Top of the Order: The Tigers Are Pitching Their Way to Relevance

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Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

It’s not easy to be in playoff position — no matter how early we are in the season — with an offense ranked 23rd in wRC+ entering Tuesday. But that’s exactly where the Tigers stood, above .500 despite an offense that’s better than only seven other teams. Spencer Torkelson doesn’t yet have a home run, Colt Keith has been anemic in his first few weeks in the majors, Javier Báez has continued his backslide, and Detroit is getting almost no offense from its catchers. Mark Canha, Riley Greene, and Kerry Carpenter have been great, but three well-performing hitters can’t carry the other six spots in the lineup. So, then, it’s not hard to see what’s keeping the Tigers afloat: the performance of their pitchers.

A FIP of about 4.00 has the Tigers right in the middle of the pack in pitching WAR, but in terms of ERA — however sustainable or unsustainable it may be — they are among baseball’s best teams at preventing runs.

Detroit’s main contributor has been, of course, ace Tarik Skubal. He’s already been worth 1.0 WAR over his five starts, striking out nearly a third of the batters he’s faced and walking less than 5% of them. He’s allowed just two home runs, a major improvement from a few years ago. He surrendered 35 homers over 149.1 innings in 2021, his first full season in the big leagues, when he was a fastball-heavy prospect who tried to shove his heater down batters’ throats, an approach that often led to uneven results. Now that he’s mixing his pitches, Skubal is overwhelming hitters and making it far harder to guess what he’s going to throw, leading to far more weak contact.

Other than Kenta Maeda, who’s struggled badly this year despite his five scoreless innings Tuesday night, the rest of the rotation is doing its job, too. Jack Flaherty has his best strikeout percentage since 2019, when he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young race, Casey Mize is fully healthy, and Reese Olson looks like a solid back-end starter.

Where the Tigers have especially shined is in relief. Their relievers have an incredible 1.83 ERA, which actually went up after Tuesday night’s 4-2 win over the Rays, though it’s worth noting that mark has been aided by an unsustainably low BABIP against. Jason Foley is the headliner in the bullpen, firing high-90s sinkers to keep his ERA spotless through 11 appearances, but he’s had plenty of help. Shelby Miller’s deceptive fastball is difficult to square up, lefties Andrew Chafin and Tyler Holton are getting out right-handed hitters as well as lefties, and Alex Lange has been effectively wild. Even multi-inning relievers Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz, who largely pitch in low leverage situations, are doing well.

Opposing hitters won’t continue to run such a ridiculously low BABIP, but Torkelson won’t go homerless either. Such are the ebbs and flows that come with a long season, and right now the pitching is flowing and the offense is ebbing, with the former doing juuuuuust enough to keep the Tigers in the conversation as true contenders.

Will Daulton Varsho’s Adjustments Stick?

By no means was Daulton Varsho bad in his first season with the Blue Jays, but he was definitely underwhelming. He was still worth over two wins on the strength of his outfield defense — he led the majors in defensive runs saved — after hanging up his catcher’s mitt for good. However, his bat lagged far behind, with his 107 wRC+ from 2022 dropping all the way down to 85 last year. His strikeout and walk rates were similar, and he actually hit more balls in the air, but fewer of his fly balls turned into home runs because he was popping up far more pitches and pulling the ball less.

In working with bench coach and offensive coordinator Don Mattingly to flatten his swing plane a little in an effort to create fewer automatic outs, Varsho is thriving so far in 2024. His hard-hit rate is the highest of his career, with his average exit velocity up a full mph from 2023. Ironically, his IFFB% is actually higher than it’s ever been, but it’s more than outweighed by better contact overall, which has led to six homers (already 30% of last year’s total) and a 158 wRC+.

Varsho still has some holes in his game: Along with the popups, he’s pulling even fewer of his balls in play, and while he’s walking more, he’s also striking out more than ever. His offensive profile right now looks more boom or bust than Varsho and Mattingly intended, and the bust could come as quickly as the boom did. But for now, he and the Blue Jays should keep riding the wave of his boom for as long as it lasts.

RIP to Robert Suarez’s Fastball Streak

All good things must come to an end, and so it has with Robert Suarez’s fastball streak. For 79 pitches, the Padres’ closer threw nothing but four-seam and two-seam fastballs, until, finally, he mixed in a changeup at Coors Field on Monday night.

Although his ERA has fluctuated in his three MLB seasons since coming over from Japan, Suarez has been mostly the same pitcher when looking at xERA, though FIP feels differently about his 2023. At any rate, Suarez is taking a new approach in 2024; his pitch mix was essentially unchanged from 2022 to 2023, but now he’s throwing his two fastballs nearly 90% of the time.

The rest of his pitches are changeups, meaning Suarez doesn’t have any breaking pitches in his arsenal, but hitters have been flummoxed nonetheless. That fastball-changeup combo is enough to give hitters fits. Entering play Tuesday, he’s allowed just one run in 10.2 innings and earned eight saves. That’ll play.

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1 month ago

Reese Olson is a personal favorite of mine. He has the stuff to be a no 2 or 3 starter. The secondaries are nasty just needs to hone in the command a bit. On the other hand I am still not convinced Mize is anything more than a back end innings eater. Even with increased velo this year he just doesn’t seem to fool hitters with any frequency.