Well, it just isn’t getting any better. After a pair of duds on Friday and Sunday, the Tigers’ offense is actually much worse in June than it was in April and May. This absolutely stupefying level of failure is pretty hard to wrap one’s head around. The players themselves have track records that suggest this offense should be below average at worst, yet here we are in mid-June, and the Tigers’ run production is historically awful and actually trending down.
After proclamations from management and ownership this offseason that the rebuild was over and they were now committed to building a contender, the Tigers have fallen flat on their faces. This is despite one of the deeper and more resilient pitching staffs we’ve ever seen in the organization. The bullpen remains one of the best in baseball for crying out loud. Watching the pitchers desperately keep this team in games, waiting for a rally that never comes, has been the enduring imagery of the 2022 season to date. Bizarre is the only one-word descriptor that comes to mind that isn’t four letters long.
Is Scott Coolbaugh the problem?
Let’s discuss a popular target of the fans' ire, hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh. Obviously, the Tigers’ pitching staff is doing very well despite taking the brunt of the injuries. The offense has been historically terrible and is public enemy number one in Detroit right now. The contrast between the two sides of the team has been downright infuriating. When something goes this wrong at the major league level, somebody takes the blame. It’s easier to fire coaches than players.
The Tigers are averaging 2.75 runs a game - the lowest for any team since World War II.— Dave Hogg ✨ (@stareagle) June 12, 2022
It has been 50 years anyone has averaged fewer than 3 runs/game.
For the season - 59 games - they are hitting .218/.276/.317. This is a historically bad offense.
You can take those numbers in two parts. First, yes this is freakishly bad run production we’re watching. That much is obvious, but it really is one of the worst offenses in baseball history so far. Second, it has to get better right? We’ve been operating under the second assumption because all logic would suggest that what we’re seeing is statistically impossible. If the team ends up with those numbers at year’s end this would have to be considered the worst offense in modern baseball history. Help us, Riley Greene.
It’s worth remembering that Coolbaugh’s tenure in Detroit started quite well. This same cast of characters put up some of the best seasons of their careers under him last year. Jeimer Candelario, Robbie Grossman, Jonathan Schoop, Eric Haase, Akil Baddoo, everywhere we turned in 2021, the Tigers were getting good production from all comers.
The problem with production this bad is that you can make all kinds of different cases as to the underlying causes. A whole lot of things have gone wrong and there is plenty of blame to go around. But if a hitting coach’s job is to prepare hitters to face the opposing pitchers on a day-by-day basis throughout the season, there’s definitely a good case against Coolbaugh.
The Tigers’ approach at the plate is practically non-existent. They aren’t ambushing anyone. They rarely seem to have the edge, especially in the first inning of games, where they’ve been terrible even before the opposing starter settles into their outing. Even bad hitters guess right and mash sometimes, but the Tigers foul off mistake pitches constantly. The cast of solid veteran hitters on this team rarely seem to guess what’s coming early in an at-bat, and they aren’t doing damage on fastballs in fastball counts either.
This is most obvious in the fact that starting pitchers are handling them with no trouble, even the second time through the order. The team is rarely getting out to early leads, and even when they do, the lineup fails to keep the pressure on. They are by far the worst offense in baseball through the first six innings of games this season. In the seventh and beyond, they’re bad, but still ahead of a few teams.
While they’ve typically done a better job against relievers, it’s often been in “too little too late” territory. But the lineup consistently looks to be unprepared for the starters they’re seeing, and they aren’t making up for it once they’ve gotten a look the second time through the order either. Obviously, there are other issues, from injuries to Austin Meadows, Riley Greene, and others. There’s been bad timing and poor batted ball luck, but it’s just wild that this team so rarely seems to jump on a pitcher out of the gate.
0 runs through 5 innings in 21 of 59 games— Austin Drake (@austin_drake) June 12, 2022
In a third of the team’s contests this season, they haven’t scored in the first five innings. By simple OPS, the Tigers hold a .575 mark across the first six innings of games, the only team under .600. If you’re building a case against Scott Coolbaugh, it may start with that particular detail. Generally speaking, it’s on the hitters themselves, but they certainly seem to be coming into games out-prepared and out-thought constantly.
Even worse, things are trending in the wrong direction. Hopes that this was another slow start and that they’d pick up the pace in May into June, hopes that I certainly shared, have proven to be in vain. In April, the Tigers were in the bottom third offensively with an 82 wRC+ — 100 wRC+ being average run production — but not close to being the worst. In May, they were the worst offense in baseball, with a 72 wRC+. In June? Miraculously, they’ve been far worse, posting a 54 wRC+.
