2018 Detroit Tigers: Bottom’s up

Joe Sparma

Joe Sparma threw pitches for the Tigers and passes for Woody Hayes at Ohio State. He wasn’t terribly accurate at either though he won 52 games for the Tigers and led the Buckeyes in passing for two straight seasons and quarterbacked them (along with William Mrukowski) to an 8-0-1 record and No. 2 national ranking in 1961. It probably didn’t hurt that Hall of Famer Paul Warfield and Super Bowl winner Matt Snell were among his targets. Frustrated with Hayes curtailing his playing time, according to his bio at sabr.org, Sparma left Ohio State and signed with the Tigers. Little did he know, as a Tiger, he’d play for someone with whom his relationship was worse than Hayes. Fast but wild, Sparma needed just 21 games to make the majors. In his second season in 1965, he won 13 games despite walking 75 in 167 innings. He regressed in 1966, won just two games, had a 5.30 ERA, gave up 14 homers in 91.2 innings and walked 52. According to sabr.org, Tigers manager Bob Swift said: “The son of a bitch looks like he never threw a baseball in his life.” Sparma rebounded with his best season in 1967, winning 16 games, throwing a career-high 217.2 innings, putting up a 3.76 ERA and walking just 85, a career-low 3.5 per nine innings. The Tigers won the pennant the next year, but Sparma won just 10 games, had a 3.71 ERA and exasperated manager Mayo Smith. Sparma faced only eight batters and gave up five hits when Smith relieved him in the second inning at Oakland. Smith, according to sabr.org: “I can’t start him, and he’s too wild to pitch relief. What am I supposed to do — take him out and shoot him?” A month later, Sparma walked three and gave up three hits before Smith took him out in the bottom of the fourth inning with two on, one out and the Tigers leading Cleveland, 1-0. Sparma, according to sabr.org: “I don’t know if I can play for that man anymore. Even Woody Hayes didn’t treat me like that.” Sparma didn’t play much for Smith for the rest of the season, starting just three more games, including the pennant clincher against the Yankees. According to sabr.org, Sparma filled in for an injured Earl Wilson — Sparma had started just once in the previous three weeks — and took a three-hit shutout into the ninth. The Yankees tied it on a two-out Jake Gibbs single, but Don Wert’s RBI single won it, 2-1, in the bottom of the ninth. Sparma pitched only once in the World Series, with the Tigers trailing 4-0 in Game 4. He got an out, gave up a homer to Bob Gibson, a triple to Lou Brock and was gone. Sparma started 1969 as he finished 1968 but his wildness worsened. He threw a two-hit shutout against Washington in his second start but walked eight, was knocked out in the second inning by Boston of his next start and was moved by Smith back to the bullpen. He started against Seattle on May 31 and took a no-hitter into the ninth, losing it with one out when Don Mincher doubled. Sparma completed a 3-2 win, the Pilots scoring with the aid of two errors and seven walks. Sparma stayed in the rotation, threw a four-hit, two-walk shutout of the Royals, the other expansion team, but it didn’t last. He was soon back in the bullpen and seldom used, pitching just five times and starting twice in the season’s final two months. Sparma finished 1969 with six wins, a 4.76 ERA and 77 walks in 92.2 innings. Sparma was traded after the season and threw one last high hard one at Smith on his way to Montreal. Sparma, according to sabr.org: “Mayo has no idea how to put a pitching staff together. We might have blown two or three pennants in a row.” Sparma started for the Expos on 1970’s Opening Day, but threw three home runs to the Reds in the fourth inning and lost, 5-1. He threw a complete-game five-hitter in a 2-1 loss to the Cubs, but never won for the Expos. He walked 25 in 29.1 innings and threw just five strikes in 28 pitches against the Mets, walking four in an inning in his final big-league game. Sparma went to the minors but never gained control — he walked 92 in 116 AAA innings in 1970 and 72 in 58 innings in 1971. Former teammate John Hiller, according to sabr.org: “You couldn’t even play catch with the guy. He never knew where the ball was going to wind up. It was all mental with him. When he was on, he had better stuff than Nolan Ryan. He just never figured out how to harness it.” Sparma died in 1986 at age 44 from a heart attack. After his death, son Blase Sparma pitched for Ohio State and for four years in the Braves’ organization, reaching AA. Joe Sparma career stats: 52-52, 3.94 ERA, 183 games, 864.2 innings, 774 hits, 436 walks, 586 strikeouts, 31 complete games, 10 shutouts, 86 ERA+, 3.92 FIP, .687 OPS against, 0.1 WAR, 46-109 for 629 yards, 8 TDs, 7 interceptions and a 102.1 QB rating in 1961-62 for Ohio State.

