Detroit Tigers Newsletter: If it wasn’t for hitting historic lows, they wouldn’t hit at all

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers reached a new low for the season Sunday, losing 3-2 to the Kansas City Royals to fall 32 games under .500 for the first time since 2019.

It has, if you’ve been reading this newsletter all season (or have simply watched a game or two), been a season of lows.

Succinctly put, there’s not one reason the Tigers are on pace to finish 62-100 (in what would be just the eighth 100-loss campaign in 122 seasons) — there are lots. Some quick numbers:

While the bullpen has been stellar — the Tigers’ 3.44 relief ERA still ranks ninth in the majors despite some struggles since the All-Star break — the rotation has been cratered by injuries and the offense has been mostly non-existent: The Tigers have been shut out 18 times in 134 games (roughly once every seven outings), three more than any other team this season.

Don’t get us wrong: There are also plenty of reasons to keep watching this squad over the final 28 games. The Freep’s Jeff Seidel laid out a few last week when he noted the importance of September to the Tigers’ rookie position players — five of whom (Kerry Carpenter, Riley Greene, Ryan Kreidler, Josh Lester and Spencer Torkelson) were in Double-A as recently as Aug. 10, 2021.

But all those rookies are on the big-league roster now because the veterans ahead of them haven’t hit, in epic fashion.

How epic? If the kids don’t hit this month (and we’re using “kids” loosely, especially in the case of the 28-year-old Lester), the Tigers have a shot at finishing with the worst offense in the American League during the designated hitter era (through 1973).

Hello, and welcome to the Slumbering Bats Newsletter.

Of course, there are several ways to determine which offense was truly the most, well, offensive in the AL over the past 50 seasons. Let’s see how the 2022 Tigers stack up in a few of them:

RUNS PER GAME: The most basic, right? The point of offense is to score runs, so the team with the fewest runs is the worst. By that standard, the 2022 Tigers are merely third-worst; with 440 runs in 134 games, they’re averaging 3.28 runs per game. (Actually, we have to go out a few more decimal points — 3.28358 — to see they’re oh-so-slightly “ahead” of the fourth-worst, the 1978 Oakland Athletics at 3.28395.)

But the Tigers are well behind the 162-game “champs”: the 2010 Seattle Mariners, who scored 513 runs for an average of 3.16 per game. They’re also behind the overall “champs”: the 1981 Toronto Blue Jays, whose 329 runs in 106 games (on either side of an extended player strike) puts them at 3.10 runs per game. In a 162-game season, the Blue Jays would have scored just under 503 runs.

There’s the “magic number” for the 2022 Tigers’ offense to avoid being the worst AL attack of the past 50 seasons: 63 runs, or 2.25 runs per game over the final stretch. Basically, every time the Tigers score three runs the rest of the season — and earn folks free curly fries at Arby’s, as we hear during every game — they’re taking a step toward avoiding complete offensive incompetence. At least by this measure …

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OPS+: Then again, different seasons feature different “run environments,” and we have to consider offenses against their counterparts by year. While the 1981 Jays’ 3.10 runs per game is awful on its own, it was 0.97 runs worse than the AL average of 4.07. The 2022 Tigers’ 3.28, meanwhile, is 0.92 runs off the AL average of 4.20.

So, let’s pivot from runs — actually, that sounds like an ad campaign for next year’s squad: “The 2023 Tigers: Let’s Pivot From Runs!” — and measure things with another stat: Adjusted OPS, which takes OPS (On-base Plus Slugging percentages), adjusts it for ballpark and league average and sets it to a scale across eras in which 100 is “average,” and the lower you go, the worse your offense is. (Let’s just skip past all the math here and use baseball-reference’s numbers, eh?)

The 2022 Tigers’ OPS+ checks in at 81, good for only the 11th-worst AL offense of the past 50 seasons and well off the “leaders,” those 1981 Jays again at 74. (A sampling of how bad those Jays were: they gave 275 plate appearances to third baseman Danny Ainge — yes, the basketball player and future Celtics/Jazz GM — and he slashed .187/.258/.228 in his third and final big-league season before entering the NBA. The 2022 Tigers are bad, but at least they’re not trotting Killian Hayes out there next to Javier Báez?)

This isn’t even the worst offensive season in franchise history by OPS+; the 2019 Tigers had an OPS+ of 78, tied with the 1981 Minnesota Twins and the 2020 Texas Rangers for second-worst over the past 50 seasons. (The other usual contender for worst offense in franchise history, the 119-loss 2003 Tigers, rank 16th, with an 83 OPS+, alongside the 2018 Tigers — this rebuild has been rough.)

There’s not quite a target here if you’re rooting for the Tigers to get to No. 1, but it’s going to be tough for them to catch those Jays, or even the 2019 Tigers. But there’s one more measure of offensive futility to look at …

OBP: Yes, as Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill … err, Billy Beane and “composite A’s front office executive” taught us in “Moneyball,” the basic building block of offense is getting on base, as measured by, well, on-base percentage. And it’s there that the Tigers have a real shot at infamy.

