clutch is noise. It will also probably not continue because Jose Valverde will either be released or run out of town by an angry mob by the end of June.

    The Tigers probably will regress off this WAR pace (they’re not 5 wins – a 2011 Alex Avila – away from being better than the 27 Yankees), but they’re easily a true talent 100+ win team.

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  11. eddiegaedel says:

    Is it really that they are all time great and terrible teams or is there just less parity in the MLB and there is just a bigger gap in the best and worst in baseball than there has been in a long time?

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  12. MikeS says:

    It may certainly be true that there are better statistics than W/L to determine how “good” a team is, but there are none more important. You can argue about pitchers wins and I am right there with you, but I would rather have my favorite team win 95 games than accumulate 65 WAR.

    This may be a controversial opinion and I can see why. Accumulated WAR may be a better predictor of long term success or even success in the playoffs since it demonstrates talent level. The problem is that with free agency and random variation so few teams actually have long term success and the playoffs are still a small sample size. So I would rather that my team catch fire at the right time and win a World Series than be the most talented team in MLB. They don’t hold parades for the best WAR.

    Of course, the best would be to have the most talent AND win the most games.

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    • Jason B says:

      “This may be a controversial opinion and I can see why”

      I don’t think anyone would argue with that. Approximately 100.00000% of FanGraphs readers, from the statheads to the old-schoolers and all points in between, will take actual wins to WAR ‘wins’.

      With error bars, that is 100.00000% +/- 0.000000%, to be fair.

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  13. Brad Johnson says:

    I could look this up myself, but what’s the Tiger’s ERA-FIP. I’ve noticed in the past that this seems to correlate highly with discrepancies between W/L record and team WAR. And, of course, that’s intuitive since it’s really actual runs minus theoretical runs.

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  14. Bookbook says:

    The Togers defense may be worse than standard statistics are equipped to catch.

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  15. NATS Fan says:

    To my eye the Astros do not look as bad as those aforementioned Tigers. I’ve watched maybe 10 of their games this season (granted several against LAA whom they have beaten badly) and they were only mediocre not terrible. Each hitter (outside of Altuve who has 4 very solid tools) seems really good at something. For example, Defense is excellent at third, but the bat is weak for 3rd. The starting pitching has looked hopeless at times, but the Bullpen is often solid considering the SP.

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