The Detroit Tigers Are… Good?

On May 14, I wrote about how despite some early excitement, the Tigers were struggling to meet the expectations of their rebuild and were on course for a historically bad 2021 season, or at least the first overall pick in the draft. Since then, however, some things have changed, and while they likely won’t be making any kind of a postseason push (our Playoff Odds still have their chances at 0.0%), what they have been doing is playing exciting, fun, winning baseball.

Case in point: their Wednesday afternoon game against the Twins. That 17–14 slugfest exemplified pretty much everything that is going right and wrong for the club over the past few months: an aggressive offense with two legitimate Rookie of the Year contenders, and a pitching staff that can turn even a 10–0 lead into something uncertain.

The improvements in the offense have been the biggest part of Detroit’s success. In April, the team was dead last in wRC+ at a dismal 63; now, the offense ranks 18th overall at 93. That looks even better if we narrow it down to just July, in which Detroit ranked 12th at 107. Oddly, the Tigers have been excellent in high-leverage situations; for the season, they rank eighth in that split with a 108 wRC+, and if we look solely at the month of July, that goes up to an incredible 164. Similarly, with runners in scoring position, the team has a wRC+ of 103 on the season and 135 in July, up from 92 in April.

Where are the Tigers finding this surge? One of the biggest stories here has to be the incredible rookie season of Akil Baddoo, who made waves by hitting a home run in his first major league plate appearance, struggled slightly at the beginning of May, and has since found his rhythm once more, slashing .309/.394/.497 in his last 56 games. If not for an already loaded class, Baddoo would likely be garnering some attention for Rookie of the Year discussions; he’s currently hitting .273/.345/.494 with a 126 wRC+ and a team-leading 1.9 WAR.

Quietly, we’ve also seen two of the Tigers’ young catchers put together an impressive show, both of whom joined the club in mid-May. Jake Rogers was relegated to the alternate site for the entire 2020 season, but this season he’s demonstrated that he may be the catcher of the future the team hoped for, with a spectacular 57% caught stealing percentage (though his pitch framing still leaves something to be desired). He’s also done an excellent job of leading the team’s young pitching staff, most of whom he was already familiar with from his time in the minors.

The more surprising turn has been that of Eric Haase, who caught Spencer Turnbull’s no-hitter and has been used as a catcher, designated hitter, and fielder at various points of the season. He had previously seen some short stints in the majors but is having an impressive breakout season, hitting .242/.290/.552 with a 124 wRC+ and 17 home runs — no small feat, having missed almost the first six weeks of the year. Haase has been so consistently good in the Tigers’ lineup that, much like Baddoo, he should garner at least a little Rookie of the Year chatter.

Two of Detroit’s offseason signings, Robbie Grossman and Jonathan Schoop, are also starting to pay dividends. Grossman — a rare longer-term signing by the Tigers, who have been largely focused on one-year rentals to fill holes in their lineup — is hitting .231/.357/.414 with a 114 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR. Schoop, whose 2020 season was cut short by injury, has proven himself to be a great addition for a second year in a row, hitting .284/.326/.463 with a 113 wRC+. Their production plus the arrivals of Baddoo and Haase has given Detroit a genuine core to the lineup, albeit not a long-term one, most likely.

That’s not to say the Tigers are offensive juggernauts, but they’re making improvements. At the end of April, Detroit had a -48 run differential and was almost as bad at home (-21) as on the road (-27); now, at almost the end of July, that run differential has sunk to -57, but it’s skewed differently, with a +3 mark at home and a -60 on the road. The Tigers have also climbed from being dead last in run differential overall at the end of April to 24th as of this point in July. They did that despite that figure getting worse simply by scoring more runs, going from 75 in April to 119 in May to 130 in June to 119 in July with three games to go.

Where the Tigers’ offense seems to be making progress since April, things aren’t looking as bright for the pitching staff; while they had strong numbers in May, they’ve otherwise been consistently poor. That’s not to say there aren’t some signs of improvement since last season, though. During the 2020 season, Tigers pitchers combined barely managed a positive WAR, notching a mere 0.9 for starters and 1.0 for relievers. What quality there was can be primarily attributed to Turnbull, who offset quite a bit of the damage done by the unexpectedly poor seasons turned in by Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal.

It’s been a somewhat different story this year. Turnbull tossed a no-hitter but has subsequently been lost for the season thanks to Tommy John surgery. With both him and Matthew Boyd sidelined, Detroit has been forced to turn to its pitching prospects: Mize, Skubal and Matt Manning. Mize is sitting on a 3.63 ERA, a 4.58 FIP, and 1.1 WAR, a huge step up from his 2020 (a 6.99 ERA, a 6.47 FIP, and a -0.1 WAR). He hasn’t made major shifts in terms of pitch usage, though he’s relying a bit more heavily on his cutter (a 26.9% usage rate this year compared to 22.8% last year) and less on his curveball (6.8% this year, 10.1% last year) but he’s giving up fewer home runs (1.38 HR/9 versus 2.22 last year) and walking fewer batters, posting a three-point drop in walk rate.

Likewise, Skubal is showing signs of becoming the pitcher the Tigers hoped he’d be, making longer starts and showing better command of his stuff as the season progresses. The big positive is his strikeout rate, a solid 26.3%, and like Mize, his home run numbers are beginning to decline (from 2.53 per nine last season to 1.99). He has begun to rely more heavily on the aforementioned new slider and is only using his fastball about 55% of the time.

