The Detroit Tigers have a long way to go and COVID-19 couldn’t have come at a worse time for them. The 2020 season was going to be exclusively about development. The hope was to start to cultivate a pitching staff that would improve upon the simply awful numbers from 2019. It was to try and find an offense capable of keeping pace with even the league’s worst teams.
Guys like Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize did get a chance to pitch at the MLB level in the shortened season, but really needed a full minor league season in order to continue polishing their craft. It was basically a lost season for Matt Manning, who worked out at the team’s alternate training site in Toledo and threw some games there, but it simply wasn’t the same.
When Mize and Skubal did pitch at the MLB level, they struggled. To make matters worse, Matthew Boyd was awful and wound up being front and center of arguably the worst pitching staff in baseball. The Tigers were 28th in fWAR, due in large part to Spencer Turnbull, who had a solid season.
What really stands out about the numbers from last season for the Tigers is that they were so bad on the pitching side while facing the AL Central, with one great offense, one slightly above league average offense, two terrible offenses, and then the NL Central, where the highest wRC+ was 93. The Tigers staff was somehow worse in 2020, one season after posting a -333 run differential.
As the season win total line suggests, it is hard to find hope for 2021. The Tigers plugged in a few free agents and will hope for a bounce back from their de facto ace in Boyd, but this is a team that just doesn’t have a whole lot pointing in the right direction. The young arms are all very promising, but the Tigers have one top-100 position player prospect in Riley Greene.
This is the cost of going for it. This is the cost of having a deep-pocketed owner at an advanced age willing to do anything and everything to win a title, even if that means leaving a mess for somebody else to clean up. This is the cost of Dave Dombrowski’s insistence on spending massive amounts of money in that quest, rather than building something sustainable from top to bottom.
At least salary relief has finally arrived. Miguel Cabrera is still owed $94 million guaranteed over the next three years, but the end is drawing near on that contract. Jordan Zimmermann is off the books now. The team only has $37 million guaranteed for 2022. Cabrera accounts for more than 86% of that money.
On the whole, the Tigers will be awful again. The hope will be for individual development from Mize, Manning, and Skubal and then a bounce back from Boyd to increase the trade value. He’s about the only movable asset with value, assuming he gets back to his 2019 numbers or a team well-versed in analytics believes in the underlying metrics.
I wish I could say something nicer. I wish I could bring some optimism. I can’t. But, hey, at least it doesn’t take much to sneak over this low win total line.
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL Central
|Team||Odds To Win|
|Chicago White Sox||-143|
|Kansas City Royals||+4000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-82 (4.06/5.47)||-277 (3.94/5.66)|
|3rd Order Win%||22.4-35.6||48.9-112.1|
|Record in One-Run Games||7-9||14-22|
Additions: Julio Teheran, Wily Peralta, Nomar Mazara, Renato Nunez, Greg Garcia, Wilson Ramos, Derek Holland, Erasmo Ramirez, Aderlin Rodriguez, Robbie Grossman, Dustin Garneau, Jose Urena, Ian Krol, Akil Baddoo
Losses: Nick Ramirez, Austin Romine, Ivan Nova, Jordan Zimmermann, Travis Demeritte, Sergio Alcantara, Anthony Castro, Brandon Dixon, Jorge Bonifacio, Dereck Rodriguez, Dario Agrazal
This is just about the kind of offseason you would expect from a team in Detroit’s situation. Raising payroll is stupid, but grabbing a few low-risk free agents in hopes of getting some production until midseason and then trading those guys for futures is a good plan. That appears to be the case here with Wilson Ramos and Robbie Grossman. Julio Teheran might fit with the big outfield here.
None of the losses are of any significance. Losing Ivan Nova and Jordan Zimmermann just means more innings and opportunities for the young guys. Jose Urena is a nice buy-low signing to protect some young arms and maybe get a prospect down the line.
|Batting Average (BA)||.245 (15th)||.240 (26th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.303 (28th)||.294 (30th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.397 (20th)||.388 (29th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.303 (27th)||.290 (29th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||89 (25th)||77 (30th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.314 (6th)||.308 (5th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||27.3% (30th)||26.4% (30th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||7.1% (30th)||6.5% (29th)|
The Tigers really don’t have anything going for them offensively. Miguel Cabrera is basically stealing money at his advanced age. He still made above average contact last season from an exit velocity standpoint and remains a presence in the lineup, but he can’t hit for power like he used to and he hits way too many balls on the ground to be effective. He would benefit a lot from a launch angle change in my opinion, but he’s approaching 38 and that ship has probably sailed.
