The 2023 Detroit Tigers are playing a very unique style of baseball considering the franchise’s history. For the past two decades, the club’s best seasons offensively have been built around a stable core of elite to above average hitters. At their best, they were six or seven hitters deep with good everyday position players. They didn’t necessarily defend or run the bases well, often leading to mediocre results that surprised anyone reading the names in the lineup. In those years, the idea of emptying the bench on a nightly basis would have seemed like a fantasy out of a bygone era of the game.
Scott Harris has definitely brought some San Francisco Giants baseball with him since taking over as Tigers President of Baseball Ops last fall. Manager A.J. Hinch, like Gabe Kapler with the Giants, has aggressively put those principles into action. The most glaring strategic example is the number of pinch-hitters used, and more broadly a major new emphasis on matchups for their hitters.
So far in 2023, the Detroit Tigers lead the league in pinch-hit appearances with 50. This isn’t a fluke, nor is it Hinch’s design in particular. The 2022 Giants were by far the most active team in the major leagues in terms of pinch-hit appearances. While National League team pinch-hitting appearances dropped by about 60 percent with the advent of the universal designated hitter rule, the Giants completely bucked the trend. They pinch-hit 258 times in 2022, 98 more times than the second most active club, the Oakland Athletics. They pinch hit only a little less than average for a National League club in 2021, before the DH came to the National League full-time. This is the Giants philosophy transported to Detroit.
Roots of this offensive philosophy
The Giants had some good reasons to try something different than other clubs. A year after the 2021 team came out of nowhere to win 107 games and dominate one of the toughest divisions in baseball, the 2022 model saw injuries and underperformance take a major toll. They had only three qualified hitters on the year, Thairo Estrada, Mike Yastrzemski, and Wilmer Flores the elder. That group was basically league average in run production. Only two players with more than 300 plate appearances were significantly above average, and those were veteran outfielders Joc Pederson and Austin Slater, with 433 and 325 plate appearances respectively.
A crucial feature of the recent Giants teams isn’t even just how aggressively they pinch-hit in your basic platoon sense. They went a lot deeper, considering matchups against opponents’ pitchers in pretty great detail. Robert Orr, writing for Baseball Prospectus, did a really nice job investigating these principles at the beginning of the 2022 season.
Some of the foundational points of emphasis that President Farhan Zaidi brought to the Giants when he took over prior to the 2019 season, and which continued to gain emphasis under Scott Harris’ tenure as general manager from 2020-2022, will sound very familiar now. Defensive versatility, team speed, hitters working to see a lot of pitches, not chasing out of the zone, and generally trying to get starting pitchers out of the game early and wear out the opposing bullpen throughout a given series. The Giants saw more pitches per AB every successive year since Zaidi took over, and that trend only continued to grow once Harris came on board as his second in command.
Other concepts are more obscure.
The Giants went as deep as considering their hitters bat paths to different parts of the zone, and how those matched up against the movement of each opposing pitcher’s primary pitches in considering who and when to pinch-hit. This was part of an organization wide effort to see more fastballs and to get better at hitting them. The Tigers, as I discussed back in October, have pretty similar problems throughout the organization. The offense in 2022 was atrocious against the fastball, and didn’t show very good plate discipline in general.
Like the Giants last season, the necessity for the 2023 Tigers is pretty apparent. No doubt Harris would prefer to have three or four studs to drop into the lineup. He’ll have real work ahead to find those players and build a sustainable contender in Detroit. With only three guys playing everyday and saddled with a ceremonial roster spot for Miguel Cabrera, you’re going to have a tough time putting together a good offense. However, even when/if the Tigers get the top shelf hitting talent they need to add, aggressively matching up against opponents’ pitchers with pinch-hit appearances could give them a lot more productivity and resilience out of their role players and overall bench than the old stars and scrubs model ever offered.
So far the Tigers hold a .736 OPS in pinch-hitting appearances. As a team, they have a .646 OPS overall. The league average OPS this season for all players is .726. So the Tigers, despite parts of the plan going awry early on, as we’ll discuss in a moment, are basically creating a slightly above average hitter in terms of the league, and the team’s best hitter in the aggregate. The team doesn’t have a single hitter with a .736 OPS or better. Riley Greene leads the team with a .712 mark, and no one else on the team has more than 100 plate appearances and an OPS over .700.
We can hope that the individual numbers improve, and that the first three weeks of the season were the exception, and the last three weeks more of the rule, but however you want to slice it up, this offense is mediocre at best. By pinch-hitting aggressively, by which I mean they’re pinch-hitting earlier in games than most would, doing so even in low leverage situations if they like the matchup, and even burning their second catcher when they think it’s worth it, the Tigers have managed to re-create having an above average hitter in the lineup.
