Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Detroit Tigers non-factors in AL Central, once again, as key injuries and disappointments mount

This was supposed to be the year the Detroit Tigers were going to transition from rebuilding and to contending. Last season’s 77-85 record was masked the fact they went 68-61 with a plus-13 run differential in their final 129 games, which is an 85-win pace for a solid four and a half months. After losing an MLB worst 345 games from 2017-21, an 85-win pace was a welcome sight, and a reason to be at least a little optimistic heading into 2022.

“I’m very grateful for the players and for the opportunity here and ultimately the season was progress. But I’m never going to celebrate too much, because we’re going home,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch told MLive.com after last season. “I thanked the players for their effort and for everything that they did to move this organization forward. Then I challenged them to consider this a progressive year, but not ultimately the success that we want.”

Rather than serve as a springboard toward contention — and possibly even to an expanded postseason spot — that 68-61 finish to 2021 is starting to look like the aberration. The Tigers are 26-40 this season and that’s after winning Saturday and Sunday. Their .394 winning percentage is only slightly better than their .365 winning percentage from 2017-20. There is still a lot of season to be played, but it’s becoming clear the Tigers are not going to take that long desired step forward this year.

“I get it, I really do, this isn’t living up to any of our standards, but I don’t think the current emotion can define a full season,” Hinch told the Detroit Free Press last week. “If we win 10-1 today, is everything fixed? I don’t know. I mean it could be, but it doesn’t mean it will be, that’s why we’re about winning today’s game.”

What’s gone wrong in Detroit? Well, a lot. You don’t play at a 97-plus loss pace for the fifth time in six years without a lot going wrong. Are there any reasons to be optimistic about the Tigers moving forward? Sure. You can always find reasons to be optimistic, though it’s perhaps not as easy as it should be this deep into the rebuild. Let’s break down the Tigers’ current situation. 

They’ve been hit hard by injuries

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first: Detroit has dealt with a lot of injuries this season. They’re currently without four of their top five starting pitchers, and that doesn’t include Spencer Turnbull, who had Tommy John surgery last July. Tyler Alexander, who opened the season as the No. 5 starter, has been demoted to the bullpen as well. The missing starters are:

Mize is obviously the biggest loss. The timing of his Tommy John surgery means he’ll miss the rest of 2022 and most of 2023, so the Tigers won’t get him back for a full season before 2024. This was expected to be the year Mize, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, took that step forward to become a top of the rotation guy. Instead, elbow reconstruction has put his career on hold.

The Tigers have lost Javier Báez, Jeimer Candelario, and Austin Meadows to injury at times this season. According to the Baseball Prospectus Injury Ledger, the Tigers have lost the sixth most man games and the ninth highest percentage of team WARP to injury this season. The injuries alone have not sunk Detroit’s season, but their margins are razor thin, and injuries are the kind of thing that can halt progress real quick.

The big free agent additions have underwhelmed

To their credit, the Tigers spent some money this past offseason, most notably bringing in Báez (six years and $140 million) and Rodriguez (five years and $70 million). And to date, those signings have underwhelmed at best and been disastrous at worst. Rodriguez posted a 4.38 ERA (12 percent below average in this offensive environment) in eight starts before getting hurt and he’s been the better of the two signings.

Following Sunday’s game (1 for 3, walk), Báez is hitting .194/.237/.306 with a ghastly 20.8 percent swinging strike rate. (The MLB average is 11.1 percent.) Of the 168 players who have at least 200 plate appearances this season, Báez ranks 166th in park and ERA-adjusted offense. The man is still a highlight machine in the field and on the bases, but Báez has been close to the worst everyday hitter in baseball in 2022. He’s starting to hear boos at Comerica Park.

“I got no comments on that,” Báez told The Athletic about getting booed this past weekend. “I’m just gonna go out there and be myself and play hard. It’s obviously frustrating for us when we struggle. It’s frustrating for them, too, when they want to see you do good.” 

The thing is, Báez has always been a high variance hitter prone to extreme ups and downs. He was the NL MVP runner-up in 2018, hit .203/.238/.360 during the shortened pandemic season in 2020, then rebounded with a .265/.319/.494 effort in 2021. So far 2022 looks a lot like 2020. Who’s to say 2023 won’t look like 2021, or even 2018? The Tigers signed Báez knowing full well a season like this was possible because we’ve seen him do it before. He might be the least predictable player in the sport.

Báez contributes so much in the field and on the bases that he’ll never be a total zero — that he’s at 0.0 WAR this year despite being one of the worst hitters in baseball is a testament to his glove — but the Tigers did not give Báez a $140 million contract expecting this in return. Rodriguez is an innings-eater more than an ace and is paid accordingly. Báez received star money and isn’t meeting those expectations. Bottom line, the Tigers expected a lot more from their two marquee signings than they’ve received thus far.

“I don’t think he’s having fun with the results, hitting-wise,” Hinch told The Athletic about Báez last week. “But the overall vibe, he’s always upbeat. It’s energetic inside. But he carries the burden of the expectation of huge performances … [Báez] carries a little extra burden with that because his expectations are so high.” 

Too many players have regressed offensively

Even with their 14-run outburst Saturday, the Tigers rank dead last in runs (190), runs per game (2.88), and slugging percentage (.324) this year. They’re in danger of becoming the first team to average fewer than three runs per game since the Angels (2.93) and Rangers (2.99) both did it in 1972. This kind of offensive performance tends to get hitting coaches fired. That’s just the nature of the beast, as the Royals showed a few weeks back.