Next man up: You’re 20, you’re a pitcher, you were traded for Justin Verlander and you’re being counted on him to replace him. No pressure on Franklin Perez? The Tigers spent much of the second half of 2017 rebuilding the farm system Dave Dombrowski disassembled. Perez was one of three players acquired for Verlander, and while no one expects him to be that good, he reached Class AA by age 19 and pitched capably in a hitters’ league. Perez had a 3.02 ERA last year, and has 214 strikeouts in 203 minor-league innings; the varsity Tigers have plenty of vacancies.

What he said:  Pitcher Mike Fiers on his new vegan diet: “Everyone said I might lose velocity or whatever, but I actually feel better. I’m going to stick with it and see where it goes.” What he meant: “I didn’t have much velocity to lose.”

Three reasons it will be a good year: 1. It won’t be 2003 bad. The 2003 Tigers were one of the worst teams ever — they won 43 games, played to a .265 percentage, had MLB’s last 20-game loser in Mike Maroth (to be fair, the 9-21 Maroth led the team in wins, too), were 29th in runs scored, 29th in team ERA and finished 47 games behind the first-place Twins (but 52 games out of a wild card). These Tigers won’t be that bad. I think. 2. Miguel Cabrera can’t be this bad, can he? Cabrera’s fall was far more precipitous than Albert Pujol’s gradual decline. Pujols went from a .906 OPS in his last year with the Cardinals to .859 and .767 with the Angels; Cabrera dropped 228 points of OPS, 67 points of batting average and 164 points of slugging percentage in 2017. Tigers first basemen were 26th in OPS last year, mostly due to Cabrera’s .249/329/399 malfunction. Cabrera was good vs. lefties — he had a .928 OPS vs. them — but a Dixon Machado-like .230/300/374 vs. righties. The Reds traded Frank Robinson after the 1965 season and their GM, Bill DeWitt, said it was because Robinson was an “old 30.” Robinson was a pretty spritely “30” till his next birthday, winning the Triple Crown in 1966. Cabrera is a soon-to-be old 35, has yet to homer in his first 32 at-bats this spring training and won’t age gracefully — he’s due $30 million or more for the next six seasons. 3. Jeimer Candelario might be pretty good. The Tigers acquired him for Alex Avila and Justin Wilson and last summer, and he has a solid approach at bat. Candelario walked 12 times in 106 plate appearances for the Tigers, 46 times in 458 plate appearances last year in the minors and has a career .350 minor-league on-base percentage. If nothing else, he’s moved Nick Castellanos, a poor fielder, off third base, which Tigers pitchers, if no one else, were probably glad to see.

Three reasons it won’t: 1. Bad teams have bad pitching, and the Tigers’ is likely to be the worst in MLB. It was last year with a 5.36 ERA, and that’s despite pitcher-friendly Commerca Park as its home field and five months of Justin Verlander. Michael Fulmer, the Tigers’ best pitcher, had his 2017 shortened by an elbow injury, but his first start in spring training was without incident. After that, it’s a lot of guys whose ERAs would fit in on the 2003 Tigers. 2. Leonys Martin is coming off a disastrous 2017 — he batted .172, slugged .281, lost his job and batted only 128 times because he was so bad. Naturally the Tigers signed him, and he might be their Opening Day center fielder. Even if Martin improves, he has a career .661 OPS and a walk every 15.6 plate appearances. Those 128 at-bats last year should be a season’s worth for Martin. 3. The Tigers’ starting DP combination will be shortstop Jose Iglesias and second baseman Dixon Machado. Combined with Martin, that’s a third of the Tigers’ offense that would be in the .650 range if they all start. Iglesias is a plus fielder whose defense is offset by a career .316 on-base percentage and .357 slugging percentage; Machado has only 244 major-league at-bats, but he has a .640 OPS in eight minor-league seasons.

Team song: Green Day: Boulevard of Broken Dreams

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