The Detroit Tigers were an entirely different team in May.
Their hitters had better plate appearances, using singles and walks to create havoc on the bases. The bullpen was reliable, especially in the late innings. The starting rotation continued to thrive, thanks to pitching coach Chris Fetter. The defense, specifically the middle infield, remained shaky, but the Tigers did enough to win games.
After an 8-19 record in April, the Tigers finished May with a 14-13 mark, giving them a 22-32 record in the 2021 season, entering June 1. They’re still in last place in the American League Central and 11 games behind the first-place Chicago White Sox. But they’re only a half-game back of the fourth-place Minnesota Twins.
Manager AJ Hinch’s winning mentality is taking root.
“I don’t want this to be a success story, just given that the vibe is a little bit different,” Hinch said. “The win-loss column is what matters the most. And we’ve got to continually peck away at finding more wins.”
These players are trending up and down after 54 games, or 33.3% of the way through the season:
The offense picked up for Grossman in May, hitting .265 with six doubles, two triples, four home runs, 17 RBIs, 17 walks and 25 strikeouts. In April, he had a .212 batting average (18-for-85) but boosted his on-base percentage to .358 with 18 walks.
Grossman continues to draw walks at a high rate but chipped in 27 hits in 102 at-bats for a .366 on-base percentage in May. He also had some crucial contributions. One example was a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning May 26 for a 1-0 win over Cleveland. Another example came May 28 against the New York Yankees, when Grossman launched a walk-off two-run homer in the 10th inning for a 3-2 win.
It’s also clear Grossman is taking the next step with his leadership.
“I want to do everything I can to help this team win every day, or I feel like I let them down,” Grossman said after Friday’s walk-off blast. “Like today when one swing helped the team win, it makes me feel good.”
Hinch added: “He’s very influential. I trust him a ton.”
The 2018 No. 1 overall pick pitched like an ace in May: 1.74 ERA, 10 walks and 27 strikeouts across 31 innings in five starts.
Mize, 24, allowed one run in six innings May 5 against the Boston Red Sox, two runs in six innings May 12 against the Kansas City Royals, one run in 7⅔ innings May 17 against the Seattle Mariners, one run in 6⅓ innings May 23 against the Royals and one run in five innings Friday against the Yankees.
“I’m feeling more comfortable with more experience,” Mize said. “There are a lot of areas for growth, and that’s what I’m focused on. But I’ve been pleased with some of the growing that I’ve already done. It’s still a small sample size. I got to be able to go out and continue to pitch well to put the team in a good position to win. That’s just going to take time.”
Detroit won four of Mize’s five starts in May. The lone loss was 3-2 to the Royals on May 23, which ended on a two-run walk-off homer from Carlos Santana off Michael Fulmer.
Mize gave the Tigers a strong chance to win all five games he pitched in May. That’s exactly what an ace is supposed to do.
This season, Mize owns a 3.28 ERA with 20 walks and 47 strikeouts in 57⅔ innings.
Fellow up-and-comer Tarik Skubal is also figuring things out, becoming the first rookie in franchise history to record eight-plus strikeouts in three consecutive appearances. Skubal, 24, had a 3.33 ERA across 27 innings in May, with nine walks and 39 strikeouts. Spencer Turnbull, 28, pitched a no-hitter May 18 against the Mariners and recorded a 2.83 ERA across 35 innings in May.
Fetter’s stock is rising, too.
“He’s got a great feel for players,” Hinch said about Fetter, the former Michigan pitching coach in his first year with the Tigers. “He’s got a great feel for information. The most important thing that he does is he blends it. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, and that’s why we hired him. Seeing him work, I’m very proud he is here.”
The Tigers’ bullpen has a 1.98 ERA since May 16, third-best in baseball, behind solid efforts from Fulmer, Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero and Kyle Funkhouser. While Cisnero has a 4.15 ERA across 21⅔ innings this season, he has thrown 7⅔ scoreless innings in his last nine outings.
During the nine-game stretch, the 32-year-old Cisnero struck out 10 and walked one batter to go with conceding just three hits and one unearned run.
Cisnero delivered a 3.03 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 29⅔ innings last season, and Hinch planned to use him in crucial situations. He didn’t pitch well early in the 2021 campaign but evolved into one of the most reliable options in May.
Cisnero was a key reason for the overall bullpen success as the Tigers now have three weapons — Soto, Fulmer and Cisnero — ready to keep the late innings under control, with Funkhouser also emerging.
“Because of the work we’ve got from Soto and Fulmer, I can now back the game up and (Cisnero) can get some really high-leverage outs in the sixth and the seventh, or if we need him in the eighth or ninth,” Hinch said. “I trust him so much because of his effectiveness against both sides of the hitter. … He’s big for us because it shortens the game when you have more than just a few relievers pitching well.”
The former two-time American League MVP and Triple Crown winner isn’t what he used to be. It’s becoming unjustifiable for the Tigers to bat Cabrera in the middle of the order.
In Cabrera’s 19th season in the majors, he is hitting .184 across 37 games with four home runs, 17 RBIs, 14 walks and 37 strikeouts. The 38-year-old remained healthy through May and went 19-for-93 (.204) in 24 games, walking nine times and striking out 22 times.
Cabrera is 0-for-17 in his past five games.
On May 21, Cabrera crushed two home runs — including a grand slam — to carry the Tigers to a 7-5 win over the Royals. He had six multihit games in May but lacks consistency. As quickly as Cabrera heats up with a vintage game, he becomes a liability in the lineup.
Cabrera has grounded into eight double plays and killed numerous scoring opportunities, which is a shame considering Grossman and Jeimer Candelario have worked hard to provide those chances. (Candelario is carrying a 27-game on-base streak. He hit .313 in May with a .394 on-base percentage, but he was also the most productive hitter in April, so his stock is already through the roof.)
Of Cabrera’s 25 hits, only five — four home runs and one double — are for extra bases.
“I’m like really struggling this season,” Cabrera said after his two-homer game May 21 against the Royals. “Getting that big home run right there gives me positivity to go out there and keep fighting. Keep fighting, try to play hard the next day and try to help our team win more games.”
Like Cabrera, Mazara dealt with an injury earlier this season. He has played 28 games, and the numbers aren’t anything to revel in. He is hitting .191 with two home runs, 11 RBIs, nine walks and 26 strikeouts.
The Tigers signed Mazara to a one-year, $1.75 million contract this offseason to provide a power punch. In May, Mazara went 9-for-56 (.191) without a home run. His two-run double in Sunday’s 6-2 win over the Yankees was his first extra-base hit since May 15.
“He’s one click away,” Hinch said after benching Mazara on Thursday for the series finale against Cleveland. “These hitters, I tell you, they will work and work and work, and then it clicks in the game, and they can take off. Nomar is exactly that.”
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A couple of strong minor-league performers could provide some extra incentive for Mazara:
In Triple-A Toledo, outfielders Derek Hill and Daz Cameron — both with MLB experience — are pushing to get recalled to the big leagues. Known more for his speed and defense, Hill is hitting consistently for the first time in his career: 27-for-76 (.355) with two homers and 11 RBIs in 21 games. The 25-year-old is the best defensive player the Tigers have in their system and would be an immediate upgrade in the Comerica Park outfield.
Cameron, 24, is hitting 15-for-44 (.341) with one home run and 10 RBIs in 10 games. He has drawn five walks to 10 strikeouts, giving him a .408 on-base percentage. He earned a taste of the majors last season but struggled offensively.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.