Detroit — When the Tigers were 36-45 at the midpoint of the 2017, it represented gross underachievement and led ultimately to the end of manager Brad Ausmus’ run, the trading away of stars Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton and the first dark days of the teardown.
They had the same record at the midpoint in 2018 and it seemed refreshing and fun. Ron Gardenhire was in his first year. Remember the Rally Goose? Alex Wilson riding in from the bullpen on a cart? Three walk-off homers and John Hicks’ walk-off bunt. It also seemed temporary, and it most certainly was.
The Tigers this season, under first-year manager AJ Hinch, have again come to the 81-game mark and the 36-45 record feels like … progress. Genuine progress. Third place in the American League Central feels like lofty status given the travails of the last two seasons, not to mention the horrendous month of April.
More than that, the infrastructure appears more sound. There is payroll flexibility and another potentially bountiful draft next month. There seems to be a definitive, consistent plan in place, contiguous through every facet and level of the organization — player development, analytics, scouting and on-field management. A creditable Tigers’ Way.
Legitimate foundation pieces are identifying themselves from Double-A Erie through to the big-league club. The talent pool is deepening to the point where Hinch and general manager Al Avila are now choosing between good players and better ones, as opposed to average or lesser.
Christin Stewart, JaCoby Jones and Renato Nunez were all designated for assignment and are in Triple-A Toledo. Opening day starting catcher Wilson Ramos is out of the organization. Backup catcher Grayson Greiner is in Toledo. Veteran pitchers Buck Farmer, Joe Jimenez and Bryan Garcia were all sent back to Toledo for a stretch.
Veterans Nomar Mazara and Niko Goodrum have lost their starting positions. Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris, staples of the Tigers rotation in 2016, are working out of the bullpen.
A performance standard is in place. And though still in its infant stages, a culture of winning is forming. Development is still a big part of what the Tigers are doing at the big-league level, but there is a higher level of accountability.
As Hinch has preached, winning today’s game matters. His postgame remarks after the Tigers had swept a doubleheader in Cleveland for the first time since 1977 and securing the second straight winning month were telling. Nobody is accepting much backslapping, let alone planning parades.
“The expectation for us to have winning months has to be the norm,” he said. “We need this to be the goal. Winning this series was big for us, but we need six good, winning months to make it to the playoffs.”
After a bleak 8-19 start in April, the club has posted winning months in May and June (14-13 in both).
“It’s easy to wash away April given how bad it was,” Hinch said. “I don’t even want to revisit that. But since the beginning of May, this team has found ways to win ballgames in different ways.”
In June, the Tigers took two of three from Seattle, swept the Royals in Kansas City, won a two-game set against St. Louis, took three out of four from AL West-leading Houston and won a series in Cleveland.
“We need to play well against good teams,” Hinch said. “Cleveland is a good team, albeit a little beat up right now. They’re going to get healthy and they are ahead of us. When you play teams that have winning records, we need to stand up and defend ourselves.
“I think we’ve done that these last few series.”
A saintly patience
The plan and process were expected when the Tigers hired him. He came with World Series pedigree from Houston, after all, and been hailed for his progressive approach with analytics and player development.
What has been somewhat surprising, though, is his patience. He was managing a collection of established stars in Houston. Here, while there are a handful of established veterans and one future Hall-of-Famer (Miguel Cabrera), he’s had to nurture and mold a collection of raw and budding talent.
It requires a vastly different management style. But with his degree in psychiatry and background in player development, he seems quite adept at it.
He stuck with Jimenez, even after watching him walk nine of the first 16 batters he faced, even when his ERA was over 40. He and pitching coach Chris Fetter saw something salvageable. In his last nine outings, Jimenez has allowed two runs with eight strikeouts, opponents hitting just .200 off him.
He stuck with Willi Castro, despite his struggles on both sides of the ball. He took him out of the shortstop mix, moved him to second where, after some early issues, he’s settled in and is hitting .263 in his last 12 games.
His faith in veteran Jonathan Schoop never wavered, not even when he was hitting under .200 on May 14. From that point on, Schoop put the Tigers’ offense on his back, slashing .337/.394/.633 with a 1.027 OPS, 13 home runs and 37 RBIs.
His faith in mercurial lefty reliever Gregory Soto never wavered, even when he was walking hitters and throwing his 99-mph heater to the backstop. Soto has allowed one run in the last 17 innings. His back-of-the-bullpen mate Jose Cisnero has allowed one run in his last 19.1 innings.
Right-hander Kyle Funkhouser was one of the first pitchers Hinch cut in spring training. He told him exactly why he was cut, told him he didn’t think he came in proper pitching shape and he laid out a blueprint for how he could get back to the big leagues.
Funkhouser took the tough-love message to heart and has been an entrusted, high-leverage bullpen arm since early May.
The grooming of Baddoo
Hinch’s managing of rookie Akil Baddoo has been clinical. He has been able to pull back the reins just before Baddoo falls into serious crisis. He has steadily challenged him without overloading or overwhelming him. All the while outfield coach George Lombard was grooming him in the outfield and Robbie Grossman was mentoring him on routines and professionalism.
The result, Baddoo, after enduring a 5 for 50 skid, slashed .348/.434/.455 with an .889 OPS in June and is now hitting atop Hinch’s order against right-handed pitching.
Hinch also has been entrusted with the care and development of the organization’s most priceless asset — the young starting pitching — and we’ve watched both Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal not only blossom but step to the front of the Tigers rotation.
The Tigers went 14-13 in June and got just two full starts from veteran Matthew Boyd and one from Spencer Turnbull.
Also since April, Hinch has handed the catcher spot over to rookies Jake Rogers and Eric Haase. He’s gone with rookies Baddoo, Daz Cameron and Derek Hill in the outfield. After Willi Castro and Niko Goodrum struggled defensively at shortstop, he’s now giving rookie Zack Short a run.
Plan, process, patience, performance and ultimately progress.
The Tigers are still nine games under .500. They still strikeout too much. They’ve made marginal gains offensively against right-handed pitching, but regressed against lefties (their 78 wRC-plus against lefties before Wednesday was lowest in baseball). Their starting rotation is iffy, especially knowing that Skubal and Mize are going to face innings restrictions soon. Only the Phillies have a worst defensive runs saved number than the Tigers’ minus-29, and the shortstop position is an MLB-worse minus-14.
They’ve come a long way since April and they still have miles to go before being legitimate contenders.
Nevertheless, it still feels like progress.
On deck: White Sox
► Series: Three games at Comerica Park, Detroit
► First pitch: Friday — 7:10 p.m.; Saturday — 4:10 p.m.; Sunday — 1:10 p.m.
► TV/radio: All three games on BSD/97.1 FM
► Probables: Friday — RHP Lance Lynn (7-3, 2.06) vs. RHP Casey Mize (5-4, 3.46); Saturday — LHP Dallas Keuchel (6-2, 3.96) vs. LHP Tarik Skubal (4-7, 4.06); Sunday — RHP Lucas Giolito (6-5, 3.84) vs. TBA.
► Lynn, White Sox: The 10-year veteran should be fresh. He’s only thrown seven innings since June 14. He only went four innings at Houston on June 19, tagged for six runs, then his most recent start against the Mariners was halted by bad weather after three innings. He beat the Tigers on June 3, allowing a run and four hits over six innings.
► Mize, Tigers: The rookie hasn’t allowed more than three runs in an outing in two months and he’s coming off one of his best starts of the season, limiting the best-hitting team in baseball, the Astros, to one run over six innings. His splitter, which has been hit or miss, hit big that night. He threw 21 of them and got five misses on 11 swings and the five put in play were outs.