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Quarterly Report: 5 Biggest impressions from the Detroit Tigers thus far

Apr 12, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer (32) pitches in the second inning against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We are a little more than a quarter of the way through the 2018 regular season and the Detroit Tigers are sitting in third place in the American League Central with a 19-23 record overall. Considering they had far and away the lowest odds to win the 2018 World Series before the season started, many would consider this very encouraging and refreshing to see. In fact, they have vastly improved their odds since Opening Day.

This time of the year, just before Memorial Day, is often recognized as a good benchmark for figuring out what a team has going forward. It’s a big enough sample size to digest and subsequently foreshadow the remainder of the season. The Tigers have given us a lot to unpack through 42 games so let us break down what has stood out the most thus far.

(R)ALLEY CATS

This is a Tigers team that not only lost a ton of firepower offensively from the start of last season but has already dealt with numerous injuries, especially as of late, as well as uncertainty with certain players from a production standpoint. It’s fairly understandable for a club going through a rebuild. Having said that, they have been a scrappy bunch early on.

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There have been various areas of the game where Detroit has excelled in sparking rallies. For instance, they have been among the better hitting clubs late in games. The Tigers carry a top-5 batting average (.262) and a top-10 OPS (.736) from the seventh inning onward. They also have proven to be capable in moments where they are trailing. The Tigers have had the ninth-most plate appearances when behind on the scoreboard, and only Boston (.291 BA) and Minnesota (.280 BA) has been more productive than Detroit.

It may be a bit harsh to just say this is a “carefree” club but there is a sense of feeling confident even when it may seem like they are in line to lose a game. That proved to be the case on Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians when Detroit put up a five-spot on the seventh inning to spurn a 9-8 come-from-behind win. It’s a part of the team them makes it exciting and easy to root for.

STILL A LOB MACHINE

While there are aspects of the game where you cannot count them out, there have been, however, times where they have failed to cash in. And even with a relatively inexperienced, rebuilding club, that has proven to be the case once more.

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One problem for the Tigers has not been getting on base, but rather the at-bats with said runners on base. Here is a look at some numbers in notable hitting situations for this year when compared to this year’s averages in Major League Baseball as well as those of last year’s Tigers team.

2018 DET 2018 MLB avg. 2017 DET
OPS w/ RISP .696 .734 .786
OPS w/ Bases Loaded .500 .701 .885
OPS w/ Bases Loaded, 2 Outs .635 .710 .749

Sure, some of these regressed numbers can be attributed to a smaller body of work but it also highlights the lack of a real killer instinct in those high-pressure, clutch moments of the game. One has to like their chances to improve in those areas but as of right now, it is fair to suggest that a failure at times to come through could have cost Detroit a game or two thus far.

GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN

There is a very noticeable trend happening in baseball, a disturbing one if you ask me personally. It is a trend of the three true outcomes: home runs, strikeouts, and walks. The rates for each have continued to skyrocket in recent years and dominate the sport.

However, the Tigers have been one of the very few clubs to not abide by that trend early on. In fact, it is damn near the opposite. They actually rank among the fewest in all of baseball in regards to the three true outcomes.

2018 DET 2018 MLB Rank 2018 MLB avg.
HR % 2.4 T-3rd Lowest 3.0
K % 20.2 T-6th Lowest 22.5
BB % 7.1 Lowest 8.8

It’s very clear what the Tigers want to do at the dish: put the ball in play. In fact, only Kansas City (70 percent) has a higher percentage of plate appearances ending with a ball put into play than Detroit (69 percent) this season. Now, a portion of this pie is dictated by the player personnel but it still speaks to the overall approach from the Tigers on offense.

It sort of fits this “small ball” approach the team has been taking. This has also applied to their base running as well. They’re on pace to be more aggressive than last season and have had significantly more success taking the extra base on balls put in play.

2018 DET 2018 MLB avg. 2017 DET
XBT% 45% 42% 37%
1st > 3rd on a 1B 30.6% 30.5% 23.5%
1st > Home on a 2B 58.1% 43.5% 36.6%
2nd > Home on a 1B 60.5% 58.5% 59.8%

It is actually refreshing (that word will be used a lot when talking positives with Detroit) to see a club aware of their roster makeup but not falling into a trend that continues to grow, yet has shown no real positive impact over the course of a season.

NEXT MAN UP

Injuries are a part of every sport, the truly great teams learn to overcome them in the direst of times if they want to garner any success down the road. Conversely, they are almost the primary excuse if a team looking to contend is not working with a full deck of cards.

The Tigers have been no exception and they do not want to hear any sort of excuses from other teams, because they have performed admirably in the absence of some important players.

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As they embark on their latest road trip, Detroit is currently without the services of six players who are everyday contributors on their 25-man roster. This list includes the top three hitters in their batting order — Leonys Martín, Jeimer Candelario, and Miguel Cabrera — as well as three hurlers in starter Jordan Zimmermann, set-up man Alex Wilson, and still-finding-a-role-for-him Daniel Norris. Add in the more recent nagging day-to-day injuries to players like Nicholas Castellanos (finger) and JaCoby Jones (hip) and the Tigers are basically fielding a Triple-A lineup these days.

A number of players have stepped into elevated roles and helped keep this team reasonably afloat:

  • John Hicks: The Tigers’ backup catcher is playing every day at first base with Miguel Cabrera sidelined. Acquitting himself defensively, Hicks has gotten it done at the dish, hitting .293 with a .849 OPS in 89 plate appearances.
  • Niko Goodrum: The Tigers’ super utility man has shown fans over the last week and change a glimpse of his potential ceiling. The former second-round pick in 2010 has found a groove playing every day, collecting a hit in six straight, now with a .833 OPS in his 84 PAs.
  • José Iglesias: The Tigers’ shortstop got off to a brutal 2-for-35 slump to start the year… woof. He’s hitting nearly .300 since then (a stretch of 29 games), giving Detroit some life in the bottom of the order.

Add in the marginal yet noteworthy performances from a few Triple-A Toledo call-ups — catcher Grayson Greiner, infielder Pete Kozma, and outfielder Mikie Mahtook — and the Tigers have to be feeling fortunate and confident, regardless of who is in the lineup these days.

SUSTAINABLE COMPETITIVENESS?

Hasn’t felt like the Tigers have “had a chance” in the majority of their games this season, regardless of the final outcome? Their record splits support that as well.

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Detroit has logged 42 games so far through May 16. Of those 42, all but eight have been decided by four runs or fewer. They have also already been a part of 17 games (or 40.2 percent of the season) decided by a single run, going 9-8 in such affairs. The eight outliers are dubbed “blowout” games (decided by 5+ runs). That is barely 19 percent of their contests so far.

Last season, when the Tigers finished tied for the worst record in baseball, a little less than a quarter of their 162 games had a differential of one run (17-23 in such games). They also went 18-34 in those “blowout” games, which is a tick over 32 percent of their 162-game slate. Now, it is worth noting that in August and September of last season, they were a combined 23 games under the .500 mark and a -127 in the run differential department.

Even still, Detroit has shown, at least early on, that they are going to “have a chance” in virtually every game this season. The big question is, how long can they keep it up?

Something else worth mentioning is how their current schedule has shaken out thus far. The Tigers have played just 17 games (5-12 record) against teams currently over the .500 mark, tied with Houston for the second-fewest in all of baseball. Now it remains to be seen how the American League will shake out in the end, as it looks quite top-heavy as we approach Memorial Day.

We are going to learn more about the Tigers as the season progresses but right now, there are signs of encouragement.

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