Most observant baseball fans are well aware that early season samples rarely turn out to represent a full season, but it’s worth considering the sluggish Detroit Tigers’ offense thus far. Despite the Tigers delivering a 13-0 shellacking of the Colorado Rockies during Miguel Cabrera’s 3000 hit game on Saturday, they are currently near the bottom of the pack. The Tigers are 23rd in runs scored per game, with 3.53, so it’s not quite as bad as it’s looked at times, particularly with scoring down across the game so far this season. The club just hasn’t put it together at the plate for multiple games in a row, and they’ve frustrated by wasting surprisingly strong efforts from a pitching staff beset by injuries through 15 games.
However, not only is it far too early to start worrying overmuch, but there is another major factor to consider. As of Monday morning, the league scoring average was just 4.02. Were that mark to hold up all season long, it would be the lowest mark since 1976. This despite the designated hitter now in the National League. The 2021 Detroit Tigers scored 4.30 runs per game, and finished tied with Seattle for 22nd in the league, for example.
The Tigers’ offense has clearly got to be better than this if they want a shot at the postseason. But with run scoring down all over, it’s more a matter of winning those close games than the fact that the club is unique in getting off to a slow start. The Tigers probably aren’t one of the better offensive units in the game, but they’re going to have their hot stretches, and in Torkelson and hopefully Riley Greene along the way, there is at least the possibility that this becomes a much scarier offense to face by the time summer arrives.
Right now, it’s really too early for in depth breakdowns of individual hitters, but we can identify a few of the early season laggards and briefly look under the hood. We’ll also identify the single key flaw in the offense so far and why there is good reason to believe things will turn in the Tigers’ favor over time.
More dingers please
Since this is all prone to sample size madness this early in the season, let just keep it simple. We’ll start with the FIP components for hitters too. Strikeouts, walks, and home runs, are the three basic elements. Those three statistics tell you pretty quickly how well you’re putting the ball in play, getting on base, and hitting for power. We’ll explore quality of contact, matchup strengths and weaknesses and the rest once the season is a good bit further along.
Right now, the Tigers’ offense holds a 94 wRC+, ranking them the 19th best offense in baseball. That’s maybe a little better than you would have guessed but not at all good. In terms of strikeouts? The Tigers are right in the middle of the pack, tied for 16th lowest strikeout rate with the New York Yankees at 23.5 percent. The Tigers have the seventh best walk rate among MLB offenses at 10.2 percent, which is a sight for sore eyes considering how many years we’ve watched Tigers teams fail to display much plate discipline. However, the Tigers are second to last in home runs, with only seven so far, and that, dear readers, we did not expect entering the season.
So far, Austin Meadows, Spencer Torkelson, Robbie Grossman, Javy Báez, Miguel Cabrera, Tucker Barnhart, Victor Reyes, and Harold Castro have all produced well above average wRC+ marks. Obviously several of the bench players only have a handful of full games played, so this is all extremely preliminary, but individually most of the Tigers’ hitters have been productive. Fundamentally they just haven’t hit enough home runs, and they haven’t hit enough home runs with runners on base.
There isn’t a whole lot to see among that group in terms of outrageous strikeout or walk numbers that are likely to swing heavily back the other way. Torkelson should strike out less than his current 30.9 percent mark as the season progresses. Austin Meadows and Javy Báez will strike out more than they have so far. Overall, things look pretty good in terms of getting on-base and putting the ball in play. It just hasn’t translated to runs the way it should. There are a few hitters who’ve really struggled to get it going, but overall the Tigers just expect more home run production and hope to keep doing a good job of getting on base when the power shows up.
As for the three hitters scuffling badly, namely Jonathan Schoop, Akil Baddoo, and Jeimer Candelario, there is obviously bad batted ball luck involved. All three show no sign of weakness in their strikeout or walk rates. They just haven’t made as much good contact and they’re getting BABID’d to death a bit right now.
Without something eye-popping in their strikeout rates, there’s just no point worrying about Schoop and Candelario. Neither is a consistent force at the plate, but they’re clearly going to be better as we go along.
