How these 10 players took Detroit Tigers from cellar to postseason chasers

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers finished the 2021 season with a 77-85 record.

The accomplishments in AJ Hinch’s first year as manager were good enough for third place in the American League Central, but not good enough for a coveted spot in the playoffs. Still, the season represented a year of progress, both as a team and as individuals.

Here are our favorite stories of the players who got the Tigers out of their four seasons of funk this year, in no particular order:

Welcome to the show

When the Tigers selected Akil Baddoo in the Rule 5 draft in December, the outfielder felt “pretty confident” about his chances. He then made the team out of spring training as a 22-year-old en route to establishing himself as part of the organization’s future. Sure, there were low points, but Baddoo, now 23, kept adjusting. He played a key role for all six months, but his first four games were magical.

The left-handed Baddoo crushed a home run on the first pitch of his MLB career April 4 at Comerica Park. The next day, he blasted a ninth-inning grand slam. He continued April 6, delivering a walk-off single to give the Tigers a 4-3 extra innings win over the Minnesota Twins — the team that exposed him in the Rule 5 draft — in the third game of his career. The next game? He tripled.

Talk about a hot start.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Baddoo said Oct. 1. “It’s a lot of ups and downs. That’s what it is when you get to the big leagues, that’s baseball. It was a lot of learning. There’s a lot of hope, and I’m really looking forward to next year and the future that we have here.”

MORE: How Akil Baddoo went from wrestling his brother to a magical debut homer

Baddoo, who finished the year as the Tigers’ leadoff hitter vs. righties, had a .259 batting average, 20 doubles, seven triples, 13 home runs, 55 RBIs, 45 walks and 122 strikeouts over 124 games, along with 18 stolen bases. He needs to improve against left-handed pitchers, but remember: Baddoo — who entered 2021 without a plate appearance above High-A — wasn’t supposed to make it this far. This feels like it’s only the beginning.

A-Mize-ing May

Give Casey Mize a pass for Year 1, but in spring training of Year 2, he still had problems pitching in the strike zone. He was drafted No. 1 overall in 2018, in part, for his elite command, and doubt crept in about his chances of making the Opening Day roster.

Mize made the Opening Day roster and cleaned up his command, but that wasn’t his only development this season. His routine has always been key, but this year, he had time to get consistent. He listened to pitching coach Chris Fetter, who offered many tips about pitch selection and pregame preparation. Mize quickly grew into the team’s ace of the future, starting in May. He lacked swings and misses, but he didn’t lack swing-and-miss stuff.

In five starts that month, he posted a 1.74 ERA with 10 walks and 27 strikeouts over 31 innings. The Tigers had a 4-1 record in those games, beating the Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees.

MORE: Casey Mize sets ‘foundation’ for ace status with rookie year he’s proud of

“I gotta give credit to Chris Fetter,” Mize said after his final start of May. “A lot of game planning, and then just telling me a lot of my strengths and weaknesses. We change up some pitch usage throughout different outings, and we game plan really well.

“He also had me move over to the middle side of the rubber. I was on the far first base side of the rubber, and he thought it would be a good move for me to shift my feet over to the middle part of the rubber. That was about six starts ago, and I’ve been pretty decent ever since.”

Into the history books

Spencer Turnbull came into 2021 aspiring to anchor the rotation. He gave the Tigers stability early on, posting a 3.91 ERA over his first five starts. Everything changed, though, when he took the mound May 18 against the Mariners in Seattle. After that start, his face was all over ESPN and MLB Network.

The 29-year-old threw the eighth no-hitter in Tigers’ history, striking out Mitch Haniger on a foul tip to complete the historic accomplishment. Jeimer Candelario made the key defensive play for the first out in the seventh inning, keeping a 108.4 mph grounder from getting past him. It was the fifth of seven individual no-hitters this season (with two additional combined no-nos).

“I definitely feel like I belong here, for sure,” Turnbull said that night. “There have been a lot of challenges and hurdles I’ve had to overcome to get here, and I’ve had to have a lot of patience. But I wouldn’t change any step of the journey. Hopefully, I’m going to continue to do this for a long time.”

MORE: Why Spencer Turnbull’s no-hitter for Tigers is only the beginning: ‘I belong here’

Turnbull only made three more starts, though, as his season was halted when he landed on the injured list June 5 with a right forearm strain. He underwent Tommy John surgery in late July, performed by Dr. Jeffrey Kugas in Birmingham, Alabama. In all, he finished the year with a 2.88 ERA, 12 walks and 44 strikeouts over 50 innings.

He is not expected to return until 2023.