Like those Giants teams, the Tigers aren’t necessarily obsessing about the situation either. The Giants pinch-hit in relatively low leverage situations the fifth and sixth innings if they thought one of their hitters on the bench matched up better against the opposing pitcher currently in the game. The Tigers have followed suit under Harris and Hinch’s leadership. Crucially, the Giants had a versatile enough roster to make that work. The Tigers do to a degree, with the caveat that having Miguel Cabrera taking up a spot is a limitation that only Chris Ilitch can do anything about. The struggles of Nick Maton and Matt Vierling, specifically acquired to fill gaps in the matchup ability of the roster, have also made things more difficult of late.
Constructing a roster around these ideas
Clearly Harris and Hinch think that the flukey scenario in which your main catcher gets injured and you’ve already used the second catcher to pinch-hit, isn’t worth worrying about. That’s a calculated risk, but generally a sensible one. It’s just not a situation that comes up all that often even at a grueling position like catcher, but if it does, you could look rather foolish as one of your infielders suddenly is forced to don the tools of ignorance and take over at the catcher position for a few innings.
Beyond that, the roster is built to cover all other positions pretty well, even though key defensive positions like center field and shortstop have Riley Greene and Javier Báez in place everyday, and those two, along with Spencer Torkelson, haven’t been subject to being pinch-hit for.
By and large, the Tigers have a lot of quality defensive players who are also capable of moving around the field. Zack McKinstry, Andy Ibáñez, and Eric Haase have all played some outfield. Matt Vierling can move over and handle center field when needed. McKinstry, Nick Maton, and Zack Short can play basically anywhere on the infield. The positional versatility is there, and it comes with either-handed hitters to cover any position. They’ve also got speed in the form of Akil Baddoo to insert in pinch-running opportunities, among numerous other fast baserunners.
The roster flaws in this regard come in the form of Miguel Cabrera, who can’t play the field much at this point, and Jonathan Schoop, who is a good defender but pretty much limited to second and third base. The other flaws are simply the poor performance of a few key components to the strategy, namely Nick Maton and Matt Vierling in particular.
What does this look like in game situations?
So, let’s take the last series against the Seattle Mariners for a quick example, and also an illustration of how the Tigers strategy is breaking down because of a key injury and some ineffectiveness from certain hitters.
Mariners’ starters Bryce Miller and Logan Gilbert throw very flat, riding fourseam fastballs and work the top of the zone most of the time. The Giants would ideally stack lineups against arms like that with guys with flat swings that handle that type of fastball well. Harris is trying to bring the same concepts to Detroit, but in this particular series, it just wasn’t possible.
The two hitters Harris brought in from the Gregory Soto trade are supposed to be part of the high, riding fourseam hitting cohort. That’s what Nick Maton and Matt Vierling do well, in theory. And yet with Vierling and particularly Maton struggling, they didn’t have those options working for them to the degree they expected to.
Kerry Carpenter fits in this group too, and is the one hitter who really does a lot of damage on riding fastballs from right-handed pitchers. He has a particularly flat, level swing on those pitches that allows him to barrel them up with consistent authority. His absence with a shoulder strain, and Maton and Vierling’s struggles, made it impossible to play this matchup strategy the way they would’ve liked to.
For a specific example, take a look at the crucial seventh inning in the Tigers’ victory on Sunday. Logan Gilbert is now out of the game. Reliever Trevor Gott is out of the game. Sinkerballing lefty Gabe Speier has taken over on the mound, expecting to take on Jake Rogers, and then lefties Zack McKinstry and Riley Greene. The score is knotted at three apiece.
A hitter who crushes left-handers, and has the type of lofted swing that loves balls down in the zone and on the inner third, is at the dish in the form of Jake Rogers. Speier takes a chance with a sinker on the inner third for strike one. That’s right through Rogers’ wheelhouse, but this is where the emphasis on patience and “controlling the strike zone” can backfire. Sometimes the best pitch to hit is the first one you see, and if another team understands that the Tigers’ hitters are getting patience preached to them all day everyday, you may be able to take advantage of that to get strike one. But once he has strike one, consciously or not, Speier wants nothing to do with throwing anything Rogers can pull, and he ends up walking him.
Alright, walking the leadoff hitter in a tie game is pretty bad, but he’s got a pair of lefties coming up. However, Hinch then pinch hits Jonathan Schoop. At this point, many Tigers fans were probably screaming. SCHOOP!?? In a crucial situation!!!??? How can you take out McKinstry?
