An Historically Bad Offense Is Just One of the Tigers’ Problems

© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

A Tiger hit a home run on Monday night. Normally, that wouldn’t qualify as news, and in this case it didn’t even lead to a victory, but Willi Castro’s leadoff homer off of Lance Lynn — on the White Sox starter’s first pitch of the season — was Detroit’s first home run since June 2, and just its second in 11 games this month; in the two games since, they haven’t hit another. At this point, just about any time the Tigers score seems noteworthy given that they’re averaging a major league-low 2.71 runs per game, putting themselves in the company of some of the worst teams in recent history. That’s hardly the only thing that’s gone wrong for a team that’s barreling towards its sixth straight sub-.500 campaign.

After winning 77 games last year under new manager A.J. Hinch, their highest total since 2016, the Tigers made a big splash before the lockout by signing righty Eduardo Rodriguez and shortstop Javier Báez to pricey, long-term deals, with the righty getting five years and $77 million and the shortstop six years and $140 million, the team’s largest commitments since the 2015-16 offseason. Along with the Rangers, Mets, and Phillies, they were one of just four teams to commit at least $75 million in total salary to two players. Once the lockout ended, the team added lefty reliever Andrew Chafin (two years, $13 million) and righty Michael Pineda (one year, $5 million) as well and, three days before Opening Day, traded for outfielder Austin Meadows. According to RosterResource, the team’s payroll increased by $47 million over last year, from $88 million to $135 million. Our preseason projection for 77 wins and 12.1% Playoff Odds didn’t indicate a forthcoming powerhouse, but between those moves and the decision to open the season with 2020 first overall pick Spencer Torkelson at first base, the team at least showed a laudable commitment towards improvement.

Instead, the Tigers have been only intermittently competitive. At 24-38, they own a better record than the Cubs (23-39), Reds (23-40), Nationals (23-42), Royals (21-41), and A’s (21-43), but none of those teams made moves towards contending this winter. The Tigers are in their class nonetheless, bested by their competition far too often. In fact, they’re a jaw-dropping 3-15 in games decided by five or more runs, including Wednesday’s 13-0 drubbing by the White Sox. While the Nationals have more blowout losses (19), they’ve also won 11 such games:

Won-Loss Record in Blowouts
Tm W L Win% Rdiff
DET 3 15 .167 -86
OAK 3 12 .200 -62
PIT 4 12 .250 -87
ARI 4 11 .267 -42
CHW 4 9 .308 -38
KCR 5 11 .313 -54
COL 6 12 .333 -53
WSN 11 20 .355 -71
CIN 7 12 .368 -31
CHC 7 12 .368 -46
BAL 6 9 .400 -31
MIL 8 11 .421 -10
TEX 7 7 .500 -1
SEA 7 7 .500 3
ANA 10 9 .526 12
MIN 15 13 .536 16
NYM 12 10 .545 12
STL 13 10 .565 40
HOU 13 9 .591 26
TBD 11 7 .611 12
FLA 9 5 .643 37
SDP 11 6 .647 47
SFG 13 7 .650 32
CLE 8 4 .667 32
TOR 10 5 .667 39
PHI 10 5 .667 33
BOS 14 7 .667 55
ATL 9 4 .692 38
LAD 15 4 .789 91
NYY 13 3 .813 87
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Games decided by five or more runs.

As for what’s gone wrong, the Tigers’ offense is bad enough to mandate placement in an historical context. The team owns the majors’ lowest scoring rate by more than half a run (Oakland’s 3.25 per game is second-worst); their 2.71 runs per game would be the lowest mark since integration in 1947:

Lowest-Scoring Teams Since 1947
Rk Tm Year R/G W L Win% wRC+
1 DET 2022 2.71 24 38 .393 70
2 CHW 1968 2.86 67 95 .414 79
3 HOU 1963 2.86 66 96 .407 74
4 SDP 1969 2.89 52 110 .321 76
5 LAD 1968 2.90 76 86 .469 90
6 NYM 1968 2.90 73 89 .451 80
7 CAL 1972 2.93 75 80 .484 90
8 TEX 1972 2.99 54 100 .351 74
9 SDP 1971 3.02 61 100 .379 81
10 NYM 1965 3.02 50 112 .309 71
11 CLE 1972 3.03 72 84 .462 79
12 HOU 1964 3.06 66 96 .407 73
13 CAL 1968 3.07 67 95 .414 88
14 NYM 1967 3.07 61 101 .377 76
15 NYM 1963 3.09 51 111 .315 70
16 TOR 1981 3.10 37 69 .349 72
17 BAL 1954 3.14 54 100 .351 83
18 CAL 1971 3.15 76 86 .469 79
19 ATL 1968 3.15 81 81 .500 92
20 HOU 1968 3.15 72 90 .444 87

Since I’m comparing a team with 62 games played to those with 162, I didn’t see a need to filter out the teams from shortened seasons, so in the table above you can note the presence of three AL teams from the strike-shortened 1972 season, the year before the designated hitter was first adopted, as well as the strike-shortened ’81 season. Representatives from 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher,” are also above, but even they take a back seat to these Tigers, whose wRC+ would match the 1963 Mets and ’52 Pirates (who somehow scored a comparatively robust 3.32 runs per game) for the lowest of the integration era.

