Tigers have turned a corner. Here’s why

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — Somewhere along the path to another top pick in next year’s MLB Draft and a potential run at an American League-record 119-loss season, the Tigers quietly started playing better baseball.

New manager A.J. Hinch’s messages about competing, putting balls in play on offense and making plays on defense began to take hold. And with last weekend’s three-game sweep of the Yankees, the team that got off to its worst start since 2003 posted a 14-13 record in May.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the Tigers’ first winning month in exactly three years. They went 15-14 in May 2018, Ron Gardenhire’s second month in charge. Before that, they posted four consecutive winning months in 2016, their last playoff chase. Technically, Detroit also went 5-3 last July to begin the abbreviated season, but we’re not counting that.

“I realize historically, just kind of where it’s been for the last few years, it’s relevant. But we need to make that more the norm,” Hinch told reporters Tuesday. “I mean, it’s hard to sweep the Yankees … but the winning month is exactly what we’re trying to do.

“One of the small things we try to preach is just a winning series, then a winning homestand, then a winning road trip, and then a winning month. You get enough of those together, you’re going to have a winning season. Winning seasons turn into playoffs. I do want to acknowledge the work that we’re putting in. Moving forward, that’s certainly what we want our standard to be.”

Part of the turnaround stems from a few veterans reverting back to their usual form after slow starts. Jonathan Schoop seemed to catch up after a shortened Spring Training caused by travel issues and a late arrival. But a good part is rooted in the development of young players who learned from their early season struggles. The latter has ramifications well beyond this season to the long-term viability of Detroit’s rebuild.

Here are three key reasons behind the comeback:

1. Starting pitching is nasty
Get used to this, because it’s the key to how the Tigers win games this year and beyond. That’s why the jumps that Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal made over the past few weeks are so important after both dealt with growing pains in April.

Consider this list from Tigers media relations on the lowest May ERAs by Tigers rookie starters since 2000:

1.50 – Rick Porcello, 2009 (30 IP, 5 ER)
1.73 – Justin Verlander, 2006 (36.1 IP, 7 ER)
1.74 – Mize, 2021 (31 IP, 6 ER)
3.12 – Spencer Turnbull, 2019 (34.2 IP, 12 ER)
3.33 – Skubal, 2021 (27 IP, 10 ER)

Statistically, Mize was the best starter on the staff in May, averaging better than six innings a start while posting a 0.87 WHIP. Skubal led the team with 39 strikeouts, seventh most among AL pitchers, and became the first Major League rookie in four years to strike out eight or more batters in three consecutive starts.

The improvement came from more than the rookies. Turnbull’s no-hitter in Seattle was part of an outstanding four-start stretch in which he allowed just five runs on 16 hits over 27 innings, his best stretch since that May 2019 referenced above. Matthew Boyd and José Ureña both had struggles but provided innings, saving the bullpen. Detroit’s 3.60 team ERA was its lowest for a month since July 2016.

The more consistently Detroit’s rotation can do this, the better the Tigers can compete. They closed the month by going 3-2 in a stretch that included matchups against Shane Bieber, Gerrit Cole and Corbin Burnes. Detroit can hit enough to win low-scoring games, which brings up the next key …

2. Hitters making contact
Even when offense is down everywhere, it’s difficult to overstate how ugly April was for Detroit. The Tigers hit an MLB-low .199 with a .602 OPS for a month as a team without a pitcher taking an at-bat. Their 75 runs were 19 fewer than the next-worst AL team. Their 280 strikeouts were second most in MLB, while their 63 walks were the AL’s fewest. About the only respectable numbers were triples (six) and homers (28), but that was part of the problem: They swung for the fences but didn’t make enough contact.

That changed in May. Detroit’s .248 average, while still not eye-popping, was fourth best in the AL. The Tigers had the second-most strikeouts (269) but moved to the middle of the pack in walks (102), good for a .329 on-base percentage that ranked fifth best in the AL. They hit the fewest homers (20) and second-fewest doubles (35) in the AL but posted an MLB-best .327 average on balls in play. They won an 8-7 scorefest over the Royals on May 11 with just two extra-base hits, both triples. Four days later, they won a 9-8 game against the Cubs with a 14-hit attack that included just three for extra bases, all doubles.

Among the individual turnarounds was Robbie Grossman, who either walked or struck out on 46 of 106 plate appearances in April but made way more quality contact in May. He hit .265 for the month, but 12 of his 27 hits went for extra bases. Add in three sacrifice flies, and he drove in 17 runs from the leadoff spot.

3. Fulmer, Funkhouser stabilize bullpen
The Tigers’ bullpen had a 6-plus ERA in early May when Hinch made a couple of changes out of urgency. First was the move to bring in Michael Fulmer into a ninth-inning jam at Fenway Park on May 5, one day after he struggled in a spot start. His ability to not only get the save but feed off the late-game adrenaline gave Hinch a high-leverage reliever to add to his late-inning mix, pairing him with Gregory Soto for a righty-lefty duo.

Second was the promotion of Kyle Funkhouser from the taxi squad after Derek Holland went on the injured list. Funkhouser gave up an unearned run in two innings May 6 at Fenway, but his stuff was better than anything the Tigers had seen from him. That earned him more opportunities, even after Holland returned. Though Funkhouser’s velocity this season is virtually the same as it was in 2020, his average exit velocity is down from 90.3 mph to 87.9, while his swing-and-miss rate is up. He has filled the middle-relief void that opened when Buck Farmer struggled and was outrighted to Triple-A Toledo.

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