It’s true that McKinstry has been one of the few bright spots, but this isn’t actually a good matchup for him. Meanwhile, like it or not, Schoop is on the roster, and Jonathan Schoop has made his career with a lofted swing, crushing sinkers and breaking balls down in the zone. So, Schoop it is and he drills a single back up the middle on a sinker down and away on the first pitch. One might argue, and I’d join you, that Eric Haase was probably the better choice there, but as long as Schoop is on the roster, Hinch is going to have to find ways to put him to work in situations where he can be effective. On Sunday, it worked out.
Speier still has it in him to strike out Riley Greene, who is more the type of complete hitter you aren’t going to pinch hit for, and now right-hander Matt Brash takes over. Brash has a great slider, and runs a very flat fourseam fastball up there in the high-90’s. Once again, that’s the type of guy you want Kerry Carpenter and Nick Maton facing, but with Carp out, the options are somewhat limited and you’re into the heart of the Tigers’ order, such as it is. Javy Báez hits the ball hard but flies out to right, Torkelson walks, and now you’ve got the bases juiced for exactly the type of hitter you want there in Maton.
Ok, so Maton gets hit by a pitch, and this is where baseball happens. He never has to get a hit, and considering the way he’s going, the odds weren’t that great that he would, even if he’s a better matchup option for a pitcher like Brash than some. At this point there is no other left-handed, high fastball hitting option to pinch-hit for Maton with in that situation.
So rather than some crucial pinch-hit knock to win the game, instead a walk and a hit by pitch forced in the Tigers final two runs and they hung on to win. But you can see the reasoning behind the way the Tigers are trying to do things and how pinch-hitting this much can both help your offense and put the opposing manager into some complicated scenarios in his bullpen usage.
Can you win a World Series like this?
No. No you probably can’t. The crucial thing is still to have a core of really good hitters, and really good pitchers. Measures like the Tigers are employing are best used as support from the role players in support of the core of a good lineup. The Tigers don’t have that, and Harris didn’t do much to advance them toward that in his first offseason. That’s another topic, but while you can use all this strategy to maximize your offense, without several high end hitters in the lineup, you’re still going to be hard pressed to produce an above average offense just by playing matchups.
However, should Harris be able to build that strong core of hitters over the next year or two, the ability to maximize the rest of the roster will likely pay great dividends. It’s a promising sign for the new front office that they have some actual concepts they’re willing to stake their chances on. But for now, these are all just ways to win with less. The whole idea would be working better with Carpenter back in there, and Maton and Vierling swinging the bats well, but the Tigers still need a couple truly good all-around hitters to produce the kind of offense the Giants had in 2021. Instead, we’re just hoping they can manage to be greater than the sum of their parts for now, and this is the way they’re going to do it.
What I really like though, is the emphasis on developing these concepts and aggressively putting them into practice. They aren’t going to suddenly turn around and play a safer, more normal looking brand of baseball. This team has nothing to lose, and unlike the previous regime, they’re taking the opportunity to try things rather than just filling out the lineup card with a pretty random assortment of players and calling it good night after night as they did for years.
They actually have a lot more detailed ideas about how to squeeze wins out of a mediocre roster, and it’s been interesting to watch them talk their game and then really try to put it all into practice on the field. It may feel like over-managing, but some of this isn’t even particularly Hinch’s call. It’s an organizational strategy now, and the Tigers seem to be communicating what they’re doing and why to the players pretty effectively. The fact that pinch-hitting has generally worked out for them so far says that there’s some buy-in.
One thing seems clear. They aren’t going to get burned or embarrassed here or there and then shy away from using the aggressive substitutions. They’re going to continue to try and acquire more well-rounded players who fit the program in specific ways. And unlike the years of promises from managers like Brad Ausmus and Ron Gardenhire, promising aggressive baseball and then pulling the plug as soon as someone makes a mistake, Hinch isn’t going to back down from trying to play this way.
Things may change as the roster does, but as an overall managerial style, A.J. Hinch has stuck to his guns. He’s going to implement the plan and ride with the results. Sometimes it’s blown up in their face, and it will again, but overall the benefits, based on the production of their pinch-hitters this season, has probably been worth the risks.
All of this leads me to some confidence in what Scott Harris is trying to do here. We know the Tigers still have a significant talent gap from the better teams in the league, but we can at least see the outline of the plan, and it’s far more in depth than anything we saw in the Avila years. It’s getting the players who can contend for titles with it that remains the central issue. On that score there is still a long way to go for the Detroit Tigers.