DETROIT - The Detroit Tigers are more than a quarter of the way through their first full season of a rebuild, yet somehow, they're still playing meaningful games in mid-May.
After taking the first two games of a series against Cleveland this week, the Tigers took the field Wednesday with a chance to be in first place. They couldn't pull off a sweep of the division champs, but it's still a surprise that the Tigers find themselves just two games behind.
Detroit's place in the standings has just as much to do with Cleveland's struggles as its own success. The Indians are 21-21 this season after exploding for 102 wins last year.
But the Tigers have gotten solid contributions throughout the roster as well -- some surprising and some expected. Who has been the MVP? With so many new faces, a few surprises were inevitable, but there's still one Tigers mainstay on the list.
2018 stats: .316 AVG/.373 OBP/.500 SLG, 4 HR, 10 doubles, 24 RBI, 36 K's, 11 walks
Nicholas Castellanos is only 26 years old, but he's already in his fifth straight season as an everyday player for the Tigers.
Castellanos has improved steadily over the last five years. He was a serviceable MLB player as a rookie and sophomore, but struggled with plate discipline and inconsistent power. His on-base numbers took a leap in 2016, and his power improved in 2017.
This year, he's putting it all together.
Castellanos has maintained his walk and strikeout rates from last season while generating much more hard contact at the plate. He's sporting a 47.4 percent hard-hit rate compared to a 10.3 percent soft-contact rate. Nearly a third of his balls in play have been line drives.
As a result, Castellanos leads the Tigers in hits, RBI and total bases. His OPS is second only to the injured Miguel Cabrera.
Some of Castellanos' numbers are due for regression, including his batting average on balls in play. Despite a career high hard-hit rate, Castellanos won't sustain a .393 BABIP for the entire summer.
On the other hand, he only has four home runs due to a low home run to fly ball rate (9.3 percent). When that number gets back near 14 percent, where it's been the last two years, his power numbers will get a boost.
2018 stats: .272/.359/.497, 5 HR, 12 doubles, 16 RBI, 38 K's, 18 BB
When the Tigers acquired Jeimer Candelario last season in the Justin Wilson trade, they expected him to be the type of player to appear on his list. But they probably didn't know it would happen immediately.
Candelario's game translates well to the big league level because he has an elite understanding of the strike zone. Although he's struck out more than any other player on the team, he also leads the Tigers in walks and ranks third in on-base percentage.
Candelario's plate discipline will help him avoid long slumps, but it's the surprising power that has made him a standout in 2018. He's tied for the team lead with five home runs and leads the team with 20 extra-base hits.
He won't turn 25 until the offseason, so Candelario is a huge part of the Tigers' future plans. His hot start is perhaps the most promising sign for the organization this season.
Candelario is currently on the 10-day disabled list with left wrist tendinitis, but the Tigers don't believe he'll require surgery. If he can return and pick up where he left off, Candelario is a candidate to be the Tigers' best player in 2018.
2018 stats: .294/.355/.508, 5 HR, 8 doubles, 15 RBI, 27 K's, 11 BB
The signing of Leonys Martin didn't make much of splash this offseason, but the 30-year-old has enjoyed the best season of his career so far at the top of the Tigers' lineup.
Martin couldn't hang in the major leagues last season, posting a .172 batting average and .513 OPS. By the end of the season, he graded out as a below-replacement-level MLB player.
When the Tigers signed Martin to be their leadoff hitter, there were obvious flaws in the plan. He's had a low OBP his entire career and had never posted an MLB average OPS.
But Martin reinvented himself for the first quarter of 2018, drawing walks at a career-high rate and cutting down on his strikeouts. His .355 OBP ranks fourth on the team and more than justifies his spot atop the batting order.
What changed for Martin? He joined baseball's fly ball revolution. In addition to improved plate discipline, Martin has upped his career fly ball percentage by more than 20 percent. More than half of his balls in play registered as fly balls, and another 20 percent have been line drives.
That means only 26.3 percent of Martin's balls in play have been ground balls, putting him on a pace to shatter his career highs in home runs and doubles.