Hometown hitter

Eric Haase grew up in Michigan and starred at Dearborn Divine Child, a lifelong Tigers fan. But, aside from a few short stints in the majors with Cleveland and Detroit, he appeared locked into a journeyman role at age 28.

At least until May 13, when the Tigers called him up from Triple-A Toledo, where he’d hit .353 in five games. Within a week, he had a two-homer game in Seattle, followed (the next day) by catching Turnbull’s no-no.

June saw him show off his power, with six homers in six games against the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago White Sox and Mariners. His success continued with nine home runs (including his July 3 performance that featured an inside-the-park homer followed by a blast over the fence) and 29 RBIs, along with a .265 batting average, over 23 games in July to win AL Rookie of the Month. The craziest part? The rookie’s journey started in a barn in Westland.

MORE: Why the secret of Tigers catcher Eric Haase’s success started in a barn in Westland

“It’s surreal,” Haase said June 5, following one of his four two-homer games. “When I was on-deck and getting ready in Kansas City, I just looked up. To see that I’m hitting behind Miguel Cabrera, it kind of sets in. I grew up my whole life watching him and idolizing him. Sharing the field with him, sharing the locker room and to be hitting him in, it’s just like, what the hell is going on here?”

He finished with a .231 batting average, 22 home runs, 61 RBIs, 26 walks and 119 strikeouts over 98 games. His defense behind the plate wasn’t great — minus-3 defensive runs saved in 66 games (61 starts) as a catcher — but Haase should at least split time behind the dish to open 2022.

An awaited debut

Mize and Tarik Skubal had already made headlines by the time Matt Manning showed up at Angels Stadium in Anaheim on June 17 for his MLB debut. The No. 9 overall pick in 2016, he had an 8.07 ERA in seven Triple-A starts. But the Tigers needed him to fill a void created by injuries.

Facing the Angels, Manning allowed two runs on four hits and two walks over five innings.

Four months later, Manning finished his first MLB season with a 5.80 ERA, 33 walks and 57 strikeouts in 85⅓ innings, while showing flashes of why the Tigers are excited about his future. The 23-year-old’s repertoire, at times, was electric. Facing the White Sox on Oct. 2, Manning dominated to finish his rookie year: He threw five scoreless innings on two hits, one walk and seven strikeouts.

“I think I’ve always been able to throw strikes,” Manning said Oct. 2. “It’s just been more pitch sequencing, getting the experience, getting out of situations where I put myself into. It was the first time I really had some hard adversity throughout a full season. I’ve dealt with it, and it’s made me better.”

MORE: Tigers’ rookie Matt Manning likely to take a ‘step forward’ in 2022

The struggles of Mize and Skubal in 2020 — Mize had a 6.99 ERA in seven games, while Skubal registered a 4.34 ERA in eight games — suggest a road map for Manning’s development. Give him time to mature and learn more about what he can truly accomplish. With more opportunities, Mize and Skubal discovered how to thrive. The Tigers expect Manning to follow in their footsteps in 2022.

King of doubles

Don’t say doubles don’t matter.

Jeimer Candelario would strongly disagree. He finished tied for first in doubles with 42 (along with Bryce Harper — the solo NL leader for the Philadelphia Phillies — Boston’s J.D. Martinez and Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield). The 27-year-old hit .271 with 16 home runs, 67 RBIs, 65 walks and 135 strikeouts over 149 games, while posting a 119 wRC+ — ninth-best among all MLB third basemen and better than St. Louis Cardinals All-Star Nolan Arenado (113).

MORE: Tigers ready to ‘count on’ third baseman Jeimer Candelario into the future

“He doesn’t get near the love that he should,” Hinch said Oct. 1. “Mostly, it’s because he’s understated, pretty quiet. But he plays every day. He has a plan of attack. … To me, he knows himself. He knows what he’s hunting. He doesn’t usually miss. He’s competitive and knows the strike zone. There’s nothing that he doesn’t do well. He’s pretty good at just about every part of the offensive approach and the bat-to-ball skills.

The Tigers acquired Candelario — with fellow infielder Isaac Paredes — from the Chicago Cubs at the 2017 trade deadline in exchange for catcher Alex Avila and reliever Justin Wilson. In 2019, Candelario hit .203 with 17 doubles, eight home runs and 32 RBIs across 94 games, also spending time in Triple-A because of his struggles.

He bounced back with a strong 2020, albeit in a season that lasted just 60 games. He played in 52 of them, hitting .297 with seven home runs, 29 RBIs, 20 walks and 49 strikeouts. But the Tigers weren’t sure if his newfound production would last over the course of 162 games.