Detroit has managed to do all of this despite — or perhaps because of — a substantial amount of roster turnover. The aforementioned injuries to Boyd, Turnbull, and Michael Fulmer, as well as the early-season loss of starter Julio Teheran, created early holes for the rotation, and all four of those pitchers are still out. Over the winter, the Tigers tried to patch up the catcher spot with veteran Wilson Ramos, but he hit .200/.238/.392 with a 68 wRC+ before getting injured in May and released in June. Another offseason addition, Nomar Mazara, was hoping to bounce back after a dismal 2020 campaign with the White Sox but only managed a .212/.305/.403 line and a 64 wRC+ before being jettisoned. But while Ramos and Mazara failed to produce, their struggles and eventual departures opened up time for Rogers and Haase behind the plate and more opportunities in the outfield for younger players like Derek Hill, who is hitting .256/.383/.256 with a 92 wRC+, and the rotation injuries created space for Mize, Skubal and others to continue their much-needed development. The Tigers, in other words, seem to be making themselves stronger through the process of elimination.

Amidst the roster shuffle, the Tigers continue to win games. They had a seven-game winning streak following the All-Star break, won their most recent series in Minneapolis, and are heading home again for seven more games at Comerica, where they have been playing their best baseball. In fact, if Detroit can win one of its next three games against Baltimore, the franchise will have its first season with three straight above-.500 months since 2016, which was also the last year the Tigers had even more than one month with a winning record.

None of the changes the Tigers have made since April have been monumental. A slightly improved quality of pitching, strengthening the core lineup, and impressive development from the new generation of players are all a factor leading the team toward what might end up being a .500 season, something fans in the Midwest haven’t seen since 2016. For the first time in a while, there are signs of something good happening in Detroit. And whether or not the Tigers get anywhere near a postseason position, simply fielding a winning team for the first time in five years will go a long way to bolstering support and giving beleaguered fans what they’ve wanted for quite some time: hope.





Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at Fangraphs; Hardball Times; BPro Short Relief and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home, and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who's On Worst.

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cartermember
1 year ago

I wonder what the Tigers do next year. Do they make a splash in free agency? Can’t imagine Tork or Greene are that far off, and with the emergence of Baddoo and Haase (who should be on the field most days imo) I could see them looking at a few of the bigger free agents. Verlander even mentioned something about coming back to Detroit. Verlander and Scherzer? Maybe Porcello can eat some innings, ha.

RMD4
1 year ago
Reply to  carter

They definitely should. They’ve built some confidence after having a good year and play in a weak division. Teams like the 2015 Cubs, 2018 Braves, and 2021 Giants show how teams can make huge jumps after being bad for a while but then investing in a product that’s clearly getting better.

CoachLindsay
1 year ago
Reply to  carter

JV, Mad Max. Oh god no! Tork, Greene probably not until 2023. Still a long way to go.

Kevbot034
1 year ago
Reply to  CoachLindsay

You’re being way too bearish on Tork and Greene. The Tigers have moved them aggressively. I’d be shocked if we didn’t see them next year.

Shirtless George Brett
1 year ago
Reply to  carter

Tork just got to AA and the Tigers are trying to see if he can play a serviceable 3B. Maybe he gets a Sept call up late next year if things go smoothly but I wouldnt bet on him being a MLB starter any sooner than 2023.

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago
Reply to  carter

If they do make a splash, they should go hard at Carlos Correa. He’s only 27 and is on a short list of the best players who will be available. Seager is the second most likely since he’s 28, but he might have to move to 3B (where they have at least a couple plausible candidates already) and he might actually have been hurt more than Correa.

Otherwise, I don’t really know that you should be doing anything except signing pitchers they can flip at the trade deadline.

I would also listen if the Padres wanted to dump Hosmer and was willing to trade a prospect to help facilitate it. I bet Mackenzie Gore or Robert Hassell would look good in that uniform…

VinnieDaGooch
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The time for them to take on a bad contract was a couple years ago. They would be better off just spending the money that Hosmer would cost on a good player instead of hoping they can fix Gore.

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago
Reply to  VinnieDaGooch

I have now seen a couple comments here about Hosmer and his terrible contract and I don’t think it’s quite that bad. It was frontloaded so he’s only got $59M left, he wouldn’t be blocking anyone for at least a couple years, and he’s always hit right-handed pitching very well. You’re still throwing away money but he’s at least still playable.

I also don’t really the see the point in the Tigers signing anyone over the age of 28 for them right now. There’s a long history of teams signing big name free agents to prove they’re open for business (Eric Hosmer, Carlos Santana, etc) but by the time the rest of the core is ready they’re always trying to dump their salary.

kick me in the GO NATSmember
1 year ago
Reply to  carter

they do not need Starting pitching that much though. They need starting SSs and 2Bs. They have to replace Grossman and Schoop with as good or better 1B and OF. They have nice depth pieces that should not start in Castro and Goodman. they need an everyday above average SS and 2B.

VinnieDaGooch
1 year ago

Grossman is signed through next year

cartermember
1 year ago

Miggy is going to play. Grossman is good. Haase isn’t likely this good, but I think he has shown enough that he warrants a look in the outfield as well. I was joking clearly on getting those old pitchers, but I do not think their timeline is that far off.

ImperialStout
1 year ago
Reply to  carter

tbh I think Verlander makes a ton of sense.