I don’t know if the Detroit Tigers are good, but they’re better than we expected

Tigers 13-9 since losing 9 of first 11 games

Akil Baddoo #60 of the Detroit Tigers reacts after hitting a ground rule double, resulting in a run against the St. Louis Cardinals, in the tenth inning of the game at Busch Stadium on May 6, 2023 in St Louis, Missouri. (Joe Puetz, 2023 Getty Images)

DETROIT – Are the Detroit Tigers actually good this season?

I wouldn’t go quite that far. It’s only been 33 games, after all, and the Tigers have a losing record and a minus-41 run differential. For now, let’s just say they’re better than most of us thought they would be, especially after a 2-9 start.

But there are reasons for hope. Since that abysmal 2-9 stretch to begin the season, the Tigers are 13-9. They’re 13-4 overall against teams outside the American League East Division, and there aren’t that many AL East games left (16).

This week, the Tigers swept a series against the highly favored New York Mets and then took two of three games from the Cardinals in St. Louis.

Eduardo Rodriguez #57 of the Detroit Tigers pitches against the New York Mets during the third inning at Comerica Park on May 4, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan. (2023 Getty Images)

Detroit has won series against the defending World Series champion Houston Astros, the AL Central favorite Cleveland Guardians, and the playoff hopeful Milwaukee Brewers, in addition to the Mets and Cardinals. That proves the Tigers can be competitive with most teams.

My main reason for optimism is the strength of schedule. The Tigers have only played one series against a team with a worse record than them, and that was this weekend in St. Louis. Nobody expects the Cardinals to remain one of the worst teams in MLB.

There are only three teams in baseball with more than 20 wins, and the Tigers have played 10 games against them. That’s nearly as many games as the Tigers have played against teams with losing records (11).

So if the Tigers can survive a 2-9 start and an extremely difficult schedule, and still only be three games out of first place in the AL Central -- isn’t there reason to have some hope?

Who’s leading the charge?

From a statistical standpoint, it’s hard to see how the Tigers have had any success. They’re second-to-last in runs scored and 18th in runs allowed. Four of the team’s five starting pitchers have been objectively bad, the bullpen is a mess in the middle innings, and no starters have an OPS over .766.

But the Tigers seem to have found a legitimate ace in Eduardo Rodriguez, who has allowed just two runs in his last 34.2 innings while striking out 33 batters and allowing 22 base runners.

Meanwhile, Alex Lange has developed into a lockdown closer, striking out 21 batters in 15.2 batters with a 1.15 ERA and a 0.957 WHIP. Last week, he notched saves on three straight days for the first time in his career.

When was the last time the Tigers had both an ace and a reliable closer? These are two very important anchors to the pitching staff.

On offense, the Tigers are finally getting the production they envisioned when they signed Javier Baez. Since starting the season 4-for-40 without an extra-base hit, Baez is slashing .347/.407/.542 with three home runs and five doubles.

Javier Baez #28 of the Detroit Tigers celebrates after hitting a two-run home run against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning at Busch Stadium on May 5, 2023 in St Louis, Missouri. (2023 Getty Images)

Most importantly, Baez has by far the best strikeout rate of his career. He’s striking out in just 16% of his plate appearances, which has him in the 83rd percentile of MLB hitters. He’s paired that with a career-high walk rate of 6.4%, which still isn’t great, but it’s much better than his outlier percentages of the past.

Despite a pair of errors in Sunday’s loss, Baez has graded out as one of the best defensive shortstops in the league, too. He gets quite a bit of help from Spencer Torkelson on low throws, but the shift ban has allowed Baez to once again separate himself with the glove.

The unsung hero of the offense is Baez’s double play partner, Zach McKinstry, who has quietly carved out a role as the team’s primary second baseman and leadoff hitter against righties.

McKinstry’s batted ball metrics are mediocre, but his plate discipline is above average. He’s walking at an 11.3% clip and rarely chasing outside the strike zone (67th percentile chase rate, 76th percentile whiff rate).

He’s fast, he’s reliable defensively, and he’s versatile. Bake in a .329 on-base percentage (and it should be much higher, based on his expected stats), and the Tigers seem to have found a productive player.

Jake Rogers has arguably been the most valuable player on the team, other than Rodriguez. His framing behind the plate is phenomenal, and his overall defensive ability is a big reason the pitching staff has kept the Tigers in most games. As an added bonus, he has four home runs and leads the team in OPS.

Others haven’t been overly productive on paper, but A.J. Hinch finds ways to get the most out of them. Matt Vierling is a great defender and base runner, and can hit left-handers. Akil Baddoo and Eric Haase are getting on base at a higher level. Nick Maton has a knack for coming through in big spots, and both Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene are improving at the plate.

Can they keep it up?

Tigers teams of the recent past have had a very hard time bouncing back after a loss. Even the 2021 team seemed to rip off a few wins in a row and follow up with several consecutive losses.

After the five-game winning streak in mid-April this year, the Tigers turned around and dropped eight of their next 11 games.

Now that this five-game streak is over, can the Tigers bounce back, or will this three-game series in Cleveland get ugly? The Tigers won two of three from the Guardians last month, but Progressive Field has long been a house of horrors for this franchise.

Monday’s matchup -- Tanner Bibee vs. Joey Wentz -- heavily favors Cleveland, as does Tuesday’s Shane Bieber vs. Michael Lorenzen battle. But the Tigers have faced worse odds and found ways to win.

If the Tigers can somehow steal one of the first two games, they would send Rodriguez to the mound Wednesday with a chance to win the series.

Remember in 2021, when the Tigers played well for most of the season but could never quite dig out of that early hole and get back to .500? They have a chance to accomplish now what they couldn’t then, with a much more manageable schedule on the horizon.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.