The Tigers' offense in 2022 was offensive, and their offense this past season was only marginally less unpleasant to watch. In the two seasons, they scored 557 and 661 runs, which were good for 30th and 27th in MLB respectively. If you take into account the average runs scored per team increase of 54 from 2022 to 2023 with the rule changes, the Tigers effectively gained only 50 runs from 2022 to 2023. In those two seasons, the team wRC+ was 80 and 89, respectively.
Since 2016, the Tigers have only surpassed 735 runs, the average runs per team from 2016-2023, excluding 2020, 1 time (2016 with 750 runs scored). 2016 was also the last time the team registered a wRC+ above league average (100) as they posted a 106 that year. To put it another way, the Cleveland Guardians, winners of the AL Central division four times since 2016, have averaged 751 runs per season in that span and never posted a wRC+ greater than 107 (2017 was a banger year for them offensively) while also never falling below 90, and they averaged roughly the 13th overall offense by wRC+ in that span.
Why am going on about this? To make this point: you don’t need to have an elite offense to secure this division, especially if you have great pitching. Cleveland had great pitching from 2016 through 2023 and the only year they didn’t win the division while having a collective pitching staff in the top 10 by FIP was 2019 (the last time I mention Cleveland in this article, promise). The Tigers had a top 10 pitching staff by FIP this past year and, assuming they’ve replaced the contributions of Eduardo Rodriguez and Michael Lorenzen, they should largely return the rest of that still fairly young pitching staff and have a good shot to repeat that performance and hopefully improve on it.
But can the Tigers put together even an average offense in 2024? The answer is still a firm maybe.
Brief statistical disclaimer: In looking at these numbers below and the later projections, I had to use two different league-normalized offensive stats, as each projection system used a different stat. While this is mildly annoying (looking at you Dan Szymborski) the good news is that wRC+ and OPS+ largely follow each other very closely and while not quite interchangeable in all aspects, they can be interchanged in a pinch. Moreover, for this article, though I presented them both and you will see that they both agree on the overall message I’m trying to deliver, when picking a single number I chose to use wRC+ as I think OPS+ can weight home runs a bit heavily. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s dive into the numbers.
2023 Detroit Tigers top 13 hitters by PAs
|Top 13 Weighted average
|Team runs scored
|League average runs
Breaking down the Tigers’ performers from this past year reveals some shining stars and some awful eyesores. Kerry Carpenter, Riley Greene, and Spencer Torkelson lead the way with 121, 119, and 107 wRC+ (if you take out the month of April, Torkelson’s number rises to 117). In the middle of the pack, you have some pleasant surprises in Andy Ibañez, Matt Vierling, and Jake Rogers who all checked in more or less around league average. But beyond those players, the numbers fall off drastically for many players that logged a significant amount of plate appearances despite offensive performances that ranged from meger at best to embarrassing at worst.
The worst offenders are guys like Zack McKinstry, Nick Maton, and Javier Báez (only four more years to go on that contract…yay…) who posted numbers of 81, 67, and 61. To be fair to McKinstry, he was played a bunch for his sound glove at any position more than for his bat. In a more limited role he could be better. But the rest were treading dangerously close to DFA territory.
Eric Haase and Jonathan Schoop were cut midseason with numbers of 42 and 53 respectively. Even Zach Short, who “hit” to the tune of a 76 wRC+ was just placed on waivers. Nick Maton and Tyler Nevin, who didn’t make this list, will be out of options this upcoming year so they’ll need to earn a spot on the team out of spring camp or find themselves in the spring training DFA line.
The outlook is somewhat better in 2024
So, what’s with the hope for an improved 2024 squad? To carry over the DFA theme, the good news about these cuts its it is trimming the fat from the roster and opening up playing time for players who posted encouraging results at the end of the year or are knocking on the door of the majors with strong minor league seasons. To put it simply, it's addition by subtraction. With Cabrera, Short, Schoop, and Haase out of the picture, and Maton and Nevin on the outside looking in for roster spots, that’s 1,349 plate appearances, about a full season’s worth of plate appearances for two everyday starters, available for some new blood.
The Tigers seem to have been thinking along these lines as they snatched up Mark Canha almost immediately after the Rangers secured the final out in their championship game. He looks to be in line to play just about every day with him and Kerry Carpenter sharing corner outfield and DH duties. Colt Keith should have the inside track to a spot on the team at either second or third. Parker Meadows showed he’s more than capable of handling Comerica Park’s vast centerfield and didn’t look too overmatched at the plate in his limited time in the majors. And not to be overlooked but hopefully, 2024 will bring fully healthy years from Riley Greene and Kerry Carpenter. Jeff Greenberg said he is still looking for “opportunistic” ways to add to the roster, but assuming there are no blockbuster names incoming, the current Tigers roster as a whole looks to be likely improved from last year.
