DETROIT - Through the first 12 games of the 2018 season, the Detroit Tigers struggled to scratch across two runs per game. In the last week, that has changed -- drastically.
During their 4-8 start, the Tigers scored one run or fewer in six games and averaged 2.4 runs per game in games that didn't go into extra innings.
In the four games since, the Tigers have looked much more potent, scoring 29 runs -- 7.25 per game. What's responsible for the dramatic improvement? It starts right at the top.
When players batting in critical spots of the lineup -- namely Jeimer Candelario and Miguel Cabrera -- struggled, the team didn't score any runs. Now, those guys are raking, and the rest of the lineup has fallen into place.
Four of the top five batters in the lineup have an OPS in the .800s, and all five are reaching base above a .350 clip.
2018 stats: .295 average, .358 OBP, .475 slugging, 2 HR, 6 extra-base hits
Leonys Martin is walking and mashing from the top of the Tigers' order (Getty Images).
When Leonys Martin hit free agency this offseason, he wanted to land someplace where he could be a leadoff hitter. The Tigers gave him that chance, and he's flourishing.
The greatest concern with Martin at the top of the order was his history of reaching base at a low rate. His career .302 OBP simply wasn't good enough to be a leadoff hitter.
But so far, Martin has embraced the role, improved his walk rate significantly and posted a .358 OBP. The 30-year-old entered 2018 with a walk rate around 6.5 percent, but has walked in 9 percent of his plate appearances through 15 games.
The Tigers certainly didn't anticipate Martin becoming a power threat, but he already has two home runs, three doubles and a triple this season. He hit 15 home runs for the Seattle Mariners in 2016, so the power potential is there, but he's never quite put it all together.
At this pace, Martin would shatter his career highs in OBP and doubles, so even if the home run rate slows down, the Tigers could get solid production out of the leadoff spot.
2018 stats: .284/.360/.537, 3 HR, 9 XBH
Jeimer Candelario has gone 9-14 with two walks and three homers in his last 16 plate appearances (Getty Images).
Candelario got off to an extremely slow start through the team's first 12 games, but there were good signs even during the slump.
Candelario showed elite plate discipline throughout his career in the minor leagues, and projected as a high on-base player with doubles power at the MLB level. The series against Baltimore was a perfect example of what he could be at his best.
The three home runs are a pleasant surprise for Candelario, but the rest of his numbers are entirely sustainable.
The 24-year-old consistently posted a walk rate around 12 percent the last three years in the minors, and his OBP hovered just below .400. Since joining the Tigers last season, he's maintained that discipline and pitched in 21 extra-base hits over 54 games.
Candelario is one of the pieces in the current lineup that's also part of the future plan, so his success is the most promising sign to this point in 2018.
2018 stats: .283/.353/.467, 2 HR, 7 XBH
Miguel Cabrera is hitting the ball extremely hard, even though the extra-base power hasn't returned (Getty Images).
Last season, it looked like Cabrera was the unluckiest player in baseball. He crushed the ball above even his own career rate, yet the results weren't there. He was essentially a replacement-level MLB player.
When that trend continued into 2018, it looked like a problem. Fortunately for the Tigers, Cabrera started to turn it around. Even though it's only been a few games, it's promising to see Cabrera rack up some extra-base hits.
Cabrera is hitting the ball harder than his career rate, yet his batting average on balls in play is still below his normal level. As long as that normalizes, Cabrera will be a dangerous top-of-the-lineup hitter.
The Tigers would love to see Cabrera hit the ball in the air more often. Right now, he sports a lofty 54.2 percent ground ball rate. His line drive rate is strong, so as long as he starts hitting the ball in the air, he won't be a very expensive singles hitter.
2018 stats: .281/.352/.391, 0 HR, 5 XBH
Few players in baseball are hitting the ball hard as consistently as Nicholas Castellanos (Getty Images).
If you look at Nicholas Castellanos' underlying numbers, you'd think he must be leading the team in nearly every offensive category. In reality, he trails the guys above in almost everything.
Castellanos hits the ball hard an outstanding 54 percent of the time, and his 8 percent weak contact rate is a career-best. Appropriately, his BABIP sits at .360, so Castellanos is finally being rewarded with hits.
So what's the issue? So far, he's being rewarded with singles.
Castellanos has yet to hit the ball out of the yard this season, and he's only got one extra-base hit in the last nine games. Castellanos, perhaps more than anyone on the team, has been burned by Comerica Park. He's hit several deep fly balls that were caught for outs instead of dropping for doubles or clearing the fence.
On top of his batted ball success, Castellanos is sporting a career-high walk rate and a career-best strikeout rate. His .50 K/BB rate is nearly double his career mark.
Castellanos has sacrificed about 7 percent of his fly balls for grounders so far this season, but that's not a dramatic enough difference to cause concern this early in the year. He's essentially doing everything right at the plate and will enjoy a breakout season if he maintains these underlying numbers.
2018 stats: .314/.368/.471, 1 HR, 6 XBH
Victor Martinez in the last year of his contract, and he's looking more like his old self (Getty Images).
Victor Martinez has been one of baseball's best pure hitters over the last decade, but last season, it looked like age finally caught up with him. That could still be the case over the course of the summer, but so far, he's enjoying a bit of a resurgence.
While the power numbers don't jump off the page, Martinez is hitting the cover off the ball. His 47.8 hard-hit rate is far better than his strong career mark, and he's hitting the ball in the air more often, which is important for a player with his base running limitations.
Martinez has only struck out six times all season, which has helped him lead the team in both batting average and OBP.
Martinez has always been an elite on-base guy, and if he can maintain his current .471 slugging percentage, he'll be a strong No. 5 hitter.
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