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First quarter 2021 review: This isn’t working!

With another 100+ loss season on tap, Tigers’ rebuild is off track

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Chris Ilitch era of ownership of the Detroit Tigers continues to try the patience of Tigers’ fans as the team enters its’ fifth season since Mike Ilitch passed in February, 2017. The lack of spending on quality major league free agent players (including their home grown players), the absence of quality additions through trades or the international market, and the lack of development of talent through the organization, have added up to yet another season where the Tigers are the worst team in major league baseball.

After 40 games, the 2021 Tigers rank last in the American league in offense (runs scored) and second last in team pitching (ERA). The result is a team that is on pace to lose 105 games over a full season with a current run differential of -69, which is worst in the major leagues by over 20 runs.

What is even more troubling than the lackluster performance of the team on the field in Detroit, is that the outlook for the near future appears to be not much better. There are just too many holes in the roster to fill without a dramatic increase in spending.

Stud pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tark Skubal are in Detroit trying to gain traction, while Matt Manning is held up at Toledo. This serves as a reminder that a top prospect ranking is not an automatic road to success. Nor does it happen quickly, if at all.

Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene provide reason for optimism, but that’s about it for players who project to be better than average at their position in the major leagues. They may find a few good players among the many, but the Tigers’ organization simply lacks the quantity of quality talent to contend any time soon. They will need substantial outside help.

The exercise of breaking down the badness of the Tigers may seem to be an effort in futility but this is what we do after 40 games each season, so here it is:

Before anyone complains about small samples, the team has logged over 1400 plate appearances and pitched over 500 innings, so we have a good idea of the team’s performance based on these numbers. Individual stats are prone to random variation over these small samples, but we can still look for trends through 40 games.

Here is how the Tigers rank in the American League in the major offensive categories after 40 games:

2021 Team Batting Rankings

Metric Value AL Rank
Metric Value AL Rank
Runs per game 3.48 Last
Batting Avg 0.221 12
On base Pct 0.291 12
Slugging Pct 0.355 Last
OPS 0.645 Last
wOBA 0.286 Last
Home Runs 35 Last
WAR -0.7 Last

Offense is down across the major leagues this season, but the numbers that the Tigers’ lineup are posting as a team would be enough to cause any individual player to be released or sent to the minors. They are the only team performing below replacement level, and they are doing so consistently around the diamond at most positions.

Here is a breakdown by position of how the Tigers rank using Weighted On Base Average (wOBA).

2021 Team Batting by Position

Position wOBA Rank
Position wOBA Rank
Catcher 0.297 5
First Base 0.25 13
Second Base 0.285 12
Third Base 0.337 6
Shortstop 0.284 12
Left Field 0.346 2
Right Field 0.246 Last
Designated Hitter 0.267 14

Robbie Grossman stands out as the bright spot in the Tigers’ lineup. They spent a modest sum on a free agent player, and it paid off. Go figure! Jeimer Candelario is again productive after a slow start, and Wilson Ramos was hitting well before he hit the injured list. The rest of the lineup has been missing in action this season. It’s time to move on from so many of the AAAA players that have been inserted to plug holes in the lineup for the past four seasons.

Here is how the Tigers’ starting pitching rotation stacks up in the American League.

2021 Starting Pitching Rankings

Metric Value Rank
Metric Value Rank
Earned Run Average (ERA) 4.04 6
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) 4.38 9
Wins above replacement (fWAR) 2.5 9
Innings per start (IP/GS) 5.02 9
Strikeout ratio (K/9) 6.84 Last
Walks ratio (BB/ 9) 3.31 10
Home Run ratio (HR/ 9) 1.01 4
Walks + Hits ratio (WHIP) 1.28 8
Avg allowed 2.38 6

The Tigers’ starting rotation has been the bright spot on the major league roster this season. With a patchwork of rookies Skubal and Mize, returning veterans Boyd and Turnbull, and a bargain buy in Jose Urena, the Tigers’ rotation has become almost league average, particularly in the area of run prevention.

A noticeable hole in the resume is a plummeting strikeout ratio, but they’re keeping the ball in the yard much better. Of course, the key to future success will be the development of their trio of stud prospects.

Another key to watch this season is whether the Tigers try to sell off players like Turnbull and Boyd for younger (cheaper) talent, or whether they will finally pony up cash to keep some of the few home developed players who produce at the major league level. This is something that they have not done since 2014.

2021 Bullpen Rankings

Pitching Metric Value AL Rank
Pitching Metric Value AL Rank
Earned Run Average (ERA) 6.32 Last
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) 5.39 Last
Wins above replacement (fWAR) -0.7 Last
Save percentage (SV%) 57% 11
Strikeout ratio (K/9) 9.88 6
Walks ratio (BB/ 9) 5.2 Last
Home Run ratio (HR/ 9) 1.84 Last
Walks + Hits ratio (WHIP) 1.7 Last
Batting Avg Allowed 0.275 12

It seemed rather obvious entering last winter that if the Tigers wanted to improve in the win column, a modest investment in the bullpen would help them to collect some low hanging fruit. They made no such investment and they’re now paying the price for it. 10 of 13 Tigers’ relief pitchers have posted 0.0 or below replacement level WAR through 40 games.

The best of the relief corps has been Michael Fulmer, who has a stellar line of 2.25 ERA/ 0.94 WHIP, and 11.25 K/9, for 0.5 fWAR.

The Tigers’ bullpen has eight saves and six blown saves. As hard as it is to score runs, they just have to do better. If a 6.32 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, and 1.84 HR ratio aren’t enough, the mere presence of Joe Jimenez back in the bullpen should enlighten one as to the state of affairs.

Defensively, the Tigers also rank at the bottom of the league. The team is last with -12.7 UZR, and 14th with -22 Defensive Runs Saved. Individual defensive problems around the diamond are too numerous to list here, with no defensive stand outs and posting a negative UZR at every position.

Tigers’ fans can only hope that “the process” of sorting through the pile of failing prospects will soon come to an end, and their owner and general manager will acquire real major league players, which will cost real money. This isn’t working for the fifth year in a row, and the narratives about trusting the rebuild are getting old and tired. A more appropriate motto might be “you get what you pay for”.