Three Tigers topics at the 40 game mark

Bless You Boys

On Wednesday afternoon in Detroit, the Tigers will attempt to run their record to 20-21 with a two-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates. A red hot Eduardo Rodriguez will have the ball, so we can feel good about their chances of winning. Either way, at 40 games the club has survived a rough start to the season to hold second place in the AL Central. We’ll take that happily for now, but over the last few weeks we’ve seen a sustained glimpse of a team that may be quite a bit better than most expected.

There are plenty of different elements to their success, from Rodriguez’s dominant run, to the bullpen’s effectiveness after being almost completely rebuilt from inexpensive parts in the offseason, that we could get into. Will Vest has come up from Toledo and really helped the bullpen. Likewise Andy Ibáñez has been a nice spark for the offense. There’s a novella that could be written on Javy Báez’s season to date. But here I just want to highlight three key points of discussion in the Tigersphere at the moment.

Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson

Probably nothing that happens this season can match up to the importance of Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson taking convincing steps into good hitter territory. We don’t need the world from them all at once, but their progress remains hugely important. Right now, it’s worth remaining a little cautious, but both are showing a lot of good signs right now. With Báez rolling, and enough contributions from Zach McKinstry, Ibáñez, Akil Baddoo, and the catchers, the impact of a few good weeks for Greene and Torkelson is showing up in the win column.

After a rough start, Greene is on fire in May. He’s hitting .383/.420/.553 good for a 174 wRC+ for the month, despite only one home run. That isn’t remotely sustainable based on his batting average on balls in play, which is at .500 a month. Greene will need to start putting balls in the seats more often to sustain above average production, let alone that 174 wRC+ on the month, but for now, he’s spraying the ball around with authority and getting rewarded.

Progress is progress, and we can hope that the power flexes a little more as the weather warms up. For now Greene is still putting the ball on the ground far too much to expect this to continue, but even when things cool off he’s doing enough right to be a stable contributor. With his power, eventually more balls will find their way into the seats.

On the Torkelson side of things, the approach continues to look superior, so while the production isn’t nearly as good on the month, it appears a lot more sustainable as well. He holds a .283/.327/.435 line, and a 112 wRC+ in May. His BABIP is a modest .324, which seems very reasonable considering that he continues to punish the baseball and has only struck out 16 percent of the time for the month.

Again, more dingers please. There’s just no way around it. The encouraging thing is that both young hitters have been productive, and the Tigers have won a fairly surprising number of games over the past few weeks partly as a result. Tork looks like he can continue to produce at this level, and while Greene will regress, he looks like he can still slot in with Torkelson as a better than average, if not yet fully formed, major league hitter. The power is going to have to show up more for both to become a force, but they’re plenty of signs of settling in as steady run producers. Presumably, but not certainly, there’s more to come for both.

Despite the recent success, the Tigers’ offense is still held together by some tenuous threads. With Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop, Matt Vierling, and Nick Maton virtually non-existent offensively over the past few weeks, it’s pretty incredible that they’ve managed to piece things together over this 9-4 run since May 1. The Tigers can look forward to the return of Kerry Carpenter and the eventual arrival of prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy to help boost the offense, but they can’t go on much longer without getting a lot more production out of those four roster spots. Particularly with the matchup heavy, use everyone style of offense they’re trying to run.

Justyn-Henry Malloy

The calls for third base prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy continue to grow louder, particularly after he cracked a few more home runs last weekend. With the Tigers sitting here in second place, and holding too many non-contributors on the roster at the moment, it’s hard to resist the temptation to plug him into the DH slot and give him a few starts at third base per week even if things are still a little sketchy defensively.

Typically, you want to be cautious with a player like Malloy. He’s a below average defender at third, and theoretically you’d want to give him as much time and attention possible to improve there. He only reached the Double-A level back on July 17 of last year. It’s worth remembering than he’s 23 years old and has less than 450 plate appearances above A-ball. It’s understandable that the Tigers wouldn’t be in a rush.

On the other hand, his OBP hasn’t been below .400 since Low-A ball and he’s been flexing the home run power this season with the Toledo Mud Hens. In 38 games he has seven home runs and a Ted Williams level on base percentage of .455. There’s no denying that he’s polished and handling successive levels of pitching without too much trouble. He’s been on a fantastic trajectory as a hitter over the past year and at some point, the Tigers are going to call him up.

Malloy still has a few weaknesses as a hitter, but they’ve narrowed to the point that Triple-A pitchers aren’t going to test them too much longer. If he was a strong third baseman he might be getting the call already. But considering the way the Tigers are using their lineup, maybe his defense doesn’t matter so much in the end. When his time comes, Malloy is going to be a bat first player anyway. With a mix of DH days, some left field, and some days in a pinch-hitting role, they can potentially get plenty of offense from him without having to run him out at third base every day. For now, giving him those consistent reps makes sense, but his actual major league role probably isn’t going to be a simple matter of plugging him in at third base full-time.

We’ll be very interested to see how this offense looks with Malloy in the mix, and Kerry Carpenter healed up. It’s certainly possible they can give the team an offensive boost in June, and it’s getting harder to see the Tigers waiting much longer than that to shake up their roster with Malloy and try to keep their winning ways going.

Michael Lorenzen

If we’d asked which of the Tigers’ starters would step up as the number two man to Eduardo Rodriguez’s top spot, right-hander Michael Lorenzen wouldn’t have been a popular choice a month ago. And yet he’s dominated over his few starts, playing a key part in putting together this 9-4 run in May.

The veteran has been trying to return to a starter’s role for a couple seasons now, most recently with the Los Angeles Angels last year. With the Tigers he finally looks like he may be able to stick in a rotation for years to come. He certainly has a deep enough mix of pitches to do it. But his improvements this season have come more from a few changes in stuff and pitch mix than any kind of major overhaul.

With the Tigers, Lorenzen is leaning into his fourseam fastball and getting almost two inches more ride on it than last year. The fourseam velocity is also a tick higher than last season. He’s also using his slider more and getting two extra inches of drop on it compared to his work with the Angels last season.

Simplifying his repertoire to the fourseam fastball and changeup, with the occasional slider, is working really well for him against left-handers. Against right-handers he’s still using the sinker and the sweeper more, along with the slider, while throwing the fourseamer less.

The strikeouts are still lagging for him, but his command has been pretty sharp. His walk rate is very low, sitting at 6.4 percent, and his strike percentage is quite a bit higher than usual. The Tigers catchers have also helped him rack up a really good number of called strikes so far.

Lorenzen typically has a lot of different pitches he can work with. Perhaps too many. He’s also had a lot of different coaching staffs from his time with the Cincinnati Reds, where they seemed to try a whole new set of coaches every year, to the Angels last season. A little stability and a consistent approach might be good for him.

We’ll have to see how this all settles over the next month, but for now there are some pretty interesting signs from Michael Lorenzen. His recent pace is probably unsustainable, and there’s a long history behind him arguing that he’s not really a full-time starting pitcher, but he’s made some specific changes to his pitches and to the mix he’s throwing. There are tangible changes that are clearly working for him right now. If he can keep it going, we’ll be debating trading or extending him two months from now.

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