We’ll have to wait and see if Jeimer Candelario’s 2020 season was a mirage or not. After posting wRC+ marks of 93 and 72 the previous two seasons, Candelario improved his contact quality in a big way and posted a 136 wRC+ with a .373 wOBA. He didn’t hit for a lot of home run power, but had good doubles power and ran a .372 BABIP. I would expect regression from him, but if he can consistently be a decent hitter, that would go a long way for this offense.
The Tigers brought back Jonathan Schoop, who had a fine season at second base with a .340 wOBA and a 114 wRC+. He was second on the team in homers with eight, which is kind of his game. Swing hard, hope it goes a long way somewhere, and that’s about it. He almost never walks. Most of the Tigers don’t walk.
I’ve talked about being okay with that, namely with the White Sox, but the White Sox also make a ton of quality contact and hit for power. The Tigers don’t walk, strike out a lot, and virtually hit for no power. They were 19th in HR/FB% last season and 24th in FB%. They don’t elevate the baseball enough for my liking. Comerica Park is not a particularly great park for home run hitting, but the Tigers just do all sorts of things wrong offensively.
Robbie Grossman will help the walk rate. Wilson Ramos won’t, but he’s a little better than league average for his career and has been a decent defensive catcher some seasons to help out this young pitching staff. Those were two sound additions that do raise the ceiling of this team a bit on the offensive side of the spectrum.
I wouldn’t expect Willi Castro to run a .393 wOBA or a 150 wRC+ this season after having a .448 BABIP. That means that nearly 45% of balls in play for Castro wound up hits. That is very unsustainable, particularly with ugly contact quality metrics and a lot of holes in the swing. He’s been a decent hitter in the minor leagues, but he’s not going to replicate a performance like that and he, too, doesn’t really walk. Running a .381 OBP while walking 5% of the time just doesn’t happen over a larger sample size.
This is a bad offensive team that finished well below average in a lot of categories and I would postulate that Candelario and Castro are in line for major regressions. I don’t really see Schoop carrying the 114 wRC+ he had. He’s only done that or better once and that was 2017 when he hit 32 HR. The power tool might be there, but a .316 BABIP was well above his career mark and just not something I would expect to see again.
A lot of my win total sections are pretty long, but I can save time here. This offense will finish in the bottom third of the league and could very well be a bottom-five unit, even with Ramos and Grossman, who will provide professional plate appearances. I also think it’s likely that they do that with another team in August and September.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||5.63 (30th)||5.26 (28th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||5.17 (29th)||4.84 (22nd)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.85 (25th)||4.75 (21st)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||20.4% (28th)||21.6% (23rd)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.8% (14th)||8.5% (14th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||68.7% (26th)||68.8% (27th)|
This season for the Tigers is all about what this group does. Matthew Boyd ran a 6.71 ERA with a 5.78 FIP and a 4.97 xFIP last season in 60.1 innings. It came to light in January in the Detroit Free Press that Boyd hurt his hamstring in summer camp and then had plantar fasciitis to end the season.
Honestly, I’m over it with Boyd. The 4.32 FIP he had in 2019 was the best of his career and he paired it with a 3.88 xFIP. There are a lot of analysts out there that cannot quit Boyd. He saw the big strikeout bump in 2019, but couldn’t sustain it. He simply gives up too many home runs for my liking. He gave up 39 in 185.1 innings in 2019 and 15 in 60.1 innings last season. You can see the promise with the swing-and-miss numbers in spite of what is obviously below average command with the HR totals, but he’s never put it all together and I’m not holding my breath now.
My dude in this rotation is Spencer Turnbull. I was actually a bit disappointed in Turnbull’s 2020 campaign, as his improved exit velocity numbers failed to stick and he saw a spike in walks. He is, however, an extreme ground ball guy that keeps the ball in the park. Under the hood, Turnbull had a higher spin rate on his fastball last season, which I think contributed to the walk issue. He had 15 walks in his first 24.2 innings, but improved to have 14 in his last 32 innings once he harnessed the increased rpm of his fastball. He also saw a K% spike in the second half. I’m buying stock in him. He’s the only pitcher I’d consistently look to back on a single-game betting basis.
Teams that start to embrace analytics more often see increased spin rates. The Reds are the poster child for this. We also saw Boyd improve in that area after working with Driveline Baseball prior to the 2019 season. Higher spin means tighter, later break to pitches in most cases. It makes it harder for hitters to center on the baseball. To me, Turnbull is the likelier ace of the staff.