The 2021 season was a make-or-break year for Candelario. He evolved into the team’s third baseman of the future, thanks to his consistent approach at the plate, big-league durability and a team-high 61 extra-base hits. He even displayed home-run power down the stretch, crushing six long balls in a 15-game span from Sept. 2-18.

Stay and play

Not long after owner Christopher Ilitch announced he would spend more money, the Tigers inked Jonathan Schoop to a two-year, $15 million extension on Aug. 7. The deal should keep Schoop in Detroit through 2023, though he has an opt-out after the 2022 season. Regardless, the Tigers need his leadership to push for the postseason.

“Just because they gave me two years doesn’t mean I can sit back and relax,” Schoop said Sept. 7. “I think now the hard work starts because people believe in me. I got to go out there and perform and prove what I do best: play baseball. It’s more pressure because when they pay you. You got to go out there and perform, play hard and do things to help the team win.”

MORE: Jonathan Schoop embraces ‘different’ pressure, talks defense in 2022

The 29-year-old hit .278 with 22 home runs, 84 RBIs, 37 walks and 133 strikeouts over 156 games. He led the Tigers with 53 multi-hit games, tied for third-most in MLB. His best month occurred in June: a .340 batting average, 10 home runs, 27 RBIs, six walks and 18 strikeouts over 26 games.

In the field, Schoop became a staple of the Tigers’ versatility, with 114 games at first base, a position he had never played in the majors. He also managed 38 games at second base, a position he is expected to lock down in 2022 once top prospect Spencer Torkelson arrives for his MLB debut.

In each of the past three winters, Schoop had to settle for one-year contracts, first with the Minnesota Twins and twice with the Tigers. (He played his first six MLB seasons with the Baltimore Orioles before they traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018.)

For now, Schoop is enjoying the job security.

One of 28 players

Miguel Cabrera joined an exclusive club Aug. 22 against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre — his home run off Steven Matz, deep to right-center in the sixth inning, made him the 28th player in MLB history to reach 500 home runs.

Back at Comerica Park, Cabrera was constantly reminded of his milestones. (Next up: 13 hits to become the 33rd player with 3,000 hits.) A “Miggy Milestones” countdown was installed in late July, towering over the list of retired numbers handing on the wall in left. As Cabrera stalled out at 499 home runs for a six-game homestart, the fans roared each time he stepped to the plate.

MORE: How Miguel Cabrera’s epic 500-homer journey to history began in Venezuela

Finally, No. 500 arrived on a Sunday afternoon in Toronto.

“It means a lot,” Cabrera said Aug. 22. “Not only for me, but the people around me: my teammates, the organization of Detroit, my coaches, the managers I’ve had for my whole career, the people from Venezuela, my family. It’s really big because it’s something special for my country, for my family to be able to do this. I’m really happy. At the same time, I’ve got to stay focused, keep doing what I’m doing, help the team get better and win more games.”

With homer No. 500 down, hit No. 3,000 was next: Cabrera picked up nine hits in nine straight plate appearances during a three-game stretch against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays from Sept. 7-10. He finished the year hitting .256 with 15 home runs, 75 RBIs, 40 walks and 118 strikeouts.

Cabrera plans to retire after the 2023 season.

Ful recovery

Michael Fulmer‘s 2020 season, his first year back from Tommy John surgery, left little room for optimism: The 2016 AL Rookie of the Year and 2017 All-Star had a 8.78 ERA, 12 walks and 20 strikeouts over 27⅔ innings in 10 starts. The Tigers contemplated parting ways, but instead opted for a one-year, $3.1 million contract — avoiding an arbitration hearing — for 2021.

Moving to the bullpen early in 2021 reinvented his career.

Fulmer finished 2021 with a 2.97 ERA, 20 walks and 73 strikeouts across 69⅔ innings in 52 games (four starts). That doesn’t reflect how well he pitched in his 48 relief appearances: a 2.52 ERA, 15 walks, 66 strikeouts and 14 saves. He had a career-high 24.6% strikeout rate, thanks to a 96 mph fastball, the return of his wipeout slider and a new curveball toward the end of the season.

MORE: Inside Michael Fulmer’s revival as reliever

“I didn’t know if I would ever pitch again, honestly,” Fulmer said Aug. 18. “It sucks. It really does. I’ve gone through years of rehab with the knee and the elbow. Those were really low positions in my life. … To be able to contribute like this is really a dream come true. More than my debut, more than my Rookie of the Year. More than all that stuff is the feeling you get after you’ve fought so hard to get back to where you are now.”

