Saturday, January 07, 2012

Tigers Top 20 Seasons: #14 1976

In reviewing the history of the Detroit Tigers, I often think about the best seasons to be a Tigers fan.  So, I am writing a series of posts listing the top 20 seasons in Tigers history.  There is no specific formula for determining the best seasons, but there are some criteria which I consider carefully.  Playoff appearances, especially those leading to world championships are, of course, important.  Team dominance as measured by winning percentage and run differential also carries a lot of weight.  

While most of the teams on the list did win a lot of games, this is not simply a ranking of the best teams statistically.  Sometimes, a non-winning season stands out because of great individual achievements or because the team was unique in some way.  I wanted every decade to be represented and since the Tigers have had a couple of poor decades, this was a challenge.  However, the Tigers have managed to put together at least one campaign each decade which was memorable even if it was not a great year in terms of wins and losses and some of those seasons will also be included.   

The entire list of 20 seasons can be found here.

In 1975, the Tigers had one of the worst seasons in franchise history finishing in dead last 37 1/2 games behind.  They lost 102 games and were outscored by opponents by 216 runs.  What made things even more frustrating is that the Tigers got worse as the season went along.  Starting on July 29, they lost 19 consecutive games and went 11-47 through the end of the season.  Something needed to happen to re-invigorate a fan base which had lost confidence in their team.  Something did happen in 1976 in a big way.

In the summer of 1976, the Tigers finished in 5th place, 24 games out of first with a 74-87 record. Despite the losing record though, I think anyone who experienced that season understands why it made the top 20.  That was the year rookie sensation Mark Fidrych captivated fans all over the country with his innocence and enthusiasm and outstanding pitching talent.

Nicknamed "The Bird" for his resemblance to the Sesame Street character Big Bird, the 21-year-old right hander led the league with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games, started the all-star game and finished runner up in the AL Cy Young balloting to Baltimore's Jim Palmer. Beyond his performance, Fidrych was known for his antics on and off the mound.  He would groom the mound with his hands between innings, talk to himself (some thought he was talking to the ball) before each pitch, strut around the mound after each out and shake the hands of teammates after they made great plays.

The Bird was a breath of fresh air and fans loved him. On a team which typically attracted crowds of under 15,000, Fidrych would regularly draw as many as 50,000 fans in his starts.  He was so popular that opposing teams would ask the Tigers to start Fidrych in their home parks.  The curtain call was born with Fidrych as fans would refuse to leave to park until he made an appearance after the game.

Beyond Fidrych, the Tigers did not have a memorable team, but there were some other highlights.  Speedy center fielder Ron Leflore hit in 30 consecutive games, the longest streak in the AL in 27 years.  Lefore batted .316 with 58 stolen bases for the season.  Right fielder Rusty Staub batted .299 with 46 extra base hits and a 137 OPS+.  Both Leflore and Staub joined Fidrych in starting the all-star game that year.   

This is the only losing season in the top 20 series, but there was no hesitation in inculding it on a list of great seasons.  It had to be there.


Some of data for this article were gathered from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org

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