The 1980 Detroit Tigers Deal But Come Up Short

The Tigers had spent two seasons putting a foundation in place for success. They called up Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris and Lance Parrish in 1978. They hired Sparky Anderson in 1979. In both cases, rebuilding didn’t mean compromising success, as they won 86 games both years. The 1980 Detroit Tigers, playing in a tough division, made a series of moves to try and take the next step. Unfortunately, the deals didn’t pan out and the Tigers suffered some modest regression.

Detroit’s big trade was shipping Ron LeFlore, a good centerfielder and base stealer to Montreal for pitcher Dan Schatzeder. The move had the right priority—pitching depth in both the rotation and the bullpen had been a Tiger problem. But the move didn’t pan out—while Schatzeder was respectable, with a 4.02 ERA in his 26 starts, it wasn’t worth giving up the lineup’s spark plug.

Another big deal came in May when Detroit dealt Jason Thompson, a good all-around first baseman to California for right fielder Al Cowens. Thompson continued to be productive. Cowens, the runner-up for the American League MVP in 1977, continued a career decline. His .339 on-base percentage was respectable—but not worth the price of Jason Thompson.

A deal with the Mets to get Richie Hebner at first base worked out better. Hebner posted a stat line of .360 OBP/.466 slugging percentage and the price of Phil Mankowski and Jerry Morales was neglible. But the net overall impact of the trades was a negative—and we haven’t even factored in the Tigers moving on from Rusty Staub at DH, Aurelio Lopez at third and Jack Billingham in the rotation. Age was a huge factor and the moves justifiable, but they still created a short-term void that was not immediately filled.

On top of all this, there was some regression from individual starting pitchers. Morris reliably took his turn, with a workmanlike 36 starts and 16 victories. But his ERA was a mediocre 4.18. Milt Wilcox’s ERA was 4.48. Dan Petry was a little better, with a 3.94 ERA in his 25 starts, but when that’s the best ERA in your rotation you have problems.

And those problems weren’t rectified in the bullpen. Aurelio Lopez saved 21 games and won 13 more, but the best reliever on staff still had an ERA of 3.77. Dave Rozema and Pat Underwood, who shuttled between the pen and the rotation, had ERAs in the high 3s.

All of which adds up to the Detroit staff finishing 10th in the 14-team American League for composite ERA. You aren’t going to make any kind run in an AL East that had baseball’s best teams with that kind of pitching.

In fact, you might even be wondering how the Tigers were competitive at all. The answer—this team could hit.

Trammell had the best season to date in his developing Hall of Fame career, batting .300. Even though Whitaker only batted .233, some excellent plate discipline and drawing walks helped Whitaker’s OBP clock in at a respectable .331. Detroit was the best in the American League when it came to taking free passes.

Steve Kemp, a good all-around hitter in left field, had a stat line of .376/.474, hit 21 homers and drove in 101 runs. Parrish popped 24 home runs of his own. Rick Peters took over for LeFlore in center and while Peters didn’t run like LeFlore did, the new centerfielder still finished with an OBP of .369.

Champ Summers handled the DH role and slugged .504 with 17 homers. Sparky used his bench well. John Wockenfuss hit 16 home runs in part-time duty. Jim Lentine’s OBP was .377. And Sparky started integrating another talented rookie into the lineup of this young team—23-year-old Kirk Gibson slugged .440 coming off the bench.

In an American League that was stacked with good lineups, no one scored more runs than the Detroit Tigers did in 1980.

Detroit faced an early schedule heavy on the Kansas City Royals, who were bound for the World Series this year. The Tigers lost eight of their first ten, but quickly rebounded to get close to .500. But when the schedule stiffened again—this time against the top two teams in the AL East, the Yankees and Orioles, Detroit lost eight of twelve. By the end of that schedule run, shortly after Memorial Day, Detroit’s record was 18-24 and they were eight games out of first place.

In the divisional alignment that existed from 1969-93, each league had only an East and West division and only the first-place team moved on to the playoffs. That meant that Detroit—along with Cleveland and Milwaukee (an American League team until 1998) were put in the AL East, along with New York, Baltimore, Boston and Toronto. This division—with the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox all respected powers and the Brewers joining the Tigers as a rising force—was the gold standard for all of baseball.

When Detroit lost two of three in Milwaukee in early June, they were nine games off the pace. Then the Tigers caught fire and ripped off 19 wins in 25 games. The highlight came when the Brewers made the return trip to Tiger Stadium mid-month.

The series opened on Monday with a twilight doubleheader, a common scheduling thing at the time where a twinbill began around 5 PM, with twenty minutes between games. The Tigers fell behind in the opener 5-1, but rallied behind consecutive two-out RBI hits from Summers and Cowens. They pulled out a 6-5 win.

Milwaukee won the nightcap and set up Tuesday night’s rubber match between Morris and Milwaukee’s good lefthander, Mike Caldwell. Morris was brilliant, with a complete-game five-hitter and Detroit took the series with a 3-0 shutout.

So what did this run of strong play get Detroit? By the All-Star break they were 42-33 and tied for second place…but still 7 ½ games behind the Yankees, who were on a pace for 106 wins.

And the late summer would be cruel, as it often is to teams who struggle to find pitching. In late July, still in second place and eight games out, the Tigers lost three straight at home to California. Kansas City came into Tiger Stadium and won three straight. In mid-August, Detroit lost four straight to mediocre Texas.

By Labor Day, the Tigers were still above water, with a 67-61 record, but now in fourth place and 10 ½ games out. They basically held serve in September. There were seven games against the Orioles, who would win 100 games and have to settle for second place, where Detroit went 1-6. The Tigers made up for it by beating bad teams in the White Sox and the Blue Jays.

The final record came in at 84-78, fourth place and 19 games out. On the positive side, it was a third straight winning season and the quality of the division, meant it was fifth-best overall in the American League. On the negative side, it was two fewer wins than the year before and the 11th-best record in the major leagues overall. Whether it was a playoff season by the standards of today depends on how you want to do the math.

The Tigers had opened the season looking for more and come up short. But they wouldn’t stop coming and a breakthrough to real contention was just around the corner.