The 2016 season was one filled with highs and lows for the Detroit Tigers. There were great moments, followed quickly by heartbreak. Movie-worthy walk-offs were followed by cold streaks where it seemed pitchers couldn’t the zone and hitters bats refused to warm up. The baseball gods were intent on hobbling the Tigers, and injuries took out one major player after another, often losing one the same week another was activated. In the latter half of the season the team was never at full health, and in the end the Tigers couldn’t quite make that final push to the postseason.
But through the whole thing there were some members of the team who stood out as being the biggest help (or hindrance) over the course of the year. There were obvious heroes on the lineup card, and perhaps some equal obvious weak links. Let’s take a look at who helped and who hurt the Tigers the most.
I'm going to dominate soon! I'm close. Doubt me if you want... We'll see. #gotigers— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) May 4, 2016
It was the tweet heard ‘round the Tigers Twitterverse, and Justin Verlander stayed true to his word. After a shaky 2015 season left some wondering if he’d ever come back to his 2011-12 form, he struggled at the offset of 2016. When he told the world on May 3 he would soon be dominant, no one put much stock in it.
In April and May, batters were learning to hold off on him and the numbers showed it. Then things changed. He started to use a cutter, or a cut-slider, but it was a distinctive pitch from his slider both in appearance and velocity — Verlander’s is mid-80s, whereas the cutter could hit 90. It worked well, making hitters start to chase out of the zone again.
Moreover, he showed that he had regained command of his secondary pitches, which was essential because his fastball doesn’t have the same velocity it once did. Verlander, true to his promise, displayed the kind of lights out pitching performance in the second half of the season that has many suggesting there might be a second Cy Young Award in his future.
Michael Fulmer was by far the biggest standout of the Tigers’ 2016 season. Folks assumed he would be brought in for a couple early-season games and then sent down. Shane Greene was heavily favored to be in the Tigers starting rotation, sharing duties with Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez, and Mike Pelfrey (with high hopes for Daniel Norris upon his return from injury). Then here comes this rookie who boggled minds and obliterated expectations.
Fulmer finished his rookie season with an ERA of 3.06 and a 1.12 WHIP, and a real shot at the AL Rookie of the Year Award. On June 1, he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Angels. Had he completed the no-no he would have been only the 12th AL rookie pitcher in MLB history to do so.
The concern with Fulmer is that the Tigers pushed him well beyond anything he experienced innings-wise in the minors, and it began to show later in the season. He appeared more shaky in games on shorter rest, or when he had thrown over 100 pitches in a previous outing. He was given long periods of rest to avoid burnout and limit his innings, but the Tigers will still want to be mindful of his stamina next season.
He should also grow back his beard.
While everyone’s attention was on Fulmer or flashy Miguel Cabrera home runs, Ian Kinsler was quietly having an All-Star season. So quietly, in fact, barely any Tigers fans bothered to vote for him on the ballot (A DFA’d Omar Infante got more love from Royals fans than Kinsler did).
Kinsler was a work horse for the Tigers, missing only eight games, the bulk of those as a result of concussion symptoms from a Trevor Bauer pitch to the head. He tied Miguel Cabrera for plate appearances. Kinsler’s OPS was .831, and he netted 83 RBI for the season. He was also the only player (aside from Cameron Maybin) to be reliably aggressive on the basepaths, with 14 stolen bases attempts for the season.
Kinsler turned some truly magnificent double-plays alongside Jose Iglesias, and regularly made the impossible look routine in the field, proving his value went well beyond his bat power. This season also marked Kinsler’s 200th career home run and his first grand slam. If he can find a way to improve his performance with right-handed pitchers (his wOBA against righties was .348 compared to .380 against lefties), his numbers could be remarkable in 2017.
And who could forget this genius moment?
After losing Max Scherzer to the Washington Nationals, picking up one of the Nats’ other pitchers seemed like something of a coup. The Tigers signed Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million deal, hoping he would be the ideal No. 2 starter in their rotation. For the first six weeks of the regular season it seemed as if they had more than gotten their money’s worth. Zimmermann won AL Pitcher of the Month for April with a stunning 0.55 ERA, and then faced off against Scherzer in an unforgettable pitchers duel on May 11 in Washington.
Then, everything collapsed. Zimmermann’s ERA steadily bloated, ending the season at 4.87. He missed all of July before being rushed back too soon, in a floundering August 4 start. He missed almost another five weeks after that. When he returned on September 10, he once again gave up six runs in one inning. His command and confidence were both gone, and it showed. He did not last more than four innings in any outing after that.
What makes this pill even harder to swallow is, with only 19 games pitched, Zimmermann earned $1.16 million for each of those abysmal starts. He was, without a doubt, the biggest disappointment in the Tigers rotation. The team is hoping the 2016 season was a fluke, and a well rested Zimmermann will be returning to the team for spring training.
To say Anibal Sanchez had a troubling performance in 2015 is being polite. To say the same of 2016 would almost be too kind. After a dismal start to the season he was shipped down to the bullpen, which was where he should have stayed for the remainder of the year. However, injuries to Zimmermann and Daniel Norris meant Brad Ausmus had no choice but to return Sanchez to the rotation.
Sanchez posted a career-high 5.87 ERA, gave up 30 home runs, and allowed 100 runs to score. Despite these dismal numbers, Sanchez pitched in 35 games between relief and starting, the most he’s ever played in a single season. Sanchez’s numbers had tanked, but a taxed pitching staff often left Ausmus with no other options, and this over-reliance undoubtedly hurt the Tigers in the long run.
This was not the Sanchez of 2013, and it remains to be seen if the issues hindering him have any hope of being resolved. In the meantime, if the Tigers keep him on the team, expect to see him moved to the the bullpen in 2017.
Mark Lowe was the white flag of the Tigers bullpen, typically brought in during low leverage situations when it didn’t matter whether or not he imploded. Midway through the season, it seemed impossible to believe he could be called on to pitch without giving up any runs. Lowe had a 7.11 ERA and gave up 57 hits in 54 games, allowing 41 runs to score. He was at his worst through May and June, with his ERA bloating over 10. He couldn’t quite manage to overcome that in spite of improved control and better numbers through August and September. It was clear he could not be relied upon in clutch situations, when the stress seemed to obliterate his command.
If Ausmus wants to use Lowe going forward, the keys seem to be:
- Avoid using him in day games
- Never use him with the bases loaded
- Focus on him versus lefties in low-leverage situations.
Ideally, if Lowe is going to remain in the ‘pen for 2017, he should only be used situationally and not for full innings of relief, where he often struggled to get through three batters without allowing anyone on base.