‘But by how much?’ I hear you asking. I decided to pull up both Steamer and ZiPS league normalized projections for next year and then get the weighted “team” average based on plate appearances for the top 13 players in plate appearances. This allowed me to first establish a baseline for total PAs from 2023 and then adjust projected playing time with educated guesses based on the 2024 projected roster as it currently stands. This is not a perfect system as we all know the players a team breaks camp with do not exclusively play on the roster for all 162 games. That said, the weighted average for the 2023 top 13 players was only two to three points higher than the true team average for wRC+ and OPS+, so it does provide a reasonable approximation for this analysis.
2024 Projected Tigers hitters on roster
|Top 13 Weighted average
What the results show is that, as the roster currently stands, this is shaping up to be a roughly league-average offense. With the projected weight-average wRC+ at 102 and the OPS+ at 104, if you take the same two to three point drop from each to account for the rest of the team members that will likely get playing time as roster changes happen, the projected line is right at league average.
That may not seem overly impressive, nor is it much to brag about, but consider that the 2023 offense came in about 10% below the league average on offense. Looking at the projections on the individual players, I think the numbers are a bit bullish on Canha considering he’ll be in his age 35 season, but Hinch has shown some ability to mix and match to maximize player success so they may prove to be correct. Also, there’s Javy Baez, and while his projections aren’t even average, I still think those are too high. He’s going to have to prove it at the plate this year to change my mind that he’s completely fallen apart. Maybe there will be some improvements from the work he’s put in this winter and the effort he was making to change his approach at the plate last year but I won’t be holding my breath.
On the other side of the spectrum, I think Riley Greene can easily beat his projections. He lost over a month last year due to injury and when he was on the field he was showing signs he was putting together a true breakout year. If he can stay healthy, I think he’s going to open some eyes around the league this year. He’s still only just turned 23 years old.
Finally, there’s Colt Keith, whom the projections think will hold his own in his rookie year. The smart money would be to say he’s probably going to struggle as most rookies do, but I’m going to say he can meet those totals by the end of the year. He’ll have his ups and downs but I think he has what it takes to not only stay in the majors but be successful in his first year. At the very least, the Tigers are betting he will succeed because they have made no moves at all that would stand to threaten or cut into his assumed playing time.
So, putting it all together, you have a lineup that will be right at 100 wRC+ or OPS+. League average. How many runs does a league-average team score? Let’s plot some data points.
What does it mean?
As you can see, the trendlines for both series converge right at the league average, which is about 750 runs. The Tigers scored 661 runs in 2023 so 750 runs would be an increase of 89 runs. The current calculations of Pythagorean wins and losses by runs scored and runs allowed put the value of one win at between nine and ten runs. What’s also interesting is that there is about a 50-run spread in either direction from the trendline at about 100 wRCor OPS, which would mean wins can vary +/- another five wins from the nine to ten added runs. The Tigers' pythag W-L from last year was 73-89. This would make them an 82-83 win team, with a variance of +/- five wins, assuming they have equal pitching to last year.
That’s a breakdown for another article but I think they probably are at least equal as a whole to last year in terms of pitching. For what it’s worth, ZiPS had their team pitching forecasted at 15 fWAR before they had added Flaherty, Chafin, and Miller, and the Tigers team pitching last year was worth 14.5 fWAR. The three players they added probably didn’t even add a full WAR over the projected roster when it was put out, but it certainly didn’t make it weaker. So yes, I think the pitching staff will be at least as good as last year. The Tigers also have plenty of interesting pitching prospects at the Triple-A level, so there’s plenty of depth to draw on there as well.
So, as things stand, despite only adding one player from outside to the lineup, this should be an improved offense and a team on course for 82-83 wins. Is that enough to win a weak AL Central division?
Probably not enough to say they are the favorites but they are at least a credible threat to the Twins. The reigning AL Central champs are reported to be decreasing their payroll this year and have already lost two of their top rotation arms, one of them coming to the Tigers. Expect them to make a few moves and try and build up their depth, but their roster is unlikely to be improved. None of the other three teams have made enough moves to significantly elevate them in the standings so far. Finally, the Tigers had the best record in the division of all the teams in the central last year, securing winning records against all four opponents.
Job one is to come out with a strong first half in 2024. Should they be in the hunt at the trade deadline, expect Harris and company to be buyers this year. Hopefully, a savvy deal or two can net them the additional firepower on offense they need to win the division for the first time in a decade. It may not be a sexy offseason for the Tigers on offense but this lineup is already much improved over last year and they have some prospects who could develop into key contributors soon.
As stated in the beginning, if you have good pitching, even an average offense can be enough to get you where you want to go in this division, and that should be the goal for the Tigers in 2024, winning the division. With some health, and continued improvements from a young core of hitters they should be well-positioned to make some noise this year as they hunt a return to the postseason.