On the surface, fixing the many things that ailed the 2022 Detroit Tigers offense seems a truly Herculean labor. New President of Baseball Ops, Scott Harris, isn’t a superhero, and we’re going to proceed from the notion that getting the club to the playoffs won’t be a one year project. Still, the Tigers’ 2022 record doesn’t mean that fans should have zero expectations for the 2023 season.
Certainly much is going to revolve around players Harris has inherited. If Spencer Torkelson, Javier Báez, Austin Meadows, and Riley Greene aren’t a much more potent force in the lineup next season, the Tigers are going to be dead in the water. That doesn’t excuse Harris from making substantial upgrades this offseason, despite the knowledge that the team will probably let 2023 play out before we can start seriously considering major free agents or true blockbuster deals.
The 2022 Tigers were pretty ill-fated. Significantly improving one of the worst offenses in the franchise’s history is not much of an ask for the 2023 season. Getting them to the point where they’re a threat to anyone in the division is going to take the aforementioned players performing and a lot more. We’ll have to see just how ambitious Chris Ilitch and Harris are going to be this offseason.
As we get into the offseason we’ll start talking about specific players, but right now it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees, thinking that this player or that player is the problem or the solution. For now, let’s just step back from individual players and start by looking at the key traits of the 2022 offense that need to be seriously improved next season. That should give us a general profile to guide our search for trades or free agents to help get the franchise’s offense back on track.
The principles Harris and A.J. Hinch has espoused since his hiring will have to soak into every part of the organization, from the international scouts sifting though players still in their early teens, all the way to building a culture of constant improvement and innovation at the major league level. It will take some time until the entire organization from the Dominican Summer League teams all the way to the major league club develops into a full expression of the traits Harris wants to see on the field.
Harris: "I think the goal is to create a collection of position players that fit together that give A.J. (Hinch) a bunch of options to create a dynamic lineup against every starter that we face across 162 (games)." https://t.co/QzhMTjgH1x— Evan Woodbery (@evanwoodbery) November 8, 2022
Strike zone discipline
First and foremost, additions to the Tigers’ lineup will presumably be better at controlling the strike zone. Whether we’re talking replacing an infielder, and outfielder, a role player, or a catcher, it’s pretty clear they’re going to try and target guys who don’t chase pitches and post consistently solid on base percentages. Hinch has emphasized the concept since he arrived, but didn’t really have the lineup to do it, and Harris from day one established it as his central tenet in building a major league roster. This is something the Tigers have only recently begun doing a better job valuing in their drafts, and it remains lacking at the major league level.
The 2022 Tigers held the worst chase rate in the league. They have the third highest swinging strike rate and are 25th in contact percentage, largely as a result of their free swinging ways. If there’s one thing we’re counting on with the new Harris regime, it’s a renewed emphasis on plate discipline at every level, from the draft to acquisitions via trade, to free agent signings and waiver claims.
From an organizational standpoint, this isn’t going to be fixed overnight either. Many teams in baseball have the sense to hunt hitters with good discipline, but for much of Al Avila’s tenure, the Tigers just didn’t seem to emphasize plate discipline in drafting hitters. They did better the past few seasons, but it still isn’t a trait found in abundance throughout the farm system. Prospects like Colt Keith, Cristian Santana, Izaac Pacheco, and Parker Meadows may be on the cusp of turning that around, but it’s a long-term project. At the major league level, expect this to be a consistent theme among Harris’ acquisitions this offseason.
One of the simple answers to the question of why the 2022 team was so atrocious at scoring runs, is that they simply could not hit right-handed pitching. The Tigers as a team posted a 74 wRC+ against right-handers this season. The next worse number in the league is the Colorado Rockies 80 wRC+ mark. Considering that roughly 70 percent of pitchers in the game are right-handed, and even a higher percentage of AL Central starters in 2022, that’s a pretty big problem.
The Tigers as a club posted an abysmal .277 on-base percentage against right-handed pitching and a feeble .110 isolated power mark. Obviously, if you can’t get on base and you don’t hit for power, you’re going to be terrible, and they were. The simplest way to improve the 2022 model would’ve been to add some left-handed hitters who could get on base and hit for something close to average power.
Of course, Robbie Grossman and Jeimer Candelario were supposed to be those guys and both failed miserably. Candelario posted a .272 OBP, a .135 ISO, and 75 wRC+ against right-handed pitching this year. Grossman’s numbers were far worse and didn’t really improve with the Atlanta Braves either.
The fact that Riley Greene got injured meant he really only got his feet wet this season rather than having a few months to figure it out and a few more to really settle in and show what he’s capable of doing. Greene’s injury led the Tigers quite rightly to try and balance things out by bringing in another quality left-handed hitter in Austin Meadows. That obviously went nowhere, as Meadows barely played this season. Kerry Carpenter and Akil Baddoo may be able to pitch in against right-handers next season, but both have a lot to prove.
The Tigers didn’t exactly crush left-handed pitching either, but they did post a combined 100 wRC+ in 2022; exactly league average. With 1463 plate appearances against lefties, and 4215 plate appearances against righties, the importance of correcting these splits is pretty obvious and admittedly, not that useful. Saying a team can’t hit right-handed pitching isn’t too much different from simply saying they can’t hit, but it is still worth noting as a probable point of emphasis as we look to potential trades and free agent additions this offseason.
Struggles with velocity
Ok, so the Tigers have been awful against right-handed pitching, but that just goes hand in hand with any bad offense. Now we’re about to start getting somewhere. Which teams hit velocity well? Let’s take a look at how teams fared against fastballs 95 mph or faster this season. I’ve just listed the top 10 by wOBA, with the Tigers at the bottom in 30th place.