If there’s one hitter to be a little concerned about, it’s probably Baddoo. Obviously he has the shortest track record of good production, and, rather incredibly, is still only 498 plate appearances removed from his A-ball days. Despite his excellent rookie campaign, it’s worth remembering that he’s still a very inexperienced hitter in some ways. Still, he’s striking out and walking at roughly the same rates as he did last season. The real culprit has been both a lack of hard hit balls, and, like Candelario, trading line drives for routinely hit fly balls and pop-ups early on. So far, Baddoo has also chased balls out of the zone a little more than he did last year, and has an uptick in his swinging strike rate to go along with it.
Because of his limited track record and youth, Baddoo will bear watching in particular, but it’s guaranteed that all three will be much more productive than they’ve been so far. Some of the early success from other players will fade. Everything finds its level eventually. If you find yourself worrying over how certain players have looked at the plate thus far, that’s normal. Just remember that with so few games played at this point, one home run or multi-hit game can completely flip their season numbers.
The real issue for the team so far is pretty simple. They just haven’t mashed enough dingers.
The Tigers added Javier Báez, Austin Meadows, and Spencer Torkelson for the 2022 season. Obviously Báez has only played six games thus far, putting Harold Castro and Willi Castro back into the lineup at the shortstop position. Replacing those two hitters, along with Niko Goodrum, and other low power hitters like Victor Reyes or Derek Hill, with legitimate power bats, was one of the biggest reasons for optimism around the Tigers’ 2022 lineup entering the season. The Tigers aren’t a top shelf offense, but with improved on-base percentages, and a good deal more team power overall, they should ultimately produce a lot more runs than they have so far. Anyway that’s the plan.
The track record here, other than for Torkelson who leads the team with three bombs and has been their second best hitter overall after Meadows, is strong. Báez’s thumb is a concern, but odds remain high that he and Meadows register as substantial power upgrades. We don’t have major concerns about Torkelson either. He’s struck out more than expected thus far, but the discipline and approach have been pretty impressive, as it his power and ability to drive the ball to all fields. This may not be the year the new Tigers’ first baseman is a consistent force in the lineup, but the long term prognosis seems excellent.
One would expect the Tigers to have something like 14 home runs by this point, considering the hitters they have in the lineup. Instead, they have seven. Another six or seven home runs to this point, and this team would have a couple more wins under their collective belt.
That actually is a trend that is normal for the Tigers, as cool, damp spring weather makes for less than ideal home run conditions, but we’re also seeing a league wide decline in home runs over the past year as well, and that may be here to stay. This appears to be part of the league’s plan to dial back the three true outcomes style of baseball prevalent in recent years. Of course, they haven’t managed to get more total balls in play yet, so we appear bound for a similar style of game dominated by pitching, but with even less home runs to interrupt the strikeouts and walks. Good times.
As had been noted by numerous publications already, home runs per fly ball rates are down from 13.6 percent last season, to just 10 percent so far in the early going. The league planned to slightly deaden the baseball last season, and there were signs that occurred, but they appear to have taken it to another level so far in 2022. Research from Rob Arthur for Baseball Prospectus indicates that the new edition baseballs have a little more drag and seem to fly a bit less far. Did MLB have the seams raised or do something to the cover to make up for pitchers not being able to pitch with sticky fingers? Who knows, but the saga of the ever changing baseball remains a head shaker. That, plus the addition of humidors in all 30 parks to keep baseballs stored in consistent conditions across the game, appear set to dial back the surge in home run power witnessed in the game over the last 6-7 years.
All one can hope, is that these factors do prove to be uniform leaguewide, and won’t affect the Tigers relative to other teams. The offense has plenty of proven power, the predictive stats don’t show any alarm bells and right now there’s every reason to expect that this lineup will mash their share of home runs rather than languishing at the back of the pack. Just hope the pitching holds up through this litany of injuries. For now, we’ll follow classical advice and wait until we’re closer to 40 games played before getting too concerned that this offense is a dud.