Beyond him, the Tigers have a low floor in Michael Fulmer and Jose Urena. Urena had a fine 2018 season, but I’ve seen nothing from him since that suggests he’s a useful rotation arm. The Tigers just appear to have no plan. Boyd is a fly ball pitcher. Fulmer has become one through injury. Turnbull and Urena are extreme ground ball pitchers. The prospects are a mixed bag. We usually see teams try to have a lot of pitchers with similar skill sets and strengths. The Tigers just have a patchwork rotation of random dudes cobbled together.
With Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz under the knife late last year for Tommy John surgery, the excitement regarding the youngsters has been tempered a little bit, but Casey Mize and Matt Manning are two of the best pitching prospects in baseball. Mize has topped out at 109.1 innings in a season, so he’ll be closely monitored and will probably throw more low-stress innings at Triple-A Toledo than Major League innings, at least at the outset.
He made seven starts last season and flashed some promise, but also looked every bit of a kid that hadn’t pitched above Double-A. Manning did not make his MLB debut. He, too, had topped out at Double-A prior to the 2020 season. He was at the alternate training site in Toledo to work out throughout last season, but never got the call. He could at some point this season, but the Tigers seem to be in no real hurry to push him up the ranks.
Beau Burrows got a taste of the big leagues in relief and struggled, but at least he got there after 15 poor starts at Triple-A in 2019. Alex Lange might have more of a relief profile, but he’ll likely be stretched out in Toledo as well.
Erasmo Ramirez, Julio Teheran, or Derek Holland could end up with the fifth and final rotation spot, which would send Tarik Skubal back down and put him in Toledo. The Tigers have three of the top 50 pitching prospects in baseball in Mize, Manning, and Skubal. Skubal got the most extended look last season with 32 innings across seven starts and a relief outing. He, too, had problems.
At some point, any or all of those guys could make an appearance at the MLB level this season. One of them may be the fifth starter. A lot of work still needs to be done and Burrows is the only one that had pitched at Triple-A or higher entering last season.
If all goes according to plan, the Tigers should have a lot of those guys in the 2022 rotation and would likely trade Boyd to accommodate another one in the top five. Toledo’s rotation could very well be better than Detroit’s, at least for a while this season.
The bullpen looks unimpressive as well. I’m less concerned about strikeouts from starting pitchers because a lot of them can navigate lineups based on command and contact quality. There are two things I want from my relievers. Get strikeouts and don’t walk batters. The Tigers didn’t walk batters. Their 8.1% BB% was third-best in baseball. Unfortunately, their K% was 26th. Just about everybody is back from last year’s underwhelming unit, which I think got lucky to have a .286 BABIP against looking at some of the contact metrics.
Positives & Negatives
AJ Hinch was an excellent hire for the Tigers. This is a rebuilding process in every sense of the word, but Hinch took over with a young team in Houston and grew up as a manager as his team grew up on the field. Detroit has nowhere near the emerging talent that the Astros had, but Hinch finds a soft landing spot to repair his image after being part of the sign-stealing scandal.
This is also suggestive of more of a commitment to analytics from the Tigers. The Ilitch family still owns and operates the Tigers, but with the passing of Mike in 2017, Chris Ilitch has since taken over. The 55-year-old is cutting payroll and teams have to find more creative solutions when financial resources aren’t as plentiful. The process and the transition are slow, but the Tigers were long overdue for an overhaul such as this.
Detroit Tigers Pick & Prediction: Under 69.5
This team is going to be really poor, but help is coming and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Turnbull is the only one in the rotation by mid-June. The Tigers have enough youngsters to manage everybody’s workload and roll with a six-man rotation through the summer and on into September.
Given that I actually like the Royals (spoiler alert), I should probably take a position here on the Tigers to be quite bad. I do think AJ Hinch is a really good hire, particularly as those young pitchers graduate to the Major Leagues. The Tigers have had one of the smallest analytics departments in baseball over the last several seasons and maybe Hinch’s hire is a sign of a change within the organization.
Generally speaking, I am not keen on betting low win totals, but with the Tigers, I am very tempted. I’m hoping to find out some more during Spring Training about what their plans are with the young arms. I’d also like to see how many force their way into Opening Day rotation spots. The entire ceiling of this team is predicated on that group and how they shake out.
I know this offense won’t be very good. If the Tigers intend to waste two months running Julio Teheran, Jose Urena, and Michael Fulmer out there 60% of the time, I’ll be a buyer on the under.
For now, this is a very, very strong lean bordering on a bet with Detroit under 69.5.