DETROIT – Remember a month ago, when the Detroit Tigers were 9-24? That was rough.
There’s been a lot of “rough” over the last four, five, six years now. The Tigers have been almost exclusively terrible since the start of 2015, with the exception of 2016, which ended up being equally insufferable.
But exactly one month since the team hit perhaps its lowest point of the entire rebuild, there are suddenly some glimmers of hope.
If you’ll remember, on May 7, the Tigers were by far the worst team in baseball -- a full four games behind the next-worst team in the American League. A few days earlier, I had written an article headlined, “The Detroit Tigers are a complete disaster -- both now and looking toward the future.” That sounds pretty mean, looking back, but I stand by it -- that brand of baseball was unacceptable for any MLB club.
Fortunately, things have turned around considerably. People might not have noticed because the overall record is still an uninspiring 24-35. But over the last calendar month, the team is 15-11. That’s a .577 winning percentage, which, if extrapolated over a full season, would make Detroit the third-best team in the AL.
Without researching every month-long stretch over the past five seasons, I can’t remember any that have been as promising as this one. It’s not just that the Tigers are winning, but HOW they’re winning and WHO is leading the charge.
Here’s a look at eight players who have helped the Tigers start turning this season around, and others who appear to be making strides for the future.
The first five starts of the season were brutal for Mize, who was coming off a lackluster -- understandably so, considering the circumstances -- debut in 2020.
In April, the former No. 1 overall pick owned a 5.06 ERA with 27 hits allowed, 10 walks issued and just 20 strikeouts in 26.2 innings. He was surrendering an .836 OPS with a 9% swinging strike rate.
Since then, Mize has ripped off five quality starts in six outings -- and in the non-quality start, he went five innings while allowing just one run and striking out seven.
In total since the start of May, Mize has struck out just 33 batters in 38 innings, but his swinging strike rate is up to a much more respectable 11%. He’s allowed just 22 hits and 10 walks in 38 innings, while posting a 2.13 ERA.
His worst start of that stretch came Thursday (June 3), when he allowed three runs for the first time in five weeks. Yet he went seven innings and induced 17 swinging strikes -- a new season high.
The entire foundation of this rebuild was the young starting pitchers, and Mize was the face of that unit. It’s a tremendous relief to see him put together this type of stretch.
The start to the season was even more concerning for Skubal than it was for Mize. He failed to last more than four innings in five straight starts and wasn’t even missing bats -- his top calling card in the minors.
In six April starts, Skubal pitched just 22 innings (an average of 3.2 innings per start) with a 6.14 ERA, a .978 opponent OPS and 10% swinging strike rate. He allowed 23 hits, 14 walks and 15 earned runs in those 22 innings.
Then, like it did for Mize, everything turned in May.
Over his last six starts, Skubal has upped his swinging strike rate to a strong 14% while posting a 3.09 ERA and striking out 50 batters in 32 innings.
The walk rate is still a bit high -- 12 free passes in 32 innings -- but opponents are posting just a .723 OPS against Skubal since the start of May. In his first six starts, only 60% of his pitches were strikes. That percentage has leapt to 66% in the six starts since.
Perhaps most importantly, Skubal has lasted at least five innings in each of his last six outings -- including two that went six innings. Even though that’s not quite the ace workload the Tigers would eventually like to see from their young lefty, it’s a step in the right direction.
And again, Skubal is just 24 years old and coming off an extremely strange 2020. It’s easy to see why the first few outings were a struggle.
Remember Baddoo’s first nine games of the season? Here are the headlines we posted:
He certainly has a flair for the dramatic. Baddoo couldn’t have asked for a better -- or louder -- start to his career. Every at-bat was must-watch, and he owned a 1.342 OPS after nine games.
Then, from April 15 through May 8, Baddoo went through his first slump -- and let me tell you, it was a SLUMP. He struck out in 27 of 50 at-bats while drawing just three walks. He had five hits during that span -- good for a .100 average, .151 on-base percentage and .240 slugging percentage.
Baddoo watched his 1.342 OPS plummet more than 600 points to .725. Considering his unremarkable prospect pedigree, many probably wondered if the rookie was simply overmatched at the MLB level.
But he’s shown exceptional growth over the last 18 games. The most impressive sign: 14 walks and 12 strikeouts over 50 plate appearances.
Nothing is more encouraging than a young player with that type of plate discipline, especially in the midst of such a miserable slump. Baddoo was striking out in more than half of his at-bats, and suddenly, he’s doing exactly what he did in the low minors: managing the strike zone and getting on base.
Since May 11, when he reached base five times with two singles and three walks, Baddoo owns a .520 OBP. He’s still showing some extra-base power, and he’s a perfect 6-for-6 on stolen base attempts this season.