He landed on the injured list twice: June 6 with a right shoulder strain and June 27 with a right cervical spine strain. He came back from his second IL stint July 27 and had no troubles with his health the rest of the way. To clean up his throwing mechanics, Fetter introduced him to the “Pocket Path,” an invention from former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Dave Coggin.

20/20 vision

Robbie Grossman wasn’t expected to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases.

When the Tigers signed Grossman to a two-year, $10 million contract in January, the 32-year-old outfielder  was expected to establish a winning culture and get on base. (That he did, drawing 98 walks — fourth-most in MLB — for a team-high .357 on-base percentage.)

But Grossman also reaped the rewards of hard work in remaking his plate approach over the past two seasons, leading the Tigers in homers over 156 games. His 20 stolen bases, capped by No. 20 in his final game Oct. 2, was an equally big accomplishment, after seemingly being looked over by the rest of the league throughout his nine-year career.

MORE: How Robbie Grossman went from ‘a grinder’ to a grown-up at the plate

“I think (stealing bases) is something that’s evolved in my game over the last year or two,” Grossman said Oct. 2. “It’s about picking my spots to go, and it’s something that I’m going to continue to work on. It’s just trusting myself as a player. I’ve watched other guys do it, and they say, ‘Hey, if it’s a good time to do it, just trust yourself and go.'”

He became the seventh player in franchise history to have at least 20 stolen bases and 20 home runs, joining Kirk Gibson (1984-87), Alan Trammell (1986-87), Chad Curtis (1995), Damion Easley (1997), Gary Sheffield (2007) and Curtis Granderson (2007, 2009).

Honorable mention: S-KKKK-ubal

Tarik Skubal struck out 164 batters this season, the most by a rookie in franchise history. He punched out at least four batters in 22 consecutive games — the longest stretch by a rookie since 1893, according to the Elias Sports Bureau — from May 7-Sept. 12.

The 24-year-old finished with a 4.34 ERA, 47 walks and 164 strikeouts over 149⅓ innings in 31 games (29 starts). Despite overwhelming opponents with swing-and-miss pitches, the left-hander conceded 22 of his 35 home runs (which were second-most by a rookie all-time) on fastballs.

“I’m extremely confident in my stuff going into this offseason,” Skubal said Sept. 30. “I’m extremely confident in my ability. Something that I take a lot of pride in is being able to throw however many innings on every fifth day for an entire season. I’m very confident in myself and my stuff going into the offseason to where I can learn, develop and get even better going into next year.”

MORE: Tarik Skubal ‘confident’ after rookie year but needs to cut HRs

Honorable mention: Soto shuts the door

Gregory Soto didn’t earn the official “closer” title until after the season, when Hinch gave him the tag in Tuesday’s end-of-season news conference. But Soto did the job all season, with a 3.39 ERA, 40 walks and 76 strikeouts — with 18 saves in 19 chances — over 63⅔ innings. Commanding his slider, to go with his triple-digit fastball, brought about these improvements.

The 26-year-old made his first All-Star Game in July, as the Tigers’ lone representative at Coors Field in Denver. He pitched the fifth inning, allowing a solo home run to Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto. Since Soto is the Tigers’ closer of the future, don’t be surprised if he adds to his All-Star story in the near future.

“It was about time to get myself more consistent with my pitches and more consistent physically, especially on my weight,” Soto said Aug. 12. “It was about time for that to happen. I had a lot of people saying that I had the skills, that I had the abilities to do what I was capable of doing. In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Well, it’s about time to do the little things.'”

MORE: Gregory Soto’s evolution: Don’t ask him about closer role ‘because I’m doing it’

Honorable mention: Wily Wily

Wily Peralta entered 2021 without a big-league start since 2017 with the Brewers, after bullpen stints with the Royals in 2018-19 and a 2020 elbow injury. He signed a minor-league contract with the Tigers in February, asking for a chance to start again.

The Tigers should be glad they gave him a chance.

Peralta ended 2021 with a 3.07 ERA, 38 walks and 58 strikeouts in 93⅔ innings over 19 games. His split-changeup was one of the best in baseball. He burst onto the scene July 5 against the Texas Rangers, throwing seven scoreless innings with six strikeouts — his first scoreless outing of seven innings since Aug. 14, 2015. In five starts from June 26-July 18, Peralta had a 0.34 ERA over 26⅔ innings.

“I’ve really grown with more experience,” Peralta said Aug. 22. “When I was young, I had a harder fastball but wasn’t really worried about locating. Now I have experience and am a more complete pitcher. Before, I feel like I was a thrower. Right now, I feel like I’m a pitcher.”

MORE: Why Tigers veteran Wily Peralta calls himself a ‘complete pitcher’ in 2021

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

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