Detroit Tigers Newsletter: Why the Tigers posted their third winning month in five seasons

Detroit Free Press

Look! Over there! Yeah, over there, just over the horizon …

Do you see it? Yeah, that’s it: June is so close, with its promise of sunny days, full capacity at Comerica Park <or at least one-third capacity, considering the Detroit Tigers’ attendance numbers in 2019> and maybe, just maybe, some good baseball in the Motor City.

Of course, May wasn’t too shabby either, with the Tigers’ first no-hitter in more than a decade, the franchise’s first sweep of the Yankees in Detroit since 2000 and, perhaps most incredibly, a winning record in the month.

Hello, and welcome to the Detroit Tigers Newsletter.

Yes, even with Game 27 still to go this month — a Monday matinee in Milwaukee — the Tigers have locked up a winning record in May, with 14 wins in 26 games. That may not seem like much, but it was only the third month with a winning record for the Tigers since the start of the 2017 season, aka Rebuild Year 0. (The others: May 2018, when they went 15-14, and July 2020, when they went 5-3.)

Considering they ended April at 8-19 and looking like a shoo-in for the “Worst Team in Baseball™” crown, it’s been an impressive turnaround.  So what went right for the Tigers in May, and, uh, can they keep it up in June? Here are four major areas of improvement:

Starting pitching: The one true strength of the team posted a 4.04 ERA over 138 innings in April, good for 14th in the majors. But the starters have been even better in May, with a 3.50 ERA in 141⅓ innings. Then again, that still ranks only 12th in the majors for the month; it’s been a rough month for hitters across the majors. Is it sustainable? Well, Casey Mize probably isn’t going to maintain his May ERA of 1.74 — though the Freep’s Shawn Windsor opines that he’s quickly becoming the Tigers’ ace — and Spencer Turnbull probably won’t throw a no-no every month, but Matthew Boyd (5.32 in May) should be able to post an ERA below 5.

Relief pitching: The Tigers’ bullpen was a disaster in April. Not only was its 6.70 ERA worst in the majors, it was nearly a full run worse than the next team (the Reds, at 5.71). The only thing limiting the damage was a relative lack of work; Tigers relievers threw just 88 2/3 innings in April, good for 22nd in the majors. May hasn’t provided much more work — the Tigers bullpen clocked 89⅔ innings (still 22nd), but they’ve mostly been good innings, with the bullpen recording a 3.91 ERA, 11th best in the majors over the month. Is it sustainable? Michael Fulmer, “closer” title or no, appears locked in on the highest-leverage situations, while Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero and, yes, Kyle Funkhouser look competent most nights.

Walking: The Tigers, as a team, walked just 63 times in April, less than all but two teams. Robbie Grossman led the team with 18 free passes (eight of which came in his first three games as a Tiger); no other Tiger made it to double digits in walks. In May, though, five Tigers walked at least 10 times, led by Grossman (17) and Akil Baddoo (13). Is it sustainable? Baddoo’s probably not going to maintain his .426 on-base percentage from May, but Grossman (.381 OBP) and Jeimer Candelario (.390 OBP) seem like they can keep this up.

Luck: You could call this one “hitting,” except the Tigers aren’t that much better at the plate. Yes, their .602 OPS in April was horrendous, 30th in the majors and 46 points worse than the 29th-place team. But their May OPS is just .697, tied for 17th. Put another way, they had 61 extra-base hits in 916 April plate appearances (6.7%) and 69 in 1,000 May plate appearances (6.9%). So why did they score so many more runs — 42 more in one fewer game — in May than in April? Blame it on the BAbip: Batting Average on Balls in Play, a measure of what a team does when it’s not striking out, homering or walking. In April, the Tigers had a BAbip of .260, 27th in the majors; in May, their BAbip was .327, tops in the majors. Is it sustainable? An average BAbip is .300, so there’s likely some regression coming; the Tigers probably aren’t the team that couldn’t buy a hit in April, but they’re not going to lead the league in non-homer hits, either.

Of course, there are also intangibles that can’t be measured, such as the “winning culture” installed by manager AJ Hinch. The Freep’s Evan Petzold talked to Hinch about the approach he’s taking this season: “When we fall behind early, it’s just ‘find a way to get a run.’ When you’re losing, it feels like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ There’s a drastic difference between those two mindsets and those two cultures.” Click here for more from Hinch and his squad.

