The Seasonal Narrative Of The 1986 Detroit Tigers

Sparky Anderson had brought consistent winning baseball to Detroit. Since his arrival in 1980, the Tigers had posted a winning record every year. The highlight of the run was a dominant run to the 1984 World Series title. The 1986 Detroit Tigers were squarely in that tradition, with only the more stringent standards of the era keeping them from the postseason.

Detroit’s everyday lineup enjoyed a nice bounceback year, after offensive failures were primarily responsible for the 1985 team’s failure to make a serious bid at repeating. The collective comeback was keyed by an anticipated individual revival from Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell. After a rough year in ’85, Trammell posted a stat line of .347 on-base percentage/.469 slugging percentage in 1986.

Kirk Gibson had a good all-around year in rightfield, hitting 28 homers and stealing 34 bases. Darrell Evans was a reliable power hitter at first base and he hit 29 home runs. Lance Parrish, one of the game’s better power-hitting catchers, was limited to 91 games, but still went deep 22 times. A trade to get 24-year-old Darnell Coles to play third paid off, as Coles popped 20 more dingers. The Tigers led the American League in home runs.

But they had hit home runs in 1985 and that wasn’t enough to keep the offense as a whole from being mediocre. The reason 1986 was different—in addition to Trammell’s return to form—was a more balanced attack that could score in different ways. The Tigers ranked third in the AL in walks and fourth in stolen bases.

Individually, second baseman Lou Whitaker’s stat line was .338/.437. Dave Collins was acquired to provide outfield depth. Collins got regular playing time, finished with a .340 OBP and swiped 27 bags. John Grubb, the 37-year-old designated hitter, posted a dazzling .412/.590 stat line in part-time duty .

All of which was good enough for Detroit to rank third in the American League in runs scored. But the pitching slipped a bit.

It was no fault of Jack Morris. The ace went to the mound 35 times, finished with a 21-8 record and a 3.27 ERA. But the staff behind him had problems.

Walt Terrell and Frank Tanana each made 30-plus starts and combined to win 27 games, but both had ERAs in the 4s. The normally reliable Dan Petry only went to the post twenty times and struggled to a 4.66 ERA.

Sparky tried to squeeze some starts out of everyone from highly regarded 22-year-old Eric King to Dave LaPoint to Randy O’Neal, all of whom worked in both starting and relief. But only King, with his 3.51 ERA was anywhere close to consistent. Willie Hernandez saved 24 games in the closer’s role, but his ERA was abnormally high at 3.55. Hernandez was in steady decline from his 1984 Cy Young & MVP season. And the Tiger staff as a whole, while credible, still settled for sixth in the American League in ERA.

Detroit came out of the gate playing mediocre baseball. They won a couple series with Boston, who emerged as the early leader in the AL East. But in early May, the Tigers lost six of eight against teams from the AL West. By the Memorial Day turn, Detroit was sitting on .500, in sixth place and seven games back of the Red Sox.

Here might be a good time to step back and lay out the landscape of major league baseball prior to the realignment of 1994. There were only two divisions per league, an East and a West, with seven teams apiece. Only the first-place teams went to the playoffs, advancing directly to the League Championship Series. Detroit, along with Cleveland and Milwaukee (an American League team prior to 1998) joined Boston, New York, Toronto and Baltimore in the old AL East.

The season teetered on the brink in early June, as the Tigers lost seven of ten games to the Blue Jays and Yanks, slipped to 27-32 and were staring at a twelve-game deficit. Seven games against the Orioles were the needed antidote. Detroit won six to stabilize the ship. But they were still 43-44 at the All-Star break, 13 games behind the Red Sox and still in sixth place.

Since the high of winning the World Series in 1984, the Tigers had now spent a good year and a half playing mediocre baseball. Late July of 1986 saw a turnaround. Detroit reeled off a 16-6 stretch. Boston stumbled .The Tigers rose through the ranks to third place and closed to within 4 ½ games of the lead. And the Red Sox were coming to Detroit for four games in early August.

All of baseball—to say nothing of Boston fans themselves—were just waiting for this Red Sox team to blow it and it seemed most of the AL East taking turns in fashioning themselves the challenger. This four-game set was Detroit’s chance.

It didn’t start well on Thursday night. O’Neal was knocked out early, the bats only managed five hits and Detroit lost 6-1. Tanana took the ball on Friday night and struggled, falling behind 6-1 and then 8-4. The Tigers made a stirring rally in the eighth, scoring three times and putting runners on first and second with two outs. But Gibson flied out. In the ninth, Evans hit a one-out double. But Collins and Coles both flew out. Another loss.

On Sunday afternoon, Detroit had taken a 6-4 lead after seven, thanks to a grand slam from Evans. Bill Campbell came out of the bullpen and was a train wreck. Five runs later, the Tigers were looking at a 9-6 loss. Morris was brilliant in Monday night’s wraparound finale, with a complete-game three-hit shutout. But the opportunity was missed and Detroit was 6 ½ games out.

There was still time to turn it back around, but the return trip to Fenway saw two losses in three games. On August 28, the Tigers were seven games out. There were no games left against the Red Sox, so the margin for error was thin. On a road trip out west, Detroit lost seven of ten. They came home twelve games off the pace and with a record of 71-67. Any hopes of a pennant push were over.

Detroit didn’t mail in the season though. They played some spirited baseball to wrap it up, including going 7-2 on a road trip against AL East rivals to end the season. The final record was 87-75. That was good enough be tied for fourth-best in the American League and sixth-best in the major leagues as a whole. In other words, by the standards of today, it was a playoff-caliber year.

The improvement off the disappointment of 1985 had put the Tigers back on a positive trajectory. And in 1987, they won one of the great pennant races of the decade to get back on top of the AL East.