Detroit Tigers’ 2021 grades: Surprising pitching, coaching outshine lousy defense

Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Tigers were supposed to fail.

In February, USA TODAY Sports predicted the Tigers would finish 61-101 and last in the American League Central. At the time, nobody but the Tigers seemed to disagree. But with the final out of Game 162, the Tigers ended 77-85 for third place in the division and the organization’s best record since 2016.

Why does this matter?

Well, the Tigers — led by manager AJ Hinch — crushed expectations in Year 1 of the process to build the franchise into a postseason threat.

“Seeing this thirst for winning and this rebirth for doing things that a winning culture does lends itself to looking towards .500 and above,” Hinch said Tuesday. “That’s the next plateau. It doesn’t mean that has to be the only accomplishment next year. We have to set our bar extremely high. You should set out every year to make the playoffs.

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“For us, winning the day turns into winning series and turns into winning months. We want to have a winning season, and we want that winning season to be rewarded with a playoff berth. By the way, just because you get to the playoffs doesn’t mean you’re satisfied at that point. I just like where our heads are at. I like that we stay grounded with what we’re doing. To be a winning team, you have to have a winning record. We don’t have that yet.”In a year of progress, the Tigers received a “C-plus” on their report card.

Offense

The Tigers still have a lot of room to grow, but the missing pieces could come in the form of Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and, perhaps, an elite free agent. For now, we’ve seen a step in the right direction. Weeding out the players who didn’t fit Hinch’s philosophy didn’t take long, as JaCoby Jones, Nomar Mazara and Wilson Ramos were dropped from the plans.

Look no further than Robbie Grossman and Jeimer Candelario for examples of development in this category. Grossman became a 20/20 player, the seventh player in franchise history to record at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in one season. Along with leading the Tigers with 23 home runs, he showed his true value by drawing 98 walks — second in the AL — to secure a team-high .357 on-base percentage.

Candelario displayed his consistency for the second year in a row, hitting .271 with 16 home runs and a .315 on-base percentage. He tied for first place in MLB with 42 doubles, alongside Bryce Harper, J.D. Martinez and Whit Merrifield.

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A reinvigorated Miguel Cabrera drilled his 500th career home run, sits 13 hits away from 3,000 and enjoyed his first taste of a winning culture since the pre-rebuild years. He met expectations in his 19th season, hitting .256 with 15 home runs. His 75 RBIs ranked second on the team behind Jonathan Schoop, who had a .278 batting average, 22 home runs and 84 RBIs. For his efforts, Schoop was rewarded with a two-year contract extension in August.

The Tigers had a 7.1% walk rate and 27.3% strikeout rate in 2020, both the worst in baseball. This time, the Tigers finished 21st with an 8.2% walk rate and 28th with a 25.3% strikeout rate.

Beginning May 8, the Tigers boasted a .250 batting average (10th), 8.4% walk rate (12th), 24.1% strikeout rate (21st), .317 on-base percentage (17th) and 72 stolen bases (7th). Posting a 99 wRC+ (15th) during this stretch meant the team’s offense nearly performed at league average (100 wRC+) for the final 129 games.

The Tigers had a league-worst 67 wRC+ before May 8.

Final grade: C-plus

Pitching

The growth of the young pitchers was one of the highlights this season, especially because it accomplished a five-year goal. General manager Al Avila made pitching his top priority upon entering the rebuild, and Hinch didn’t hesitate to do the same in his first year at the helm. The biggest developments came from three ex-prospects: Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning.

Mize and Skubal made 30 and 29 starts, respectively, preparing the 24-year-olds for the rigors of the playoffs in the future. Mize finished with a 3.71 ERA, 41 walks and 118 strikeouts over 150⅓ innings, while Skubal logged a 4.34 ERA, 47 walks and 164 strikeouts across 149⅓ innings. They thrived under pitching coach Chris Fetter, became confident and improved their game-by-game plans.

The Tigers’ pitching staff put up a 4.32 ERA, for a 23rd-place finish among MLB’s 30 teams. This result included a 4.17 ERA (20th) from the rotation and a 4.50 ERA (23th) from the bullpen. It was a big improvement from last year’s overall 5.63 ERA, the second-worst in baseball.

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The starting rotation seemed destined to crash when Spencer Turnbull and Matthew Boyd sustained significant injuries midway through the season, but unsung heroes Wily Peralta and Tyler Alexander stepped up. Pitching as a starter for the first time since 2017, the 32-year-old Peralta had a 3.07 ERA in 93⅔ innings. Alexander solidified his spot on next year’s roster with a 3.81 ERA in 106⅓ innings, but it’s unclear if he will make the team as a starter or a long reliever.