Going to Sku-ool

If the Tigers are going to develop a “winning culture,” they’ll need more days like the one Tarik Skubal had against the Yankees on Sunday, with eight strikeouts, three hits and three walks over six innings. Our Man Petzold broke down here why Skubal is growing into his spot in the rotation.

Mize guys

Pitchers don’t develop on their own, either, and a good relationship with a good pitching coach can be key. Just look at Casey Mize and his work with Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter; the rookie starter was full of praise for the rookie coach who helped him go from a 5.06 ERA in April to 1.74 in May, as Our Man Petzold reports here.

’Bull run

A little further along on the development curve, let’s check in with Spencer Turnbull, who made two starts this week after his no-no in Seattle earlier in the month. Turnbull allowed four runs on 10 hits and four walks over 11⅔ innings against Cleveland and New York; Our Man Petzold took a look here at how his second-inning turnaround against the Yankees shows his growth.

Goin’ to Work(man)

It’s not just the pitchers who are working on their development; the Tigers have some hitting prospects on the way, too. Prospects such as Gage Workman, their fourth-round pick in 2020, who’s learning a new position down in Lakeland, Florida. Click here for the story from the Freep’s Jeff Seidel on how Workman went from his worst game as a pro to his best game as a pro — in less than 24 hours.

3 to watch

A quick look at three players who worked on some issues this month:

AKIL BADDOO: A .250/.426/.350 slash line with four steals and 13 walks this month

WILLI CASTRO: A .702 OPS in 17 games in May

DEREK HOLLAND: Five strikeouts in three innings since returning from the IL

The big picture

It’s not all lollipops and roses in the Tigers’ organization, though. General manager Al Avila opened up (aka, acknowledged what we’ve all seen for two months) on the issues that aren’t going away with one winning month in a six-month season. Our Man Petzold has the play-by-play here from Avila’s talk with the Detroit Economic Club on Wednesday, which included the phrase, “We’re still trying to figure some things out.” Ouch.

Northern light

The Tigers’ talent pool got a touch shallower this week, too, as hot-hitting outfielder Jacob Robson took a break from his pro career to swing the lumber for Team Canada in the upcoming Olympic qualifying tournament. Click here to find out why one exec told Our Man Seidel that the Tigers were losing “the hottest player in baseball.”

What about Rob?

While we’re in the outfield, figuratively speaking, check out Robbie Grossman’s numbers this month: A slash line of .278/.381/.505 with 18 runs scored, 17 RBIs and four steals. It’s no wonder that, as Our Man Petzold writes, Hinch is enjoying his May surge and saying, “I trust him a ton. He deserves moments like this.”

Happy anniversary, ‘Imperfect Game!’

It’s rough to remember it in this year of plentiful no-hitters, but Wednesday is the 11-year anniversary of Armando Galarraga’s near-perfection against Cleveland, back on June 2, 2010. We won’t go too deep into it – your faithful Newsletter Writer was at the park that night and still can’t believe what he saw — but if you want to relieve Galarraga’s epic night, check out this oral history of the night the baseball world centered on Comerica Park.

Tigers birthdays this week: Neifi Perez (48 on Wednesday), Dave Bergman (would have been 68 Sunday; died in 2015).

Mark your calendar

The Tigers head to the west side of Lake Michigan for six games this week. First up, a two-game set vs. the Brewers in Milwaukee on Monday and Tuesday, followed by a day off and a four-game set on the South Side of Chicago from Thursday-Sunday. And just in case you forgot that it’s the White Sox headquartered on the South Side, they’ll be breaking out special uniforms on Saturday with “Southside” across the jersey as part of Nike’s “City Connect” uniform set. (Earlier this season, the Red Sox wore yellow-and-blue, Boston Marathon-themed uniforms and the Marlins rolled out a reddish-pink tribute to the Havana Sugar Kings this month.) Check out the ChiSox’s gear here.

TL;DR

The Tigers are 102-104 all-time against the Brewers in Wisconsin; that’s the best record of any of Detroit’s Big Four in the Badger State. (The Lions are next, with a 25-52-4 record against the Packers in Wisconsin, and the Pistons are 39-84 vs the Bucks on the road. The Wings have yet to face a Wisconsin team, we believe.)

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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