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Tarik Skubal and Jake Rogers were the top comeback stories in 2023

Skubal in particular returned from elbow surgery with a vengeance to lead all baseball in several categories.

Detroit Tigers v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

When a player returns from a major injury, it’s always difficult to know what to expect. Baseball is hard enough to predict from year to year for healthy players, but results can really vary wildly when there is an injury and a long layoff involved. The Detroit Tigers had a lot of individual success stories in 2023, but two of the biggest were the outstanding returns to action for both Tarik Skubal and Jake Rogers.

Skubal was clearly the Tigers’ Comeback Player of the Year, and challenged pitchers like Shane McClanahan, Blake Snell, or Framber Valdez as top left-hander in the game in the second half of the season. Still, the return of Rogers was nearly as important, solidifying a position of organizational weakness. As a result, the Tigers are in much better position to take the next competitive steps in 2024 as a team.

Tarik Skubal makes his case for ace status

We’re pretty picky about calling pitchers aces. The term doesn’t really have a specific enough meaning to quibble over too much, but at any given time there are rarely more than 10 pitchers in the game I’d apply the label to at any point. Certainly consistency plays a part in my personal calculations, and on that end Skubal remains lacking until we see this for a full season. However, the main factor is dominance, and the big left-hander showed nothing but dominance in his return to duty.

From the time he returned from 2022’s season ending flexor tendon surgery on July 4, to the end of the 2023 season, left-hander Tarik Skubal was the most valuable pitcher in baseball according to FanGraphs WAR (fWAR). His ERA (2.80) and FIP (2.00) across 80 13 innings ranked sixth and first in all baseball, respectively. His strikeout rate of 32.9 percent, was second only to Spencer Strider’s 34.9 percent. With the 11th lowest walk rate, Skubal led the major leagues in K-BB%, and had the second lowest HR/9 mark, 0.45 home runs per nine inning, to Blake Snell’s 0.41 during that span.

Considering that Skubal was returning from major surgery, this was just an incredibly impressive half season for him.

In terms of stuff, Skubal returned with a fourseam fastball averaging 95.8 mph versus his 2022 average of 94.1 mph. The sinker went from 94.8 mph in 2022 to 95.9 mph this season. More velocity is certainly helpful, and hitters put up a wOBA of just .237 against both fastball types. He threw a similar percentage of total fastballs, but leaned much more on his fourseamer than he did in 2022.

The biggest difference for Skubal this season were the improvements in his changeup. He threw the pitch about 10 percent more than he did in 2022, yet posted a spectacular 50.6 percent whiff rate on the pitch. Hitters did absolutely nothing against it despite seeing it far more often. That allowed Skubal to cut his slider usage by about 10 percent, and as that pitch continues to be his weakest offering, he was replacing a weakness with a real strength.

Overall, Skubal’s command wasn’t noticeably different. He threw a few less first pitch strikes, but still pounded the zone first pitch well over 60 percent of the time. His called strike rate was basically unchanged, so despite improved catching from Jake Rogers and to a degree, Eric Haase, it’s not as though they were stealing tons more strikes around the edges for Skubal. Instead, Skubal’s overall swinging strike rate jumped all the way to 14.9 percent after averaging 11.7 percent in 2022.

Put simply, Skubal’s main weakness in 2022 was against right-handers, as you’d expect. The improved fastball velocity and much better feel for his changeup solved the problem, as Skubal turned to a fourseam-changeup heavy approach and dominated right-handed hitters in 2023. Against left-handers, he threw almost exclusively sinkers and sliders, with some high fourseamers in and well away off the plate in the mix to keep them honest and draw whiffs at the top of the zone.

If Skubal can ever find a little bit better version of his slider, there may be even greater success ahead, but he’s poised to dominate in 2024 without any notable changes.

Championship teams need some ace caliber pitching to get through the long postseason, and the Tigers now have a legitimate ace in their rotation. After an extremely successful half season of work, Tarik Skubal is in great shape looking ahead to 2024.

Jake Rogers takes charge

Entering the 2023 season, the catching duo seemed somewhat up in the air. Eric Haase was productive at the plate in 2021-2022, but his work behind the plate remained a bit sub-par. The Tigers really needed Rogers to return and solidify the catching group, but after only a brief stretch of success at the plate in 2021 before blowing out his elbow and undergoing UCL reconstruction, it was really hard to predict how effective Rogers would be in his return.

I was optimistic about Rogers’ bat, positing the “bold prediction” that the Tigers catching duo would hit 40 home runs combined, assuming that Haase would probably get some starts in left field as well, which didn’t end up happening a whole lot. As it turned out, Haase’s struggles sank the 40 home run hopes, but Rogers held up his end pretty well, launching 21 homers in 107 games.

Even better, Rogers improved his defense in several categories, clearly putting a ton of work into his defensive game during his year and a half rehab timetable.

Rogers was 8th best in catcher blocking, and worth eight blocks above average. He was 14th in catcher framing, worth plus five framing runs above average. Catcher statistics may not tell the whole picture, but overall it seems fair to suggest that Rogers is very good behind the plate, but perhaps just average at most in terms of throwing out baserunners.

His pop time was was tied for 29th overall, though the difference between Rogers and all but the top five catchers in pop time was within .05 seconds. There was also some ongoing weakness in terms of arm strength, as Rogers was just 61st in that category, averaging just 79.4 mph on his throws. That’s not much different than the 80.1 mph Rogers averaged on his throws in 2021, so it’s not as though he lost anything to the UCL surgery, but he also didn’t come back showing more arm strength either. Of course there are a limited number of throws from a catcher compared to a pitcher, so the sample sizes are always small, but it seems fair to say that Rogers has average arm strength and no more.

At the plate, he continues to show excellent plate discipline, lowering his already solid swing percentage on pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) to just 22.5 percent, well below the league average of 28.8 percent. He draws roughly a league average amount of walks, but he also continues to swing and miss more than league average, and take more strikes than league average as well. Rogers’ approach is usually to look for something he can pull in the air, and won’t even offer at strikes that don’t fit the bill.

Obviously, this results in a low average, and Rogers did hit just .221 on the year, putting up a meager .286 on-base percentage, and had to make up for it with the 21 homers and a .224 ISO.

Rogers’ 97 wRC+ left him 15th among all catchers with 300 plate appearances on the year, while his defense was valued 10th best per FanGraphs. Overall, Rogers was the 11th most valuable catcher in the game. It’s not everything we dreamed, but he does a very good job behind the plate and contributes some power. That’ll have to do until the Tigers can develop a better option.

Considering Haase’s collapse, and the slow offensive progress of top catching prospect, Dillon Dingler, Rogers’ season was a necessity. Without the ability to count on him, the Tigers would really be up a creek without a paddle in the catching department.

Whether they retain Carson Kelly’s services, or look for another backup to bridge the gap to Dingler’s likely arrival in Detroit next summer, Rogers strong return to action was crucial for the Tigers hopes in 2024.