Is Baddoo a superstar? Maybe not, especially if he can’t play against left-handed pitching. But he’s a rookie experiencing his first action above single-A, and his season-long slash line is at .241/.341/.500 despite that long slump. That says a lot.
The three players above are showing far more positive signs than Castro, but his recent hot streak shouldn’t be completely ignored.
Even with Sunday night’s 0-for-3, Castro is slashing .353/.410/.676 over his last 11 games -- the first extended sign of life from his bat this season.
If this was the first time Castro had done anything positive at the MLB level, it would be easy to write off a two-week stretch. But just last season -- yes, it was a shortened season -- he posted a .932 OPS over 32 games.
Castro’s season-long numbers are still bad, but since May 24, he’s hit five doubles and two home runs while drawing three walks and striking out just seven times in 34 at-bats.
The shortstop experiment ended early, but Castro is trying to acclimate to his new life at second base. His throwing accuracy was the greatest concern at shortstop, so there’s no reason to believe he can’t handle the keystone.
A 28-year-old catcher doesn’t exactly scream “future!” But the Tigers have tried so many different catching options recently -- from James McCann to John Hicks to Austin Romine to Grayson Greiner to Wilson Ramos -- that it’s nice to see someone actually come up and hit.
That’s exactly what Haase has done. He didn’t join the Tigers until May 13, and he’s already tied for the highest WAR among non-pitchers on the roster.
There are some holes in Haase’s swing. He has struck out in one-third of his plate appearances and has just a .324 OBP. But the power has been even better than advertised, and he’s been coming through in clutch situations.
Haase already has three two-homer games, and seven home runs, three doubles and a triple in total. Only Jonathan Schoop has more home runs for the team this season, and no other Tiger is even in Haase’s neighborhood in terms of slugging percentage.
On defense -- not considered his strong suit in the minors -- Haase has already caught a no-hitter and been a clear upgrade over Ramos.
Any catcher with a .971 OPS only has to stay afloat defensively to get in the game, but Haase has done more than that. He’s even held his own in left field -- a position he just recently started playing -- when A.J. Hinch wants to keep his bat in the lineup.
Unless MLB expands the postseason again, the Tigers are still a couple of years away from contending, so Haase will already be in his early 30s. But if he can finally be the starting caliber backstop the team has been searching for, it would provide some insurance if Jake Rogers and Dillon Dingler don’t develop on schedule.
Some people were losing their minds when Torkelson went 1-for-27 with a single and 16 strikeouts in spring training, but that was premature. He hadn’t played a single professional game because the 2020 minor league season was canceled.
Then, he started the Single-A season 1-for-16 with 10 strikeouts, one single and two walks. It was only four games!
Now, Torkelson is starting to show why he’s considered a top-five prospect by every major outlet. He has massive power, an elite eye at the plate and the tools to be an all-around offensive star.
Since that slow start, Torkelson is batting .301 with six doubles, four home runs, 18 walks and 15 strikeouts in 21 games. Twitter lights up with videos of his mammoth homers, but the plate discipline and .454 OBP is even more encouraging for a 21-year-old.
The Tigers don’t have many high-level offensive prospects, so there’s a lot of pressure on Torkelson to pan out. Early indications suggest he’s up to the task.
Maybe you’ve heard of the organization’s other top hitting prospect? The 20-year-old who’s already playing at Double-A?
Greene has crushed six home runs and drawn 16 walks in 29 games this season -- his first with the Erie SeaWolves. The No. 5 overall pick from 2019 dazzled during intra-squad games before 2020, and now that he’s back playing minor-league games, the year off doesn’t seem to have affected him.
Greene is also turning heads defensively in center field. I mean, look at these catches:
Are we sure Riley Greene isn’t Superman? TWO spectacular diving grabs tonight from Detroit’s top prospect. pic.twitter.com/7VicWRjOjX— Tigers Minor League Report (@tigersMLreport) May 30, 2021
The same pressure on Torkelson’s shoulders also applies to Greene. The Tigers invested heavily in him as an offensive cornerstone, and he looks to be on track.
Torkelson headlined the Tigers’ 2020 draft class by going No. 1 overall, but Dingler, who they took at the top of the second round, is turning heads at High-A West Michigan.
The 22-year-old catcher is 26 games into his minor-league career, and already he’s hit five doubles, a triple and seven home runs. On top of that extra-base power, he’s batting .299 with 13 walks.
Tigers No. 5 prospect Dillon Dingler hits his first career grand slam for West Michigan. pic.twitter.com/cWusHoZys1— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) June 4, 2021
Thirty-three strikeouts in 116 plate appearances is far too many, but we’re not going to nitpick a catching prospect in his first month of professional ball -- especially when he owns a .993 OPS.