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/162 Pace: 66.6
Rank all time: 3rd-best
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.
Miguel Cabrera (+4.0 WAR)
Anibal Sanchez (+3.4)
Justin Verlander (+3.0)
Max Scherzer (+3.0)
Doug Fister (+2.7)
Victor Martinez (-1.1 WAR)
Alex Avila (-0.3)
Jose Valverde (-0.3)
Ramon Santiago (-0.3)
Brayan Villarreal (-0.2)
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/162 Pace: 2.9
Rank all time: 6th-worst
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.
Jason Castro (+1.4 WAR)
Bud Norris (+1.4)
Brandon Barnes (+1.1)
Carlos Corporan (+1.0)
Jose Altuve (+0.9)
Robbie Grossman (-0.7 WAR)
Paul Clemens (-0.7)
Jimmy Paredes (-0.7)
Fernando Martinez (-0.6)
Brad Peacock (-0.6)
Travis Blackley (-0.6)
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.