It's unusual that Martin has been able to increase his fly ball rate so drastically and still post a BABIP well above his career high, but that can be partially explained by a 37.4 percent hard-hit rate. In other words, Martin is hitting the ball much harder than he ever has, and he's doing so in a way that typically results in extra-base hits.
Like Candelario, Martin is currently sidelined with an injury. He was placed on the 10-day disabled list with a left hamstring strain and hasn't played since the first week of May. The Tigers need their leadoff hitter back in the lineup if they hope to sustain their surprising start.
2018 stats: 3.21 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 32 K's and 12 BB in 42 innings
The Tigers' starting rotation has been very average this season, but Matt Boyd has stood out about the rest.
Boyd allowed only seven runs in 23 innings during four April starts, but in many ways, his three starts in May have been even more encouraging.
Despite posting a 2.74 ERA in April, Boyd wasn't pitching in a way that's likely to be successful throughout the course of the season. In 23 innings, he had only 14 strikeouts compared to seven walks. All of his underlying numbers suggested Boyd was due some major correction.
He's been more electric in May, striking out 18 batters in 19 innings while allowing eight runs. While the ERA and WHIP have risen to 3.21 and 1.05 respectively, Boyd is now closer to where he should be.
If Boyd wants to stick in the Tigers' rotation long term, the strikeout numbers need to continue to rise, at least to around 7.5 batters per nine innings. He's giving up fewer home runs despite inducing more fly balls this season, so when that corrects, he needs to be able to get swings and misses.
Regardless of what he does over the next 120 games, the first 42 have been strong from Boyd. He's gone at least six innings in six of his seven starts, and only twice allowed four runs. The Tigers have had a chance to win in every one of Boyd's starts, as he's avoided the disastrous outings that haunted him the last two years.
Boyd didn't generate as much buzz as Michael Fulmer or Daniel Norris at the 2015 trade deadline, but so far this season, he's been the Tigers' best starting pitcher.
2018 stats: 3.05 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 19 K's and 6 BB in 20.2 innings
For years, Tigers fans have been desperate for a reliable bullpen ace to come up through the farm system. Joe Jimenez is the closest thing they've had this decade.
Jimenez was the talk of the organization last year while putting up dominant minor league numbers. But he was awful at the MLB level, allowing 26 earned runs in 19 innings.
This season, the 23-year-old is starting to live up to his reputation, leading the Tigers' bullpen in appearances and innings pitched.
Jimenez has had two extremely poor outings: a three-run inning against the Pirates on April 25 and a two-run outing against Texas on May 8. In his other 21 appearances, Jimenez has allowed just two earned runs in 19.1 innings.
The one hole in Jimenez's season so far has been a diminished strikeout total, but that has improved in May with eight whiffs in 6.2 innings. His WHIP is slightly inflated, but it's still second to Alex Wilson among Tigers relievers.
Detroit knows all too well that the bullpen is a critical part of the roster, and Jimenez has been the team's best relief pitcher so far this season. He might be the only current reliever who's part of the long-term plans, so his success is a great sign for the Tigers beyond 2018.
Who's the MVP?
All five players have an argument for team MVP to this point in the season, but the two top candidates are Castellanos and Candelario.
They've both missed a handful of games due to injuries, but Castellanos and Candelario have paced the Tigers offense all season.
Castellanos has the batter ratios and leads the team in hits, but Candelario has been the team's MVP by a slim margin.
In his first full season as a starter, Candelario leads the Tigers in home runs, doubles and walks from the most important spot in the lineup. He's made five errors at third base, but he still grades out much higher than Castellanos as a defender. In fact, Candelario has been above average, according to defensive runs saved and overall defensive quotient.
In terms of wins above replacement, nobody comes close to Candelario on the Tigers. He's posted a 1.5 WAR in 37 games, with Boyd (1.3 WAR) and Martin (1.1 WAR) behind him.
It's unclear exactly how long Candelario will be sidelined by his wrist injury, but the Tigers need him to return as soon as possible. He's not just a cornerstone for the future. He's their best player so far in 2018.
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