Manning, 23, made his MLB debut in June. He finished with a 5.80 ERA, 33 walks and 57 strikeouts over 85⅓ innings in 18 starts.

When general manager Al Avila called Turnbull’s injury, which required Tommy John surgery, “devastating” to the long-term plans, he wasn’t kidding. The Tigers need at least two starting pitchers — expect one to be an established veteran — to contend for the postseason in 2022. The situation probably sounds worse than it actually is, for two reasons. One, Fetter immediately established himself as one of MLB’s best pitching coaches, and two, the young core of Mize, Skubal and Manning showed signs of three frontline starters in the future. Still, the Tigers need some extra help if they want to bank on the playoffs.

As for the bullpen, the Tigers believe they’ve established a solid group: Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero, Michael Fulmer, Kyle Funkhouser and Alex Lange. The front office doesn’t think this is an area that needs upgrading, thanks to the developments of Fulmer, Funkhouser and Lange in new opportunities.

Final grade: B

Defense

An obvious need for improvement is up-the-middle defense in the infield.

The Tigers were quite poor at turning double plays, using the combination of Schoop, Willi Castro, Niko Goodrum, Harold Castro, Isaac Paredes and Zack Short at the second base and shortstop positions. These troubles were quantified by the Tigers’ MLB-worst minus-6.7 double play runs. (The DPR metric measures the number of runs above or below average a fielder is worth by evaluating the number of double plays and the number of force outs at second base they achieved, compared to an average fielder at the position.) As a team, the Tigers finished second-worst in MLB with minus-51 defensive runs saved. Only the Philadelphia Phillies (minus-52 DRS) were graded worse defensively.

But the eye test is important, too.

Schoop spent 114 games at first base, a position he hadn’t played before the season started, to fill a need. He is considered an above-average second baseman, but won’t consistently play there until Torkelson arrives. Schoop can also handle third base, but Candelario locked down the hot corner for the entire season. Candelario made a great impact on the rebuild, giving the Tigers solid defense at third base and a steady approach at the plate. The Tigers seemingly have the non-shortstop portions of the infield sorted out for 2022, or at least they will once Torkelson shows up.

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When Derek Hill wasn’t injured, he was an elite center fielder. Three injuries kept him to just 49 games, and whether he sticks around as a fourth outfielder comes down to his health and offensive production. The other outfielders — Grossman, Akil Baddoo, Victor Reyes and Daz Cameron — got by without too many eyesores, but besides Reyes, they weren’t spectacular defenders. Baddoo, in particular, didn’t have an accurate arm.

The biggest problem was the shortstop and second base positions. Willi Castro posted a rough minus-8 DRS at second base this year, but Schoop should clean up the mess in the future. That means the Tigers need to find a reliable shortstop before next season. If that happens, the abundance of failed double plays and errors should cease.

Catching defense took a step forward under Jake Rogers and Eric Haase. Hinch gave Rogers the lead role while he picked his spots for Haase — both as a catcher and a left fielder — during his home-run tear. In July, Rogers landed on the injured list and never returned. He underwent Tommy John surgery and could miss the entire 2022 season.

The Tigers must find a defense-first catcher. With no All-Star-caliber catcher available this winter, the organization should seek a veteran to split time with Haase, who seems to perform better at his specialty — hitting home runs — when he isn’t required to play daily.

Final grade: D-plus

Coaching

Anchored by Hinch’s leadership, the coaching staff deserves a ton of credit.

Those guys got the most out of the roster they had.

Despite a miserable 9-24 start to the season, the Tigers didn’t fold. They posted a 68-61 record after May 8, a 37-34 record after the All-Star Game and a 39-36 record against above .500 teams. Most of the success happened without Boyd and Turnbull, and then without Rogers.

If the Tigers would have landed one more impact bat in free agency, they could have been in the postseason conversation beyond Sept. 19, the day they were officially eliminated.

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The struggles in April forced roster changes, which allowed Hinch to manage his personnel differently, and he did so to perfection. The Tigers capitalized on an aggressive style of play and were fearless on the bases. They stole 88 bases, seventh-most in MLB. Credit Hinch for getting his players to embrace his gritty, never-quit mentality.

Pitchers and position players were put in the best situations to succeed based on data and analytics, but Hinch balanced those high-tech numbers with traditional beliefs. He didn’t waver from what his eyes and gut were telling him, fully trusting the human component of the game. Although Hinch will say the players deserve credit for the winning culture, which they do, he set the path for them to follow.

Based on the history of the award, the AL Manager of the Year award should end up with Alex Cora (Boston Red Sox), Scott Servais (Seattle Mariners), Kevin Cash (Tampa Bay Rays) or even Tony La Russa (Chicago White Sox).

But why not Hinch?

Final grade: A

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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