“We are accountable to the performance,” Hinch told The Athletic last week. “This is unacceptable. We are better than this. We have not lived up to the standard that we expect. What the solution is, it’s something we talk about all the time. … We’re all accountable: the players, coaches, manager, front office, everybody. It’s been below par.”  

The offense problems are not limited to Báez and underperforming rookie Spencer Torkelson. Several Tigers who were better than average hitters last year are well below that this year. Going into Sunday, 275 players had at least 400 plate appearances last year and 150 plate appearances this year. Three of the five largest declines in weighted runs created plus belong to Tigers players:

* Weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, is a catch-all metric that adjusts for ballpark and the league’s run scoring environment, and distills offensive performance down to one number. A 100 wRC+ is league average and the higher the number, the better.

Robbie Grossman is 12th on that list with a 44-point decline (114 to 70), so three of the five largest and four of the 12 largest year-to-year offensive declines are in Detroit’s everyday lineup. Not pictured is Akil Baddoo, who had a stellar rookie season a year ago. He played so poorly in April that he was demoted to the minors.

Top prospect Riley Greene was called up over the weekend and is 2 for 5 with four walks and one strikeout in two games, and he’ll help the offense. I mean, it can’t get worse, right? Torkelson’s struggles (.190/.284/.296 in 60 games) are a reminder being a top prospect does not always lead to instant MLB success, but the bar has been set so low that Greene would really have to crash to not upgrade the offense. At this point every little sign of progress is worth celebrating.

“We’re gonna do everything in our power to win, and now I’m gonna try my best to help this team out and do whatever I’ve gotta do,” Greene told MLB.com over the weekend. “But we’re going to win baseball games. That’s all I’ve gotta say.”  

With all due respect to the future Hall of Famer, 39-year-old Miguel Cabrera should not be his team’s best hitter. He leads the Tigers in several offensive categories, including batting average and adjusted OPS. Cabrera is hitting .297/.333/.376 overall and I’m not sure what more you could want from a player his age. The fact Cabrera is still the team’s best hitter is an indictment of the rest of the offense.

Players have down seasons all the time, but when half the lineup slips this much, it suggests a much larger issue. An approach issue, a coaching issue, a player evaluation issue, something somewhere along the line is not right. Likely multiple things, really. Too many veterans have regressed and Torkelson has stumbled more than a former No. 1 overall pick should. Maybe Greene changes the narrative. Even if he rakes, the Tigers need a lot more to contend.

Their rebuilding trades didn’t bring much back

This is a big picture problem more than a problem specific to the 2022 Tigers. When the Tigers committed to this rebuild in 2017, they traded away several veteran players, and the returns have barely moved the needle. For all intents and purposes, this a disastrous series of outcomes:

The Avila and Wilson trade has been, by far, the most productive for the Tigers, and Candelario has been a roughly league average hitter in over 2,000 plate appearances. He is 28 and will become a free agent after next season. Candelario was acquired as part of the rebuild and there’s a non-zero chance he’ll be traded in the next 14 months as part of the same rebuild. That is rough.

Detroit’s rebuild is an excellent reminder that a) when you trade a star for prospects, the team getting the star usually comes out ahead, and b) rebuilding is not as easy and plucking as many players from the other team’s top prospects list as possible. Getting the players is the easy part. Developing them into productive big leaguers who can help win games is far more difficult. The Tigers have excelled at neither as part of this rebuild.

How do the Tigers fix it?

It’s not all bad news. Tarik Skubal is having a breakout season, rookies Beau Brieske and Alex Faedo have had their moments, and relievers like Lange, Gregory Soto, and Will Vest look like keepers. If not keepers, than at least tradeable commodities. The Tigers have more positives on the pitching side than the position player side, for sure.

On the position player side, there are three traits that have been constant in recent years. The Tigers collectively make poor swing decisions (as evidenced by how often they chase pitches out of the zone), they don’t make enough contact on pitches in the zone, and they’re poor defensively. Their ranks among the 30 teams in recent years:

2018

30th

11th

23rd

2019

30th

29th

30th

2020

29th

24th

24th

2021

22nd

29th

26th

2022

30th

16th

15th

Too often the Tigers give the pitcher easy outs by chasing out of the zone and missing pitches in the zone, and frankly, Báez only exacerbates the problem. Even at his best, he is not a disciplined hitter. The Tigers also don’t play sound defense, and when you play poor defense, you give the other team more outs and make your pitchers throw extra pitches. 

To Detroit’s credit, they attempted to improve their defense over the winter with Báez and catcher Tucker Barnhart, and also by extending Schoop last year. But the team-wide issues with poor swing decisions and poor in-zone contact continue to fester, either because the front office has not recognized them as a problem or because they are being ignored. I’m not sure which would be worse, honestly. Probably the latter.

How many current Tigers position players will be on the next Tigers team to reach the postseason? Báez, Greene, and Torkelson, and that’s probably it? Cabrera is signed through next season, so maybe him. Otherwise this team is five years into a rebuild that hasn’t borne enough fruit. The Tigers have good young pitching (though losing Mize to Tommy John surgery really hurt) but are in need of an entirely new offensive identity. The fact so many hitters have gone backwards this year only makes the climb harder.

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