Mark Canha should stabilize the Tigers offense in 2024

Bless You Boys

The Tigers began their offseason maneuvering by trading for veteran outfielder Mark Canha from the Milwaukee Brewers. The move was well-received in the immediate aftermath of the trade, and then promptly fell out of the conversation around Detroit. Far from being a shiny new toy, Canha has been in the league since 2015 and is a known quantity in his steady, low key role. But it would be a mistake to take his presence on the team for granted.

The Brewers traded for Canha as they geared up for a postseason run in the second half of the 2023 season, but it was an open secret that they never planned to pick up his $11.5 million club option as they did a soft reboot for 2024. Scott Harris took advantage of that fact to pick up Canha on the cheap — he cut the line and stopped Canha from going to free agency for the low, low price of a 25-year-old relief arm named Blake Holub. Though Holub is a perfectly fine relief prospect, it’s not much of a return for a steady veteran. The deal was able to get done because the Brewers had no leverage and needed to overhaul their payroll under their new leadership. They were happy to get something in a deal instead of nothing by declining his option.

For a Tigers administration that values positional flexibility and intelligent at-bats, there’s hardly a better player to scoop from the bargain bin than Canha. He plays corner outfield and first base, giving AJ Hinch the freedom to rotate Kerry Carpenter, Spencer Torkelson, Canha, and Riley Greene through the designated hitter spot to lighten their workload. Hinch has been open about his intent to use a number of players as the DH, and Canha allows him to do that without cross-training a light hitting utility player at first base or leaning on Justyn-Henry Malloy to smoothly transition to the majors in an immediate regular role.

There are few cooler hands in the west than Canha when he steps into the batter’s box. He’s a tough out because he bucks the trend of extreme strikeout rates. Last year, in his age 34 season, he struck out just 9.4 percent of the time, compared to a lofty 15.7 percent walk rate. Almost no one can boast either the feel to walk so often or contact skills to strikeout to infrequently, let alone both.

Interestingly, the anatomy of his plate discipline is changing, and not in the way I expected for a player who just posted the best walk rate of his career.

Like everyone else in baseball, four seam fastballs make up about half the pitches Canha sees in a given year. The exact number fluctuates from season to season, but not enough to be statistically relevant. Since his breakout season in 2018, his first positive-fWAR year in the majors, Canha has swung at only 22.8 percent of four seamers outside of the zone. Move the data set to begin in 2019, when he apparently decided he would simply no longer reach on heaters and cut that rate nearly in half from the previous year, and you get a composite 21.5 percent.

Take a look at how that data has trended in the past three seasons, though.

Canha results vs. four seam fastballs

Year O-Swing% O-Contact% K%
Year O-Swing% O-Contact% K%
2021 18.00% 61.10% 20.90%
2022 23.20% 71.00% 23.20%
2023 30.50% 75.90% 13.60%

As you can see, the number of times Canha has swung on a fastball outside the strike zone has skyrocketed recently. For the vast majority of other players, that would have been the takeaway — a shrug and another player in the back half of his thirties losing his edge. For this pillar of plate discipline, though, it was worth trying to connect a few more dots. With the rest of the data above in mind, I suspect it was a conscious choice on the part of Canha to start offering on outside fastballs again.

Clearly, he has the ability to read the ball and judge the zone. By deliberately swinging at more fastballs outside the zone because he knows he can connect with them, he neutralizes nibbling as a weapon in the opposing pitcher’s bag and forces them to beat him with a breaking ball or challenge him in the zone. The steep decline in strikeouts on at-bats that ended with a four seamers is an indication that the plan bore fruit.

Chicks, as they say, dig the longball, and so does every other sports analyst and fan out there. That’s not something Canha provides in high quantity any more (his season-high was 24 dingers in 2019 and he hit only 11 of them last year) but I don’t really care that his power production is somewhat limited.

The Tigers offense was a deeply frustrating bunch in 2023. They often seemed rudderless and, until the end of the season when Spencer Torkelson, Kerry Carpenter, and Andy Ibanez all caught fire at the same time, without anyone to turn to when they started skidding. With Canha on the squad, they’ve added a player with one of the most slump-resistant profiles out there. He’s reportedly a reserved personality, but his steadying force in the lineup will be impossible to overlook.

On the final year of his contract, Canha isn’t a long-term addition for the Tigers, but he’s just right for the job they have in mind. He’s a sturdy buttress for an inexperienced team as they enter a season with a real chance to contend for the division.

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