Jokes about the Toledo Mud Hens’ lineup doing better aren’t unrealistic at this point. It’s almost impossible to put together a worse offense than this. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s happening nonetheless.
One of the difficulties in evaluating Coolbaugh is that he’s a complete mystery. Manager A.J. Hinch doesn’t officially let his coaches speak with the media much, and so few even know what Coolbaugh looks like. Chris Fetter is a lot more recognizable and known from his days at Michigan as well. Many fans, seeing long-time Mud Hens’ staple and minor league home run king, Mike Hessman, down in the dugout, have simply assumed that he’s the hitting coach when he’s only Coolbaugh’s assistant.
As a result, we haven’t heard much of Coolbaugh’s philosophy, what players are working on, or what explanations can be offered to explain the Tigers’ struggles at the plate. Other than the usual passed-down coachspeak about trying to stay straight up the middle and using the whole field, echoed by Lloyd McClendon and more or less every hitting coach I’ve ever heard summarize their hitting philosophy, it’s impossible to evaluate Coolbaugh other than by what we’re seeing at the plate. Maybe they need a guy who just screams at them to pull the ball in the air, for all we know about him.
Should the Tigers fire Scott Coolbaugh? I feel pretty comfortable going with what A.J. Hinch decides. At least, more comfortable than with anyone else making the call. It seems unlikely that Coolbaugh has somehow become really bad at being a hitting coach this season. I remain pretty doubtful that he, rather than simply the players themselves or the front office who put this group together, is really to blame. On the other hand, someone is ultimately going to have to take the hit, and as history tells us, it won’t be Al Avila.
Last of the Avila scapegoats
Who is left to blame for the Detroit Tigers if this offense doesn’t turn it around?
Other than Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, there sure doesn’t appear to be much offensive help coming from the farm any time soon. Seven years into Avila’s reign, and they still haven’t developed a single bat. Top second-round picks from 2017-2019, Rey Rivera, Nick Quintana, and Parker Meadows are, in order, out of baseball, out of the organization, and no longer really regarded as a legitimate hitting prospect. In the upper minors there are some solid role players prospects like Ryan Kreidler and catcher Dillon Dingler, but other than the possibility that outfielder Kerry Carpenter has turned into a legit hitting prospect, hopes for bats from the farm reside exclusively at the A-ball levels.
While they’ve finally gotten the pitching side right, there’s still a long way to go in drafting and developing bats. The total restructuring of the player development system and coaches isn’t necessarily going to produce dividends right away.
And with so many guys struggling in the Tigers’ lineup, the upper minors have offered little aid either. The Tigers’ outfield is still packed with a supporting cast like Victor Reyes, Willi Castro, Derek Hill, and Daz Cameron, each of whom is 25 or older and have already seen major league action with the club for years — with limited success in the case of Reyes, at best. Akil Baddoo certainly remains a longer-term possibility, but overall it’s been the same cast of characters over and over. There’s nothing wrong with giving guys plenty of chances if you’re eventually proved right. When you aren’t, you look completely inept and indecisive.
The club already started committing real money this offseason. If Javier Báez proves to be another lemon signed by the Avila front office, there’s little chance Ilitch is going to bail them out with a big increase in payroll next year to add free agent hitting talent. Instead, we’ll be looking at 2024, when Miguel Cabrera’s contract ends, before any major free agent dollars are likely to be committed. This is the most crucial part of an attempt to build a winner. It’s easy to improve from terrible to mediocre, but when you start committing money and actually have a full 40-man roster of players to manage? Now you’re in a position where a couple of bad decisions can torpedo the whole “rebuild” before it goes anywhere.
Assuming Báez isn’t washed, and that Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene will develop into good major league hitters, the club was still going to need to trade prospects for talent and find some bargains who are actually productive. They appear to have the pitching depth to win, and watching the farm system there is a pipeline of pitching talent that can sustain them. They can’t keep wasting it by running Triple-A caliber lineups out there year after year. Rather than solutions, the 2022 Tigers’ start has only brought more problems. Who has faith in Al Avila to solve all this?
If the offense doesn’t get it together by the All-Star break, it seems unavoidable that Coolbaugh is going to get canned. Maybe he won’t even last that long. But the problem with this organization is the guy who has already hired and fired a host of failed decision-makers during arguably the worst stretch of Tigers’ baseball of all time. At some point, Al Avila has to be held responsible for a tenure as GM that has nothing to recommend for it after almost seven years. Coolbaugh may finally be the last of his scapegoats.