DETROIT – It’s May 18, and the Detroit Tigers aren’t even in last place in their own division.
Okay, so that’s not exactly saying much, considering the Minnesota Twins have the worst record in all of baseball -- but it’s a start.
On May 3, I wrote a column completely blasting the team, and it was absolutely deserved. At the time, the Tigers were 8-21. They had lost 15 of 17 games, had by far the worst offense in the league and sat 42 runs behind the second-worst team in run differential.
It was really, really ugly. But now, the team deserves a little credit.
The Tigers quietly showed signs of life after falling to a season-worst 8-22 on May 4. That was the first of a three-game series in which they scored 22 runs. Sure, they still lost two of three, but the offense woke up and set the stage for what’s been an encouraging couple of weeks.
Since May 8, the Tigers are 6-2 without a single embarrassing loss. The overall record now sits at 15-26 -- one game better than the Twins, who have lost seven of eight games to fall to 13-26.
The Tigers still have by far the worst run differential in baseball, and it’s unacceptable to be so far out of contention by mid-May, but these are the tiny victories we’ll have to embrace in 2021 (and likely beyond).
Obviously, the most encouraging sign from Monday’s win over the Seattle Mariners was Casey Mize, who allowed just one run over 7.2 innings while striking out seven and allowing three hits.
Mize wasn’t perfect -- three walks is still too high for his profile, and 11 swinging strikes in 95 pitches isn’t exactly dominant. But this is exactly how he cruise through the minor leagues: inducing weak contact and pitching efficiently.
At the very least, this month has been a step in the right direction.
In five April starts, Mize allowed 27 hits, 10 walks and 15 earned runs in 26.2 innings. He struck out just 20 batters, allowed an .836 OPS and had a swinging strike rate of 9%.
In three starts this month, Mize has allowed nine hits, nine walks and four runs in 19.2 innings. His strikeout rate is still low -- 14 strikeouts and a 9% swinging strike rate -- but his opposing OPS has plummeted to .466.
Mize has gone six, six and 7.2 innings in three May starts. The Tigers have won all three games.
The way the Tigers have handled the catching position during the rebuild has been frustrating and, honestly, ridiculous.
Wilson Ramos has been a fine addition for one season, but anyone who’s watched the team over the past few years has questioned the lack of change at the backup spot.
Grayson Greiner does a solid job behind the plate, but he’s not outstanding, especially as a pitch framer. His offensive struggles have left Tigers fans wondering when change is coming.
It took TWO back-to-back injuries for the Tigers to finally call up the one catcher in the organization with a proven bat: Eric Haase.
Defense and strikeouts are both concerns for Haase. But what harm can it do to give him a chance and at least see what he’s got? Well, it certainly took the Tigers long enough.
Since getting the call last week, Haase has played in four games, and he’s responded with two home runs, two doubles and a single to provide a jolt to a snoozing offense.
We all know 16 at-bats is too small of a sample size to draw any real conclusions, but that’s beside the point. The Tigers have given Haase a chance, and he’s showing that there’s some legitimate MLB pop in his bat. That’s something.
Matt Boyd is coming off his worst (non-injury shortened) start of the season, and it’s a pretty good sign that his worst start was still fine.
Boyd allowed four earned runs on six hits in six innings. He struck out eight Cubs and allowed just one walk. His ERA rose all the way to 2.45.
On the year, Boyd owns a 3.06 FIP, 0.965 WHIP and 3.7 strikeouts per walk. It’s been a strange start to the season because he’s only striking out seven batters per nine innings, yet his results have been excellent.
Excluding one start where he was pulled early due to injury, Boyd has given the Tigers five quality starts in seven outings. In the two outings that weren’t officially quality starts, Boyd went 5.2 shutout innings and allowed four earned in six innings, respectively.
That means if he had gotten one more out in his season debut and allowed one fewer run against the Cubs, he would be perfect in quality starts on the year. He really hasn’t had a single bad start.
What’s changed for Boyd? The most notable difference is home runs. He’s led the league in homers allowed each of the past two seasons, yet only two balls have left the yard against Boyd in 47.2 innings this year.
Maybe that’s a fluke. Maybe his home run to fly ball rate will normalize and the next few starts will be disastrous.
Or, maybe Boyd is a major beneficiary of the new baseball.
MLB changed the ball this season, and early returns suggest that while balls are being hit harder than ever in terms of exit velocity, it takes a significantly harder hit ball to result in a home run.
So while hard-hit balls are at an all-time high, the home run rate is lower on those hard-hit balls. It’s possible that has helped Boyd keep batters in the yard.
It would make sense, because that was the one thing really holding him back the last three years.
Boyd certainly can’t survive with such a low strikeout rate, but he’s showed signs of improvement in that regard. His swinging strike rate in May is up to 13% from 10% in April.
The noise surrounding Akil Baddoo has softened considerably since his hot start to the season, but I just want to point out one subtle improvement he’s made during the team’s winning streak.
In his last seven games -- spanning 24 plate appearances -- Baddoo has drawn six walks while striking out just four times. He has five hits during that span and hasn’t struck out multiple times in a game.
Even when he was hitting dramatic home runs, the most exciting part of Baddoo’s profile was his grasp of the strike zone and ability to work counts. Early in the season, that wasn’t materializing into results, as he struck out at an alarming rate and didn’t actually draw many walks.
But the signs were always there -- whether Baddoo was battling back from 0-2 to full counts or simply taking close pitches. Now, it appears some of that discipline is starting to pay off.
On May 2, Robbie Grossman went 0-4 against the New York Yankees and saw his average fall to .196. His OPS was a paltry .641, and his inability to jumpstart the offense from the leadoff spot was among the many crippling issues for the Tigers’ offense.
Then, he got scorching hot.
Over the past 12 games, Grossman is slashing .340/.448/.638 with four doubles, two home runs and two triples. He’s drawn nine walks and stolen three bases during that span.
Suddenly, the season-long numbers are looking exactly like the Tigers hoped when they signed Grossman this offseason. He’s got an elite .382 OBP to go along with a solid .792 OPS. He’s a perfect 7-for-7 in stolen base attempts and has 13 extra-base hits.
He’s on track for the most productive offensive season of his career.