Collectively, these Tigers are hitting .221/.278/.318. Their slugging percentage is the majors’ worst by 18 points, and their 70 wRC+ the majors’ worst by nine points, while their batting average and on-base percentage are merely the AL’s second-worst behind Oakland. Their 31 homers is 15 fewer than any other team, and meanwhile, they’re in a virtual tie for the majors’ lowest walk rate (6.6%) and own the AL’s second-highest strikeout rate (24.3%).

Their homerless streak matched the Cardinals for the longest in the majors since 2019, though it didn’t come close to toppling the longest streak of the Statcast era, which has been boom times for the long ball:

Longest Homerless Streaks Since Start of 2015
Team Year Strk Start End Games
ATL 2016 4/11/16 4/26/16 15
CHW 2015 4/23/15 5/5/15 9
ATL 2015 5/17/15 5/26/15 9
NYM 2015 6/28/15 7/7/15 9
CHC 2015 6/23/15 7/1/15 8
ATL 2015 9/13/15 9/21/15 8
KCR 2019 5/11/19 5/19/19 8
STL 2022 4/21/22 4/28/22 8
DET 2022 6/3/22 6/12/22 8
BAL 2022 4/17/22 4/23/22 7
7 other teams 7
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Some of what the Tigers have dealt with may be bad luck, sheer randomness, or a product of the deadened baseball. By Statcast, they own the majors’ largest gap between wOBA and xwOBA (-34 points), the fourth-largest gap between actual and expected batting average (-23 points), and are tied for the third-largest gap between actual and expected slugging percentage (-69 points). Even so, their .301 xwOBA and .387 xSLG represent major league worsts, and their 300-foot average fly ball distance is the shortest, 14 feet short of the major league average. In the words of James Brown, “People, it’s bad.”

Individually, just two of the 14 Tigers who have taken at least 55 plate appearances have a wRC+ of 100 or better, namely Harold Castro (142 PA, 119 wRC+) and Meadows (147 PA, 101 wRC+), neither of them full-timers due to their struggles hitting lefties. Castro, a 28-year-old superutilityman, entered the season with a wRC+ of 84 and has nearly tripled his previous barrel rate, from 3.0% to 8.8%. He’s ridden a combination of a 2.1% walk rate and a .343 BABIP to a .299/.312/.460 line while starting 12 games at third, 11 at shortstop, seven at first base, two in left field, and one at second base; the jack of all trades has also pitched twice, including on Wednesday. Meadows has split his time between the two outfield corners but missed 19 games in May and June due to a bout of vertigo and has struggled since returning to the point that he’s slipped below replacement level (-0.1 WAR).

Miguel Cabrera, who collected his 3,000th hit on April 23, has hit for a 99 wRC+, but the power with which he’s launched 505 homers has rarely been evident; he has just three in 204 PA to go with a .289/.328/.368 line. While he counts as a heavy hitter within this group, his -0.3 WAR illustrates that he’s not even close to keeping pace with the game’s DHs.

Báez, whose offensive production has always been rather volatile — remember that 55 wRC+ in 2020? — has been dreadful at the plate, hitting just .188/.232/.288 for a 47 wRC+ with three homers. Though he’s striking out “only” 26.1% of the time, his lowest mark since 2018, his 47.9% chase rate and 21.7% swinging strike rate represent career highs. When he does make contact, his 7.2% barrel rate is just over half last year’s 13.4% rate, and meanwhile, his hard-hit rate has fallen by over 10 percentage points, from 45.2% to 34.5%, and his xSLG has dropped 105 points, from .455 to .350. Of the 10 players signed to contracts of at least $100 million this past winter, he’s one of three (along with Kris Bryant and Nick Castellanos) stuck at -0.3 WAR. That’s not what the Tigers signed up for, to say the least.

The rest of the infield has been scarcely better. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who hit for a 105 wRC+ last year and has topped 100 in five of his seven full seasons, is hitting .190/.227/.310 (51 wRC+), though thanks to outstanding defense, his 0.6 WAR is the team’s highest among position players, and one of four that’s above replacement level through the aforementioned 55-PA cutoff. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who led the team with a 119 wRC+ last year, is batting .181/.236/.319 (58 wRC+). He’s currently on a rehab assignment after missing time due to a left shoulder subluxation suffered when diving for a ball. That pair is tied for the team lead with five homers.

