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Mid-Season Report Card: 5 Things we learned from the Tigers in the first half

The Detroit Tigers ended the first half on a high note, beating up on their former ace Justin Verlander and the Houston Astros to earn a win on Sunday and head into the MLB All-Star break.

Unfortunately, it was one of very few bright spots for the Tigers (41-57) over the last month or so of play. The 6-3 win on Sunday was just their fifth victory over their final 25 games of the first half, a stretch that included two separate losing skids of 11 and six games, respectively.

Nevertheless, there were some things we have learned since our quarterly report of this club back in mid-May. Here are our biggest takeaways over that span:

TOUGH SLEDDING IN JUNE AND JULY

Following a sweep of the Chicago White Sox on Father’s Day, the Tigers were sitting at just one game under .500 at 36-37, riding a season-high five-game winning streak. Unfortunately, that is when things began to fall apart and at a rapid rate.

This exercise is to not by any means completely excuse the Tigers from their porous play in the final 25 games of the first half, but rather show the caliber of competition they ran into during that time. Here are just a few examples:

  • June 19-20: The Cincinnati Reds had won four of six entering this mini two-game set. Sweeping the Tigers continued a stretch in which they finished the first half going 21-10.
  • June 22-24: If you have watched any Tigers baseball in recent years, you know that they cannot get past the Cleveland Indians, especially on the road. A three-game sweep extended a losing streak in Cleveland to 10 games going back to last season.
  • June 25-28: With a top-3 road win percentage in the sport, the Oakland Athletics came into Detroit and swept the Tigers in a four-game series. Contrary to Detroit’s sluggish finish, the A’s closed out the first half as one of the hottest teams, going 21-6 in their final 27 contests.
  • July 3-4: The Chicago Cubs had won four straight and five of six entering this short two-game series, games in which they were winning in comeback fashion. They continued that trend and took advantage of a reeling Tigers team by sweeping the mini-series.
  • July 9-11: The Tigers waltzed into Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays had won 15 of their last 20 games played at home and had a team ERA barely over 2.00 in that time. Detroit inflated that number some but still ended up getting swept yet again.

Again, it is to be used as an excuse. In any sport, a team’s strength of schedule can vary depending on how the opposition is playing as of late. Plus, let’s be honest, the Tigers had no shortage of opportunities to win any of the games mentioned above (but we will touch on that later).

HEY JOE, YOU’RE AN ALL-STAR

That is right, Big Joe, get your game on, go play. Joe Jiménez has been one of the more consistent performers for the Tigers in the first half, effectively flushing away his rocky rookie season a year ago.

Jiménez was the Tigers’ lone representative for the All-Star Game this year and while he was not everyone’s first choice, he was more than deserving. The complete turnaround from a statistical standpoint speaks for itself.

Credit: FanGraphs

And it is not just the raw numbers. The effectiveness of his fastball/slider combination is impressive, considering the usage between the two is fairly identical to that in 2017. But opponents are hitting more than .170 points less (.194) off Joe’s fastball than they did a year ago (.367) and nearly a .130-point drop in batting average (.277) against the slider than in 2017 (.400).

Jiménez already appears to be the closer of the future for the Tigers. When that passing of the torch becomes official remains to be seen and will hinder on the team’s plans with current closer Shane Greene and the possibility of Greene being traded. For now, however, he and fans will just have to bide their time.

A STAR(TER) IS BORN

For every team throughout the season, there are always surprise performers who break out and establish bigger roles for themselves. Niko Goodrum is that guy for the Tigers in 2018.

After escaping spring camp with the big league club as a utility man off the bench, Goodrum in March/April and May was only being used as a guy to give some regulars an off day. He logged just 125 plate appearances through May but started to make some noise with the bat that month when he clubbed four homers and slugged .551.

Flip the calendar to June and the Tigers are struggling to get contributions from their primary second baseman and Opening Day starter at that position, Dixon Machado. Detroit made a tough decision in designating Machado (who eventually cleared waivers and returned to Triple-A Toledo) for assignment. That opened the door for Goodrum to become the everyday man at second base. Since the start of June, he has 159 plate appearances and finished the first half with a .969 OPS in July.

What the future holds for the 26-year-old remains to be seen but he has taken advantage of his limited opportunities early on to earn a more significant role on the squad. Given the immediate roster influx of being a team in rebuild mode, the Tigers are looking for any and all bright spots moving forward and Goodrum is most definitely making a case to be a staple for the team long-term.

MORE TIME FOR VICTOR REYES?

To a lesser degree compared to Goodrum, another player who has received incrementally more playing time is the Tigers’ Rule 5 Draft selection from last winter, Victor Reyes.

Detroit willingly and admittingly bit the bullet by plucking the 23-year-old outfielder from the Arizona Diamondbacks’ farm system, knowing that he would have to stay on the major league roster for the entirety of the 2018 season if they wanted to retain him permanently. Essentially, Reyes was in “tryout” mode with Detroit.

Early on, manager Ron Gardenhire used Reyes almost exclusively as a pinch runner, mainly for Victor Martinez, with an occasional pinch-hit at-bat or start along the way. But as the season has progressed, Reyes has received a little bit more playing time each month, largely due to some injuries in the outfield and/or inconsistent play from those ahead of him in the pecking order.

Credit: Baseball-Reference

You can see that the number of plate appearances has increased each month and already has as many PAs in July, playing in 11 of the team’s 14 games this month, as he did in all of June.

Gardenhire has openly said that he wishes he had given Reyes more playing time and at-bats early on and is determined to find ways to do just that moving forward. With that said, it could be hard when starting center fielder Leonys Martín returns from injury after the All-Star break, sliding JaCoby Jones back over to left field. Another wrinkle that will factor into this is any potential trade(s) that could open the door for Reyes to play regularly.

Reyes has shown small pockets of being a potential four-tool or even a five-tool player. But that is all they have been right now, small pockets. This is a friendly reminder that he completely hurdled the Triple-A level to get here and, like most guys on this current roster, there will be growing pains.

STILL PLENTY OF FIGHT

The overall standings will show that the Tigers are tied with the Miami Marlins for the sixth-worst win percentage in baseball. However, they have been far more competitive than that 41-57 record would indicate, at least from a hitting standpoint.

There have been plenty of opportunities at the dish, more so than the prototypical team with their current record, but have simply lacked a killer instinct to get it done in close games and key moments within said close games. Here is a look at some notable game-time situations, highlighting the number of chances and subsequent production and where it ranks in baseball.

PLATE APPEARANCES TEAM OPS
GAME WITHIN 4 RUNS 15TH 25TH
LATE & CLOSE* 12TH 21ST
2 OUT & RISP 7TH 26TH

[*Per Baseball-Reference, this measures the number of plate appearances “in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.”]

A large chunk of this goes back to this particular team just being relatively young and/or inexperienced and being unable to come through in clutch spots. It is an area of the game that can gradually improve over time, not overnight.

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