This year’s Tigers are reaching base at a .285 clip, good for second-worst in the AL over the past 50 seasons. Though again, we have to extend things a decimal place — the Tigers actually enter Monday’s game at .2849, just ahead of the 2020 Rangers (who played just 60 games) at .2850. (The 162-game “leader?” You guessed it: the 1981 Jays, at .286.)

Still, everyone is well clear of the pace of the potential No. 1: The 2022 Athletics, at .281. (It’s tough to get on base when you’re already packing the bags for Las Vegas, we guess.) The A’s have managed just 1,371 baserunners in 4,880 plate appearances, while the Tigers have had 1,376 runners in 4,829 PAs. (The A’s are hitting an abysmal .217, while the Tigers are hitting .229; conversely, the Tigers have just 316 walks, compared to 353 for the A’s.)

Can the Tigers catch the A’s over the final month? It’s possible: The A’s have 18 games remaining against squads with playoff-caliber pitching staffs (if you count the White Sox), while the Tigers have 19. And so, there you have it: While you’re watching the next generation of Tigers hitters take their hacks at the plate, keep an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard.

Greene surge

Another race to watch: Which Tiger will lead the team in OPS? Harold Castro is No. 1 entering Monday at .707 (thanks to his two-run homer Sunday, providing the Tigers’ only runs vs. K.C.), but Riley Greene (.697) and Eric Haase (.692) are closing fast. Greene’s 13-game hit streak — during which he has slashed .396/.458/.623 — has raised his OPS 90 points. The Freep’s Evan Petzold has the story of how manager A.J. Hinch has helped Greene refocus on pitch selection.

One last ride on the I-75 Shuttle

As big-league rosters expanded to 28 on Sept. 1, the Tigers called up a pair of hitting prospects with some questions to answer. First, of course, was Spencer Torkelson, the Opening Day first baseman (and 2020’s No. 1 overall pick) who was sent down in mid-July with a sub.-.200 batting average. In Toledo, Torkelson hit .239, though he showed an improved batting eye. So what’s different now? Our Man Petzold has the report; learn why Tork says his “old keys” are clicking again.

Coming with Tork was infielder Ryan Kreidler, who bashed 22 homers in the minors in 2021 before suffering through an injury plagued 2022. The Tigers’ 2019 fourth-rounder also has questions at the plate, but his versatile glove — he saw time at second, third and shortstop over the weekend at Comerica Park — should give him a chance to answer them, Our Man Petzold reports. But will he be a starter or a backup?

September sliders

The youth movement is still in effect in the rotation as well, despite numerous injuries, thanks to right-hander Matt Manning. The 24-year-old has been roughed up in his past two outings — nine earned runs in 6 1/3 innings — but that comes after a stretch of five effective outings in his return from the injured list in August. The pitch to watch for Manning? His slider, thanks to a new grip he picked up over the summer. Our Man Petzold has more on the pitch’s new movement.

3 to watch

September will be a proving ground for two Tigers and an ex:

MATTHEW BOYD: The lefty is back in the majors with his hometown M’s, with a shot at the playoffs.

ALEX LANGE: The righty has plans for 2023 World Baseball Classic — those plans don’t include playing for Team USA.

JOSH LESTER: From pick No. 400 in 2015 to wearing No. 58 for the Tigers, thanks to Miguel Cabrera’s IL stint.

Mark your calendar!

This week brings the next-to-last stint of “Late Night with the Tigers!” as they head to Anaheim, California, for a three-game set against the Angels, beginning Monday night and wrapping up Wednesday afternoon. They’ll miss reigning 2021 AL MVP Shohei Ohtani, who threw eight innings of one-run ball Saturday, on the mound; they’ll have to face him in the Angels’ lineup still. Ohtani’s “off year” at the plate has him hitting .266 with 30 homers, 20 doubles and six triples. Still, he could do more, writes the Freep’s Carlos Monarrez — such as getting more talented youths to attempt his hitting/pitching double dip. (And then, after a travel day Thursday, the Tigers stop in K.C. for a three-game rematch against the Royals on Friday-Sunday.)

Happy birthday, E Jax!

Former Tigers right-hander (for stints in 2009 and 2019) Edwin Jackson turns 39 on Friday. We hope he’s enjoying the summer, apparently his first without playing baseball since his childhood. His big-league career lasted from 2003-19, with 13 franchises besides the Tigers — the Dodgers, Rays, Diamondbacks with whom he threw a no-hitter in June 2010), White Sox, Cardinals, Nationals, Cubs, Braves, Marlins, Padres, Orioes, Athletics and Blue Jays — giving him 14 teams in all, an MLB record. He attempted to come back with the D’backs in 2020, only to have it derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, then won silver with Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 a few weeks before turning 38.

Other Tigers birthdays this week: Drew Carlton (27 on Thursday).


One final measure of how bad Tigers hitters have been in 2022? Outfielder Austin Meadows, who announced Friday he’d be sitting out the rest of the season for mental health reasons — check out his full statement — has produced the fifth-most WAR among Tigers position players. He hasn’t played a game in the majors since June 15.

Which, OK … but can he play point guard?

Contact Ryan Ford at Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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