Detroit Tigers Newsletter: Let’s just make it to mid-May before judging this team

Detroit Free Press

Thank Ramón Urías.

Without the 28-year-old infielder’s bases-loaded double for Baltimore in the third inning Saturday night — which resulted in a four-run loss for the Detroit Tigers — you might be reading right now about the oddity that would be a team having lost four straight games by one run apiece. (That’s really hard to do; the Tigers franchise’s longest streak of one-run losses is five, suffered in June 1973.)

Those four consecutive losses arrived this week after three straight one-run victories, meaning, if you were inclined to squint at the Tigers’ first 20 games in search of some encouraging signs — and we mean really squint, like you’re double-checking the fine print on the opt-out clause in your Tigers fandom — you might be able to tell yourself a week full of one-run games means this 7-13 squad is about to turn it around.

And, shucks, it might be. Then again, last season’s Tigers started 7-13, too; they then lost 10 of the next 12 to sink to a 9-24 start that scuttled the hope engendered by their strong 2021 finish. Y’know, the finish that came after a … 7-13 start, followed by a 2-11 stretch that dropped the Tigers to a 9-24 record through the first week of May. Yes, it’s now three straight years with a 7-13 start, after just three such starts in the 40 previous seasons. What’s the old saying? “Fool me once, shame on me; fool me twice, shame on you; fool me thrice, I’m probably a Tiger trying to hit a sinker.”

SWINGIN’: Here’s why Spencer Torkelson is swinging more, walking less in 2023

Hello, and welcome to the 7-13 Split Newsletter!

The Tigers’ problems this season certainly haven’t been unexpected. They didn’t hit last year, and then swapped out nearly half the starting lineup going into this season. Likewise, their biggest offseason moves featured shipping proven bullpen arms (well, semi-proven, depending on your view of Joe Jiménez) to contenders for young position players, and, sure enough, the Tigers’ 4.54 bullpen ERA is among the bottom third in the majors. And yet, there have still been a few unexpected statistical oddities — a few fluky numbers poking out of this season’s start. Here’s a few of our favorites:

Least of the East

We knew entering the season that the schedule was stacked against the Tigers, with all but three of their first 39 games coming against teams with winning records in 2022. That was partially due to an American League East-centric March and April: Of the Tigers’ 20 games, 12 have come against the only division to produce four teams with at least 83 wins last season. (Making it doubly weird: As best as we can tell, no other team has even played 10 games against AL East foes, including the AL East teams themselves. A quick history lesson: The Tigers spent three decades in the AL East before getting shuffled to the AL Central by MLB’s expansion in 1998.)

And sure enough, the Tigers have gone 1-11 in those 12 (with sweeps by Tampa Bay, Boston and, yep, Baltimore). The bad news? The Tigers STILL have 20 games remaining against the AL East, including four this weekend against the Orioles. The good news? The Tigers are 6-2 against non-AL East teams, and they still have 122 games against them. We’re not suggesting that .750 winning percentage against MLB’s five other divisions will hold up — that would result in a 90-win season, somehow. But if we can just make it to mid-May, the Tigers should get to feast on a 10-game stretch (from May 19-28) featuring the Washington Nationals, Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox, who have a combined .292 winning percentage (19-46).

Starting off on the wrong foot

Once again, the Tigers are last in runs per game — at an even 3.00, they’re more than a quarter of a run worse than No. 29, the Miami Marlins — and in OPS (.596, 10 points behind No. 29, the Royals). There are several reasons for the lack of scoring, but it starts at the top — as in the top of the order: The .427 OPS — just a reminder that that’s OBP and SLG combined — by Tigers leadoff hitters (Akil Baddoo, Nick Maton, Zach McKinstry and Matt Vierling, thus far) is also dead last and 130 points worse than No. 29, the Colorado Rockies.

How bad is it? That .427 mark is nearly 300 points worse than the league average. Tigers’ leadoff hitters struggled last season, as well; their .617 OPS ranked 28th. But that was still less than 100 points off the league average. It’s early still, but if the Tigers’ leadoff hitters don’t improve, they could become just the third big-league group of leadoff hitters since 1901 with a sub-.500 OPS, following the 1933 St. Louis Browns (.495) and the 1969 San Diego Padres (.489).

