If you watch or listen to Tigers games broadcasts you’d think the team was just unlucky. Rather than subpar.
Detroit has four starting pitchers on the Injured List: Tyler Alexander, Matt Manning, Casey Mize, and Eduardo Rodriguez. Then there’s Michael Pineda, who was supposed to fill one of those spots, but he’s hurt too. Toss in Spencer Turnbull, he of no-hit fame in 2021, but who is recovering from Tommy John Surgery. That makes a sort of M*A*S*H* unit of Tigers pitchers.
Except, as unfortunate it is that manager A.J. Hinch doesn’t have his primary starting pitchers to send to the mound, that’s not the reason the Tigers are on pace for 90+ losses and another irrelevant season.
The Tigers offense and defense are the problem, and help doesn’t seem to be on the way.
99 problems, but pitching ain’t one of ’em
The Tigers currently rank fifth in the American League in ERA, and also fifth in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), as well as WHIP (walks+hits per innings). The Detroit bullpen rates fourth in baseball in ERA and fifth in fewest runners on base allowed to score.
Preventing runs from the pitching mound is not the Tigers problem.
Tarik Skubal is a legit ace, and clearly will be the Detroit Tigers All-Star representative this season. The thick-muscled lefty has command of a top flight set of pitches, and with every start he gains the confidence to become one of the league’s best hurlers.
Under pitching coach Chris Fetter the Tigers have gone from 15th in the AL in ERA to the top third, while also throwing more strikes and allowing fewer hard-hit balls. Fetter was a relative unknown in MLB prior to be asked to join the coaching staff by Hinch. The former U of M pitching guru has succeeded so far in communicating a new philosophy to Detroit pitchers: throw your best pitches and throw them with movement.
Improvement needed in lineup and on the field
The Tigers have scored 146 runs, which equates to less than three per game. That total is the lowest in Major League Baseball…by far. The next worst offense has scored 28 more runs than Detroit.
The Detroit lineup is not anemic. It would have to get better to be anemic.
The problems begin with four players who were supposed to form a core of the offense: Robbie Grossman, Jeimer Candelario, Jonathan Schoop, and Javier Báez. That quartet is still very much in the prime of their baseball careers, and should be expected to provide the fuel for the Detroit run-scoring machine.
But instead, Grossman-Schoop-Candelario-Báez have provided less punch than a kiddy cocktail.
As of Friday, June 3, the four Detroit batters have combined to hit .193 with a slugging percentage of .307 while chewing up about 44 percent of the team’s plate appearances. That’s no way to mount a scoring threat.
Say all you will about Miguel Cabrera being over the hill (and his power is certainly vastly diminished), but Miggy is not the problem. He’s just one man, and Cabrera leads the team in batting, on-base, slugging, and runs batted in. Look elsewhere for blame, thank you very much.
The Detroit defense is indefensible. Báez was supposed to solidify the infield, but instead he’s been what some observers thought he might be: flashy but sloppy. So far, he’s made five errors in about 35 games worth of innings, which maps out to 23 errors for a full season. One minute he’ll make a nice play with all the Javy flash, but the next he boots a ball that most shortstops would handle. And if you are watching carefully, Báez has been bailed out by favorable hometown scoring: I count at least three other “errors” he could have been tagged with.
The Tigers rank first in the AL in Defensive Efficiency, but that’s wildly misleading. The pitching staff is near the top in fewest hard-hit balls allowed, which makes it much easier for the fielders behind them to convert a batted ball into an out. Also, it’s noteworthy that Detroit is just 10 total fielding runs above average when taking shifts and zone coverage into account.
Fact is: Detroit’s offense is struggling to get runners to second base, let alone score. The defense doesn’t do enough to help a decent pitching staff. That’s a recipe for losses, which is where we’re at, with Hinch’s bunch eight games out in the AL East.
Is help on the way?
Despite recent success, including winning four of five in a long series against the Twins last week. the Tigers may not have much to look forward when it comes to bolstering the lineup.
The top two position player prospects in the farm system are both recovering from injury: Riley Greene (broken foot) and Ryan Kreidler (sore hand). Greene has been tabbed as the center fielder of the future. That may be, he’s certainly shown himself well in the minor leagues. But he’s only one bat, and as we’ve seen with Spencer Torkelson, the jump to The Show is the toughest rung to climb in baseball.
How desperate are the Tigers? Last week they promoted Kody Clemens, son of disgraced steroid user Roger Clemens. The younger Clemens is 26 years old and appears to be the type of hitter who could dominate college but not much else. He has had a good season in 2022 at Toledo, but Clemens is never going to be much more than a footnote to his famous father’s baseball career.
No, the Tigers have to make do with what they have, and Báez, the ever confident but struggling Candelario, the erratic Schoop, and currently injured Grossman are the foundations of an offense that could score more if anyone would get on so Miggy could hit a single the opposite way.
Eric Haase has been exposed for what he is: a fastball hunter with no idea how to make adjustments. Derek Hill, Daz Cameron, and the Castro Boys are the types who have one or two skills, but aren’t really everyday MLB players. Thirty years ago they would have been handy bench players. But today’s baseball doesn’t really have bench players, so we’re stuck seeing them take at-bats, flailing and failing.
This is not to say that the Detroit pitching staff and well-placed hits can’t scramble for a few wins the rest of the way. This season, more than ever, it’s apparent that through the introduction of a deadened ball and the emphasis on spin by pitchers, a bad team can stick close in games simply because it’s easier to come back from a 1-0 deficit than 5-1.