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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

By the numbers: The 1968 World Champion Detroit Tigers

Numbers and baseball are inextricably connected. We measure greatness in this game based on a certain set of numbers. That may seem like an oversimplification, but it is true. Let’s play a little game: I will list a number and you tell me the player associated with the number. Ready? Here we go:

  • 755 career home runs
  • .366 career batting average
  • 4,256 career hits
  • 73 home runs in a single season
  • 316 career losses as a pitcher.

*Read to the bottom to check your answers, comment and let me know how you did*

Numbers allow us to tell the story of baseball. In 1968, the Detroit Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals in one of the greater upsets in sport’s history. But, if we dive into the numbers on their season, we’ll see a much different team than we might even remember— one that might even close that “gap” on the underdog storyline. Let’s dive into a couple of absolutely eye-popping numbers that led the Tigers to their third World Series championship just over fifty years ago.

First, some specifics. The Tigers won 103 games in 1968 and lost 59. Those 103 wins were the most all-time in club history until the 1984 team eclipsed them by one game. The numbers we look at will be team specific, not focusing on individual performance but the team’s overall performance. The 1968 team was a team that dominated the American League and eventually pulled out a miracle in the Fall Classic.

How did they do this? Let’s look at the numbers.

The Number 2:

The 1968 Detroit Tigers spent two days at or below .500 in the win/loss column. Quite possibly the most stunning piece of numerical evidence about the 1968 Detroit Tigers is that they only spent one day of the season below the .500 mark on their record — and that was the day they lost on Opening Day. Usually, through the ebb and flow of a season, teams will hover around .500 with different runs of winning streaks and losing streaks. However, not this team. The game they lost on Opening Day was the only day during the season they spent under .500 in the win/loss column.

What may be even more impressive is that they won on the very next day to even their record at 1-1, and this was the only time all season their record stood even. After going 1-1 through their first two games, they ripped off eight more wins in a row and started their season 9-1. A great start to a championship season.

The Number 11:

From 1903 until this specific year, 1968, finishing in first place was all that mattered. From 1903 until 1969 every World Series was hosted between the two first-place clubs from the American and National Leagues. No Wild Card rounds, Divisional Championship Series, or League Championship series; you either finished in first place or found yourself fishing or golfing in the offseason. In 1969, this changed to a format more familiar to present-day baseball fans.

Given that first place was all that mattered, it was imperative that a team establish their lead and not leave it to chance like the Tigers did in 1967, when they missed the World Series by a single game. In 1968, they left nothing to chance. They spent 136 days in first place and were only out of that slot for 11 total days during the season. The last day they were out of first place: May 8th. They also never were tied for first after this date.

The Number 15:

Free baseball, extra-inning games. These types of games can make or break a team’s season. In 1968, the Detroit Tigers played a total of 15 extra-inning games. In those contests, they took advantage of the extra frames and busted out a 10-5 record. That’s good enough for a .667 winning percentage in these games while boasting a +7 run differential. Being able to pull out victories on the longer days, the days when you have to reach deep into the grit and determination inside of yourself to pull out a win is a mark of a good team. And, this team was a good team.

The Number 58:

Even greater than the ability to win extra-inning games, a mark of a great team is their record in one-run games. These are the games that truly define a season. In 1968, the Detroit Tigers played in 58 such games. One must remember that this was also a time period in baseball history where the specialty reliever did not exist, which allows managers the ability to manage a one-run game more efficiently today.

Of these 58 one-run games the Tigers played in, they won 35 of them. When you look at their +12 wins vs. losses in these games, it puts into perspective their final lead in the American League at the end of the season. They won the American League with a 13.5 game lead; had these one-run games gone differently, their entire season could have ended with a much different outcome.

The Number 3:

In the fall of 1968, the Detroit Tigers face the juggernaut St. Louis Cardinals and Bob Gibson, the defending champs. After four games the Detroit Tigers found themselves in a 3-1 hole, needing to win the final three games to claim the World Series trophy. They did so in remarkable fashion, becoming the third team in baseball history to win the World Series after being down three games to one.

Their victory in the 1968 Fall Classic delivered the third World Championship in Detroit Tigers history. They won four games to three as Mickey Lolich outdueled Bob Gibson in Game 7 to deliver the hardware to Motown. It was a triumph for the ages, one marked with outstanding individual performances all season long. But it is the numbers accumulated by the team that delivered the first championship to a hurting and broken city in 23 years.

On Wednesday, April 1st, at 8 PM EST we’ll be hosting a watch party of Game 7 between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers. Click the link to get a reminder for the event!

Before I sign off, those numbers at the top? Here are your answers:

  • Home Runs: Hank Aaron
  • Batting Average: Ty Cobb
  • Career Hits: Pete Rose
  • Single Season Home Runs: Barry Bonds
  • Career Losses: Cy Young

How’d you do? Let me know!

All Stats for the 1968 Detroit Tigers courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Let us know what you think!

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