Left behind

Another area of concern — the Tigers’ performance against left-handed pitchers. Their .559 OPS vs. lefties was, yep, last in the majors: 26 points behind No. 29, the Milwaukee Brewers (good news for Monday’s starter, Matthew Boyd, we suppose) and more than 130 points off the league average OPS of .723. Almost no Tiger is hitting lefties well this season, with the exception of Jake Rogers and his two homers in nine at-bats, but there’s one Tiger who’s a particular surprise: Vierling.

The right-hander came over from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Gregory Soto deal with a track record of producing against southpaws; last season, he posted a .760 OPS against lefties (with an awful .580 off righties). Perfect platoon material, right? In another good news/bad news scenario, Vierling’s OPS against righties is actually outpacing that vs. lefties by nearly 300 points … but that’s because he has just a .417 OPS against left-handers.

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Tork torques his torque

Of course, not all the stats for the Tigers are bad. No, really! Take Spencer Torkelson, who’s making solid contact consistently, thanks to a new approach at the place. Tork’s “barrel percentage” — the percentage of times he connects with the ball “with the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle,” according to MLB’s Statcast service — is up to 10.7% (rom 8.4% last season) and ranks in the top 30% of big-league hitters. So what’s his secret? Head here to get the details from the Freep’s Evan Petzold, who notes Torkelson is finally making solid contact with fastballs.

A howling good time

Then again, sometimes baseball isn’t all about the numbers. That’s the conclusion the Freep’s Jeff Seidel drew from the Tigers’ five-game winning streak that culminated in a doubleheader sweep of the Cleveland Guardians on Tuesday. Sometimes, it’s all about attitude, or, if you will, the bark in the park. Especially when it comes to Nick Maton and his inspirational sounds. (Head here to get that story.)

E-Rod goes electric

Another pleasant surprise this month? Dominating performances by Eduardo Rodriguez against the Guardians and Orioles. The Tigers left-hander will take a 17-inning scoreless streak into his next start (Friday in Detroit against Baltimore) thanks to Sunday’s outing, in which he retired the first 20 batters he faced. Our Man Petzold has the story on why that run at perfection was different from Rodriguez’s prior shots at no-hitters. Head here to check it out.

3 to watch

The Tigers also have some youngsters looking to establish themselves still:

JASON FOLEY: Find out why the right-handed reliever takes to mound to the Tigers fan’s anthem: “Baby, don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me. No more.

TYLER NEVIN: He swings at pitches in the zone. He lays off those outside the zone. So why doesn’t he have more hits?

WILL VEST: After looking lost in spring training, the hard-throwing righty put it together in a sudden call-up this week.

Happy birthday, Zach!

Infielder (and Central Michigan alumnus) Zach McKinstry turns 28 on Saturday, but he hit a much bigger milestone on Saturday night: He became the first Tiger to homer since Spencer Torkelson (and Riley Greene) came up with their hockey-themed home run celebration. And so, last Saturday night in Baltimore, McKinstry returned from circling the bases to be handed a hockey helmet and stick in the dugout, where he mimed taking a slapshot. Head here to check out the whole routine. (McKinstry, by the way, has been quietly heating up for the Tigers, going 5-for-12 with two homers and a double to raise his OPS from .501 to .797 entering Monday’s game in Milwaukee.)

Other Tigers birthdays this week: Willi Castro (26 on Monday), Todd Jones (55 on Monday), Daniel Norris (30 on Tuesday), Jacque Jones (48 on Tuesday), Tony Phillips (would have turned 64 on Tuesday; died in 2016), Felipe Lira (51 on Wednesday), Virgil Trucks (would have turned 106 on Wednesday; died in 2013).

Mark your calendar

After throwing lefty Matthew Boyd against the non-lefty-hitting Brewers tonight, the Tigers will send two righties to the mound in Spencer Turnbull and Michael Lorenzen on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Both have been learning on the job this month; for Turnbull, it has been about finding “a different type of patience,” according to Our Man Petzold, as he works on recovering from 2021’s elbow surgery. For Lorenzen, on the other hand, it’s about keeping it simple and attacking the strike zone. Head here to find out how he did it against the Orioles.

TL;DR

Also struggling against lefties? Javier Báez, with a .437 OPS, but we’re just about up to our “Báez struggles” quota for the month. We’ll have to check back in May.

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

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