Detroit Tigers Newsletter: What changed in Year 1 A.G. (After Gardenhire)?

Detroit Free Press

It’s a bit trite, but what a difference a year makes.

In sports, we’re fond of cherry-picking arbitrary dates as milestones to look back on, like saying “6-3 in their past nine games,“ “63-54 since May 8” or “72-78 since Opening Day.”

We’ve certainly been guilty of it on the Detroit Tigers beat this season, as we’ve tried to illustrate how much more successful the team has been since its awful start (whether you define that as April’s 8-19 record, or go a few days into May to get the “9-24 start” that had us trademarking the phrase “The Worst Team in Baseball™). <We still haven’t seen a check from the Orioles for that…>

But Sunday gave us an actual anniversary, and a reason to look back on what has changed in 365 days: In case you were distracted by the Tigers’ surprisingly competitive weekend series against the Rays, Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of then-manager Ron Gardenhire’s sudden — like, one-hour-before-a-Saturday-evening-game-sudden — retirement.

With the exception of the 2-6 interim tenure of Lloyd McClendon to finish September 2020, the franchise hasn’t looked the same since.

Tigers shrugged off gut-punch vs. AL’s best. Here’s why this is hardly a fluke ]

Hello, and welcome to the Year 1 A.G. (After Gardenhire) Newsletter.

At the time of Gardenhire’s farewell, the Tigers were eight games under .500, at 21-29, with eight to play (minus a couple games wiped out by COVID-related postponements). This year, the Tigers are, somehow, a mere six games under .500, at 72-78, with 12 to play. That’s not to suggest they’ve got a shot at reaching .500 this year — it’d take a 9-3 finish (or better), and, well, with six of those 12 games coming against the American League Central-leading Chicago White Sox … you get the idea.

But the Tigers, although they were officially eliminated from contention in the AL Central on Sunday, head into the final two weeks with a 10-7 record in September. Finishing close to  .500 this season — imminently possible, considering the Tigers’ other six games this season are against the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins, who are a combined 15-21 this month — well, that’s not nothing.

The records aren’t the only improvement.

Last season, just two teams (the Pirates and Rangers) got less production from their catchers than the Tigers’ -0.2 WAR (according to baseball-reference.com). This season, Tigers catchers are at 2.8 WAR (and that’s not counting the handful of homers hit by Eric Haase while in the lineup as a left fielder), tied with the playoff-bound Milwaukee Brewers for sixth.

In 2020, the Tigers starting pitching was the worst in franchise history, with a 6.37 ERA, not to mention worst in the majors by more than three-fourths of a run. In 2021, Tigers starters rank 14th, with a 4.17 ERA. (If you need faces to put that to, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal combined for a 6.27 ERA in 60⅓ innings in 2020. This year, they’ve got a 3.94 ERA in 285⅓ innings.)

Still, the records matter, too. The Tigers have played at least .500 ball against 11 of the 19 teams they’ve faced this year — and they can make it 13 with series wins against the Royals and Twins. In fact, they’re 4-9 against the White Sox, 7-12 against Cleveland and 61-57 against the rest of the league in 2021. Last season, they managed .500-or-better records against five of the nine teams they played … but went 4-16 against the forever ChiSox and future Guardians.

In short, we looked back on what we wrote soon after Gardy’s departure: “The rebuild still needs a few coats of paint and a kitchen that doesn’t catch fire every third day — please stop letting Joe Jimenez use the stove — but the roof mostly stopped leaking in mid-August and the toilet hasn’t backed up since the White Sox were in town.”

And this year? Well, we’re still waiting on those final coats of paint — maybe a shortstop to apply them? — but the kitchen is looking pretty nice (we bought Joe Jimenez an air fryer) and we finally got the water pumped out of the basement.

As for the toilets? Well, we’ll find out with the White Sox in town beginning today, eh?

Gut-punch proof

So what’s different? The Freep’s Shawn Windsor says it starts at the top, or at least the top in the dugout, namely, manager AJ Hinch. The Tigers’ split of the weekend series against the Rays led Windsor to ponder, “Are they balling because they are tough? Or are they tough because they’ve been balling?” Click here to find out what he decided.