The most troubling performance belongs to Torkleson, who’s hitting .178/.276/.287 (67 wRC+) with four homers and who has been prone to deep slumps. The number five prospect on our Top 100 Prospects list entering the season, he began his major league career by going 0-for-10 before collecting a double off the Red Sox Rich Hill on April 12; from April 26 to May 12, he endured a 2-for-42 slump with 18 strikeouts; and since collecting three hits apiece in back-to-back games on May 30 and May 31, he’s 3-for-41 with 12 strikeouts. The good news is that he’s chasing just 26.4% of pitches and walking 11% of the time, and he’s hitting the ball somewhat harder than his numbers suggest (note his 7.6% barrel rate and .373 xSLG), but the 70-grade power that made him such an enticing prospect has rarely been evident. Despite a disciplined approach, he’s been unable to do much with breaking or offspeed pitches, hitting for a .197 AVG/.273 SLG against the former and .048 AVG/.048 SLG against the latter.

Because of the pandemic, Torkelson has just one year of minor league experience, and the Tigers were aggressive about promoting him to start the year. It hasn’t paid off, and it’s fair to wonder if he’d be better off spending at least a few weeks at Triple-A Toledo. It sounds as though the Tigers are thinking about it as well.

“It’s been a tough stretch for him again,” Hinch told reporters after Monday’s loss. “We seen him come out of it before and kind of taper back into some frustrating at-bats. He hasn’t taken it out onto the field, he’s still playing well there. But we need to see him pick it up a little bit and staying more consistently in the at-bats.”

Elsewhere in the lineup, catchers Tucker Barnhart (57 wRC+) and Eric Haase (50 wRC+) haven’t hit, but that’s hardly news. Left fielder Willi Castro’s 80 wRC+ (.250/.286/.346) is an an 11-point improvement upon last year, but right fielder Robbie Grossman’s 64 wRC+ (.199/.302/.237) represents a 50-point drop. After hitting a career-high 23 homers last year, Grossman has yet to leave the yard once this year, and his strikeout rate has spiked from 23.1% to 30.4%. His -0.9 WAR is the lowest among the team’s position players.

Center field has been a revolving door, with five players combining to hit .234/.286/.323 (76 wRC+). Current starter Victor Reyes has been limited to 43 PA due to strains in both quads, though he’s back from the injured list and has hit a sizzling .341/.372/.439 (134 wRC+). Perhaps he can provide some stability where Opening Day starter Akil Baddoo (28 wRC+ in 55 PA) and call-up Derek Hill (60 wRC+ in 92 PA) did not; both have since been optioned to Toledo. Daz Cameron, who has made seven starts in center and 10 in right, has hit for a 93 wRC+ (.232/.295/.375) in 61 PA, and had heated up before being placed in the COVID-19 protocol as of June 9. He figures to get a longer look somewhere in the outfield upon returning. At some point, 21-year-old Riley Greene, who ranked sixth on our prospect list, could arrive and shake things up; he missed the first seven weeks of the season due to a fractured right foot and isn’t exactly lighting up Toledo (.281/.349/.386), however.

It’s all quite grim, and we haven’t even gotten to the rotation, which ranks among the AL’s bottom four in both ERA (4.66) and FIP (4.46). The past week alone saw Rodriguez leave the team and get placed on the restricted list for what is reportedly a marital issue (his return date is unknown) and 2018 first pick Casey Mize undergo Tommy John surgery. Matt Manning made just two starts before being sidelined by a biceps strain, and Pineda has been out since mid-May due to a fractured middle finger. Both are expected back in early July. Nine other players have made starts for the team; the one legitimate bright spot has been Tarik Skubal, who is in the midst of a breakout, pitching to a 2.71 ERA and 2.29 FIP. The 25-year-old lefty is tied with Sandy Alcantara for second in the majors in WAR (2.4) and deserves a trip to the All-Star Game (which he may get) and a reprieve from the rest of roster (tough luck).

The bullpen, which ranks among the league’s top five in ERA (3.11) and FIP (3.39) has at least been a bright spot. Closer Gregory Soto, setup men Michael Fulmer and Chafin, and middle relievers Alex Lange and Will Vest have led the way performance-wise, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see contenders sniff around their ranks come late July. Hinch can only hope that he won’t have to call upon Barnhart, Harold Castro, or Kody Clemens — yes, Roger’s son — again. All three pitched in Wednesday’s 13-0 loss, just the fourth time in the post-1960 expansion era that a team used three position players to pitch in a single game, after the 1979 Brewers, and the 2018 and ’21 Cubs (details here).

While hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh’s job is in jeopardy given the team’s lack of production, Hinch’s name has not yet popped up among those of managers on the hot seat. In fact, the length of both his contract and that of general manager Al Avila aren’t public knowledge, though they are believed to be linked in their expiration dates; the latter, whose first contract covered 2016-20, signed an extension in July 2019 but obviously hasn’t gotten anywhere with the team’s rebuilding. For all of the team’s promise, a housecleaning is probably in order if the results don’t improve.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

35 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Michaelmember
15 days ago

Im not a Tiger’s fan but I feel sorry for a fan from any team that scores so few runs. Every at bat becomes frustrating. It seems endless….