Chicago – John Hicks was first called up to the Tigers at the end of the 2016 season. That team won 86 games and was eliminated from the wild-card race on the last day of the season. But that club couldn’t hold a candle to this 2019 team in at least one regard.
“If you look at our clubhouse the last two years here compared to that one, this clubhouse is way better,” Hicks said. “Some of it is there’s a lot of young guys trying to make their way and there are a lot of guys who have come up through the minor leagues together.
“And a lot of it is Gardy, too, for sure.”
In a year of overwhelming frustration and record failure, the Tigers clubhouse never fractured, never became toxic or dysfunctional. That, and possibly only that, is the success story of this 114-loss season.
“Through it all, it’s been fun being in the clubhouse,” manager Ron Gardenhire said before the season finale Sunday. “Guys have really gotten after it, and on the field they’ve tried. I’ve seen that, and I think you guys have seen that. There’s been a few games that just got blah, but for the most part, they got after it pretty good.
“And that’s what you are after when you have kids.”
Twelve different players made their big league debuts this season. Seven players finished their first full season and five others finished their second full season. The Tigers went through 31 different pitchers.
The results, especially after four-fifths of the original starting rotation and the veteran double-play combination of Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison missed most of the season with injuries, were predictably bad.
“Challenging,” Gardenhire said when asked to sum up the season in a word. “This has been challenging because we had to deal with a lot of injuries early and we had to deal with having a lot of rookies on the field at the same time.
“There was a lot of teaching. It’s been challenging but I think we’ll all learn and grow from it. We’ve taken a beating, all the losses. We take that very hard. But there’s been times when it’s been very rewarding, too.”
The 114 losses are the most since 2003. The minus-333 run differential is the worst since 2003. In fact, the Tigers have the dubious honor of owning the three worst run-differential seasons in baseball history:
2003 – minus-337
2019 – minus-333
1996 – minus-320
Their 59 home losses tied the modern-day record and the minus-221 run differential at home was the worst in history.
They were shut out 14 times, most in the American League (six times by the Indians) and scored one run or less 35 times. Their minus-25 wins by position (Baseball Reference) is also the worst in baseball.
But walking into the Tigers clubhouse every day, seeing the upbeat attitudes and the non-stop work going on before games, you’d never know the depths of this team’s struggles.
“We’re here to create an atmosphere,” Gardenhire said. “This coaching staff has done a really nice job and it’s not easy. You can’t put on a sad face and you can’t put on a mad face. You have to put on a face that tells these kids that we’re here to teach them.
“And we do it every day. It has to be comfortable. They can’t be looking over their shoulders, they can’t be nervous, so we can teach. That’s the biggest thing we’re trying to do.”
Gardenhire still hasn’t gotten full assurances that his entire coaching staff will return for 2020. Typically after a season this bad, staff changes are made – as much for cosmetic and public relations reasons than anything else.
“Al (Avila, general manager) and I have had good conversations and I know this for a fact, he gets it. He understands it,” Gardenhire said. “He’s been in baseball a long time. But he’s not just going to say, ‘I think you guys did great.’
“We lost one hundred and — I can’t even say the number — and that’s not been fun. And we all take a little of it on ourselves. But Al understands that these guys have put in the work. Some guys got better and some guys didn’t. This is a rebuild and there’s going to be a lot of rough moments. Hopefully Al sees right through that and understands.”
Going into next season, Gardenhire said he expects a more veteran-laden roster – even if it’s bargain-bin veteran talent.
“We’re not going to be able to fill our team up with rookies next year,” he said. “We have to find some people who can help. Al knows that and he’s searching, trying to get some big hits without a lot of money being involved.”
The Tigers had one of the worst offensive seasons in their history, and that might be the first place Avila and his staff begin repairing this offseason. In a year when the major-league home run record was shattered, the Tigers hit 149 home runs, second worst in baseball. Their 582 runs were last in baseball and the fewest by a Tigers team since 2002.
Their .294 on-base average, also last in baseball, is their worst since the dead ball era (1906). And, perhaps most damning, their 1,595 strikeouts, worst in baseball, is the most in major-league history.
“Baseball has gone a different way, with the launch angle and the swings and misses and the whole package,” Gardenhire said. “Yeah, we struck out a lot but everybody struck out a lot. It’s just part of the game now.”
That’s not to say it’s being accepted. Gardenhire talked about the continued advances – both in manpower and technology — the analytics department is making.
“We’re trying to figure it out analytically and we are getting more adept at it,” he said. “We’re adding to the organization, at the minor-league level and at the major-league level…There are definitely ways to improve with all the data that’s out there.”
Gardenhire said there have been equipment upgrades at TigerTown in Lakeland, adding Diamond Kinetic and Swing-Tracker technology at the batting cages. There’s also been talk, he said, of providing similar upgrades to the cage at Comerica Park.
“When they take batting practice they can get the data and that will show these guys what their hands are doing, their hips, the swing path, all of that,” he said.
Will 2019 be rock-bottom for this rebuild? Is this as bad as it will get?
“It depends on what we do,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve got to be healthy and hopefully we will sign a few guys to fill some spots – maybe get a run-producer in here. Who knows? But I would say yes, I would hope this will be the worst. Just looking at it, I sure hope we don’t do this again.”