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Holland-daise sauce

Our Man Windsor isn’t the only one feeling optimistic this month: Veteran reliever Derek Holland, who has a 2.73 ERA since the All-Star break, is enjoying his 13th season in the majors and predicting big things for the Tigers next season. Click here to find out why Holland told the Freep’s Evan Petzold that Hinch is “one of the greatest managers” he has played for.

Gross(man) Pointe Blank

The playoffs are out of reach, but there are still some individual milestones for the Tigers to chase, such as Robbie Grossman’s quest for 20 homers (check) and 20 steals (three to go). Has Grossman thought about the 20/20 club? “100%,” he told Our Man Petzold last week. Click here to find out how Grossman plans to get it done despite being, well, not slow, but…

Injury report

The final month hasn’t been all roses, however. The Tigers got bad news on closer Gregory Soto, who’ll miss the rest of the season after taking a batted ball off his pitching hand on Friday. Likewise, outfielder Derek Hill suffered a knee sprain on Saturday and is also done for the year. And lefthander Matthew Boyd is going for a second opinion on whether surgery on his elbow is necessary. Click here to find out from Our Man Petzold who was called up to replace Soto and Hill, and what Boyd’s timetable is.

Alex the great?

The shuffling roster has allowed more youngsters to take on bigger roles, such as righty reliever Alex Lange. The 25-year-old — he turns 26 the day before the end of the season — has latched on in some high-leverage situations this month. Click here for Our Man Petzold’s report on how adding a third pitch has made all the difference.

3 to watch

These three Tigers have taken different journeys through the first 150 games of the season:

WILLI CASTRO: Even with move from SS to 2B, he has “taken a step forward defensively.”

IAN KROL: How he went from “the Nerds Herd” to the Tigers again.

JONATHAN SCHOOP: His paycheck secure, Schoop now feels a different kind of pressure.

Mark your calendar

The Tigers’ final homestand of the season begins tonight with, as we noted earlier, a visit from the White Sox, in town until Wednesday. That’s followed by a visit from the Royals on Friday-Sunday (complete with a 12:10 p.m. start Sunday to accommodate the Lions’ game against the Baltimore Ravens).

Rookie righty Matt Manning takes the mound for the Tigers on Monday night; he’s coming off his best start of the season — six innings of one-run ball against the Brewers on Wednesday. And now he gets to face the ChiSox, sixth in the majors at 4.95 runs per game; click here to find out from Our Man Petzold what he’ll take from that start against the Brew Crew into Monday.

Literally, “The Final Stretch”

Meanwhile, most of the Tigers’ farm system wrapped up its season Sunday. The Class-A Lakeland Flying Tigers finished third in their division at 55-63;, the High-A West Michigan Whitecaps finished tied for fourth in their division at 58-62 and the Double-A Erie SeaWolves finished third in their division at 64-55.

The lone team still going? The Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, who won the Midwest Division with a 69-51 record. Of course, because it’s the minors, that has nothing to do with their final 10 games, dubbed “The Final Stretch,” which begins Tuesday. Click here to find out how to watch Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and, yes, Ryan Kreidler online for free, and head here to find out what the deal is with “The Final Stretch.”

Happy anniversary, Mr. Tiger

Friday marks the 47th anniversary of  Al Kaline’s 3,000th hit. “Mr. Tiger” doubled off the first pitch from Baltimore’s Dave McNally in the fourth inning of a 5-4 road loss to the Orioles on Sept. 24, 1974. “Anytime you win a batting championship, there’s a lot of luck that goes with it,” Kaline, a couple months shy of his 40th birthday, told the media after the game. “But when you get 3,000 hits, I don’t think anybody can say you were just lucky. You’ve had to withstand the pressure of all those seasons and injuries and everything. To me that really means something.” (Click here for all of Mr. Tiger’s milestones.) In semi-related news, Miguel Cabrera’s quest for No. 3,000 continues; the 38-year-old is at 2,979 hits, 21 away.

Tigers birthdays this week: Cecil Fielder (58 on Tuesday), Aurelio Lopez (would have been 73 on Tuesday, died in 1992), Joba Chamberlain (36 on Thursday).

TL;DR

We don’t think Cabrera can reach 3,000 hits by Friday — Miggy Celebration Day at Comerica Park, no less — but what do we know? We thought the Tigers would top out at 69 wins this season.

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

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