Team wOBA vs. Velocity
|Team||wOBA||ISO||Total Runs Scored|
|Team||wOBA||ISO||Total Runs Scored|
The Nationals and the Royals illustrate that there is more to run scoring than hitting high velocity fastballs, but most teams that can hit good fastballs and have excellent plate discipline will score plenty of runs. It’s hard to conceive of a successful postseason run against the gauntlet of hard-throwing relievers top teams are deploying without the ability to handle the heat. Certainly some top offenses, like the Astros, tend to feast on breaking balls more than others, but they still are plenty competent against good velocity. The Tigers aren’t going to become the Dodgers or the Braves next season, but they certainly can’t be last in wOBA, fourth from last in isolated power against higher velocity fastballs, and expect to have much improvement.
Of course, we also have to point out that the Tigers were at the bottom of the league in hitting breaking balls and offspeed as well. The 2022 Tigers’ offense was uniquely terrible in most respects. But of course we could look at the bright side and note that opportunities for huge improvements are ample. However, you have to start from the fastball. With teams throwing more and more breaking balls of nastier and nastier quality, having good discipline and hitting fastballs well while looking to ambush the odd hanger has to be a starting point when identifying hitters to acquire.
So now we have two things that have to be addressed in any additions and replacements made to the Tigers position player group next season. They may not be in a position to add a pair of really good, complete hitters into the lineup this offseason. But certainly a disciplined left-handed hitter with power who is good against high velocity heat would be in order.
Assuming they’re piecing something together out of platoon players rather than shocking us with some star additions, they could also try composing a bench with more specific skills, adding hitters who are distinctly good hitting certain types of fastballs or breaking balls, and give AJ Hinch some more detailed matchup options, and perhaps the sum will be greater than the parts. They just can’t have a lineup full of free-swinging players who are eaten alive by good fastballs. You’re handing a major league pitcher an easy button that way.
In Comerica Park, you need players that pull the ball in the air to hit home runs. Pretty simple. Home runs aren’t everything, but there’s still a baseline amount of them you need to have a successful offense. The Tigers for years have emphasized an up the middle approach, but finding guys who can use the whole field consistently and still hit for power just isn’t that easy. If Harris can find a prime Miguel Cabrera or J.D. Martinez, more power to him. But keeping expectations in line with the likely reality, looking for hitters who pull the ball in the air a lot but play in parks with deeper fences than Comerica to the pull fields, might be a way to find some untapped power potential at a discount.
Take advantage of the new rules
Now lets talk speed and special teams. With the diminished distance between the new larger bases coming in 2023, there is an opportunity for some teams to run wild next year. One of the reasons Akil Baddoo seems to me a lock to stick around, is that beyond hopes for the 23-year-old to ultimately hit enough to play full-time, his value even just as a weapon off the bench to steal bases and wreak havoc is going to be enhanced. The Tigers could use another high speed weapon to go with him. If they could find that in a speedy utility player who gets on base and plays good defense, that could certainly be useful enough to roster even if they lack power.
Another reason to focus on speed is the recent addition of a special teams game in baseball. The Manfred man rule, with a runner starting on second base in extra innings, doesn’t appear to be going away. The Tigers played nine extra innings game this season, but that was a pretty low number leaguewide. Over eight percent of major league games have gone to extra innings since 2017. A team that can find players to give them specific edges under the unique conditions 13 or 14 games will end under each season, would seem to have a distinct advantage. Consistently having a player you can pinch run in extra innings at second with the ability to credibly threaten stealing third base, while stressing out the opposing pitcher and catcher, could be an advantage that could help win an extra game or two.
The league is clearly trying to force a little more speed and small ball back into the game, like it or not. The increased base size and the pitch clock probably won’t have massive effects on the game overall. They haven’t changed things that radically in the minor leagues to date, but winning games at the major league level is a different beast. Adding speed and trying to find a specialist or two to give them an edge under the extra innings rule would be advisable.
Working the profile
Based on all these elements, we can see all the specific ways in which the offense needs to improve. Harris and the Tigers probably won’t be able to find the players they’d like who fit the description right away. Ideally we’re looking for good defenders with excellent plate discipline and power, who hit velocity well, with a bit of a bias toward adding a left-handed bat to the 2023 lineup. Unless they’re shelling out money for Brandon Nimmo and a top infielder such as Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogearts, or Dansby Swanson, and they presumably aren’t going to do any of that, Harris will have to be creative in the short term. Long term, look for these traits to form the basis of everything the Tigers are looking to build offensively.
One of the first players to come to mind who fits the bill is Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe. He has good discipline, he pulls the ball in the air a lot, he hits velocity well, and he’s left-handed. It’s not a perfect fit, as the Tigers have a second baseman under contract and would ideally be finding younger players than Lowe with these skillsets, but they aren’t going to find perfect solutions right away without Chris Ilitch authorizing far more spending than seems likely.
The Rays tend to get itchy to trade players like Lowe as they start to get a little more expensive, so perhaps Lowe is an option. On the other hand, the Rays are going to want a pretty healthy return for him, and we don’t know how aggressive Harris might be in trading prospects right out of the gate. For now, Lowe is just a good example of the type of player they should pursue without having to break the bank, so think along those lines as you’re looking for offseason targets. Ryan McMahon of the Rockies could be a realistic option instead, though the length of the 27-year-old infielder’s deal (2022-2027) will make him both inexpensive in trade, but more of a long-term move.
Add a player like that, improve at catcher, add a little more pitching, and the Tigers would be a lot better for it in 2023. Long-term, valuing these traits at every level of the organization is the path toward acquiring and developing better hitters who have the skills to succeed in October.