In early November of 2022, Scott Harris kicked off his rebuild of the Detroit Tiger’s roster by outrighting 6 players. None of the players cut from the 40-man roster came as a surprise, with Victor Reyes and Bryan Garcia perhaps being the most notable of the bunch but all were widely considered expendable.
But in the group of roster cuts was one addition via waiver claim that went largely unnoticed. Andy Ibañez was claimed off waivers from the Texas Rangers in the series of moves and was almost immediately forgotten by most Tiger fans. Fast forward to July, and he’s become the primary starter at second base and leads the team in hard-hit rate.
At the time of his claim, he was immediately seen as a “why not take a look” 30-year-old utility player that would probably end up playing most of the season at AAA, if he even survived the offseason ups and downs of roster claims and transactions. Harris was well known for churning his roster on the waiver wire to take a look at players up close and collect some internal data on players that the club found interesting.
But this was far from a hard commitment to a particular player. Players claimed one day could easily find themselves back on waivers several weeks later if the team decided to move on to another interesting selection.
Ibañez did bring at least a small degree of track record with him. He debuted in 2021 with Texas and put up a respectable line of .277/.231/.435 with 7 HR and 15 doubles in 270 plate appearances. That was enough to be named the opening day 3B in 2022 but he had a rough sophomore season that saw him log only 40 games while spending the rest of the year in AAA and ultimately being outrighted from the roster.
Ibañez survived the Tiger’s offseason flurry of claims and found himself in an early spring training battle for an infield spot. But between a sprained finger and the WBC, he only appeared in 8 games and was ultimately optioned to AAA to begin the season, with Ryan Krielder the recipient of the final bench spot for the infield. In Toledo he immediately showed the same excellent numbers he put up on the Texas AAA affiliate, cracking 5 HR in 20 games with an impressive .297/.418/.609 line. When Kerry Carpenter went to the injured list with a shoulder strain, he found himself on the way up to Detroit and he hasn't looked back.
He was hitless in his first four games and then went on an absolute tear for the next 11, slashing a .382/.417/.618 line. Then he had a miserable stretch in May that saw him go 0-for-32 at the plate, which had many fans ready to send him on his way for the next hot bat in Toledo (not that there were any particularly hot bats to call up at the time). But AJ Hinch and Harris stuck with him, clearly seeing something behind the hitless streak they felt confident would work itself out. Their patience was rewarded as he burst back onto the scene and is currently hitting .289/.324/.536 in his last 29 games with five home runs and seven doubles.
The driving force behind his offensive prowess and the reason that the Tigers stuck with him is his exceptionally high hard-hit rate. He currently leads the team with a 51.8% hard-hit rate. That number has him sitting squarely between hitters like Mike Trout and Julio Rodriguez — an impressive feat for a free-agent castoff. This hard hit rate, combined with his 0-32 skid, has given him a massive difference in wOBA and xwOBA.
What’s more, it's not limited to the usual left-right platoon splits, nor has he been used as a platoon bat. In fact, he’s hitting an identical .233 avg from both sides of the plate. His wOBA vs LHP is .352, while his xwOBA is .381, vs RHP his wOBA is .280 while his xwOBA is .327. This makes sense as his long slump came in a stretch where teams were handling the Tigers by rolling out righty after righty. Overall he has the largest gap of tigers hitters between his wOBAs, which is results-based, and his xwOBA, which is statcast-based and takes hard hit rate into consideration.
Suffice it to say, no matter the pitcher he is facing Ibañez is hitting the ball hard frequently. And it goes to show why patience is needed with hitters that square up the ball but may find themselves in long slumps, e.g. Spencer Torkelson. He also has a somewhat large OBA difference — .312 wOBA vs .343 xwOBA — but that’s closer to a typical difference than the big split Ibañez is carrying. But this doesn't mean Ibañez is going to be Torkelson. They make hard contact alike but that’s where the similarities end.
While Spencer Torkelson can work the strike zone and can draw a good number of walks, Ibanez loves to swing away at most pitches up in the zone and as a result, he has a high chase rate and a low walk percentage. His 3.6% walk rate is second lowest to Javier Báez while his strikeout rate sits at a very good 18.8%. His O-Swing% (swings outside of the zone) is 35% which is high compared to the league average, though nowhere near Báez level of egregiousness. He also does most of his damage on fastballs, with five of his six home runs coming on a 4-seam fastball or cutting fastball.
He has only hit one slider for a double with the rest of his hits off that pitch being singles. It’s probably just a matter of time till he launches on a hanging slider but what is interesting is he has a .303 average off sliders but only a .333 slugging. Whether this means he is using a “B” swing against breaking pitches while using his “A” swing on fastballs remains to be seen, but it’s possible. Whatever his approach is, it's clearly working.
Another positive for Ibanez is his defensive versatility, a calling card for AJ Hinch and Scott Harris players. He’s logged significant time at 2B, 3B, and both corner OF spots this year. Statcast doesn't love his arm strength though, flagging it as well below league average, though don't tell that so Sam Hilliard who possesses 92nd percentile sprint speed.
Needed a perfect throw. Got a perfect throw. pic.twitter.com/MNVNlmuc1l— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) June 13, 2023
Still, he’s probably best suited for second base this year and should see less time in the outfield when Akil Baddoo and Riley Greene return from the injured list, though he has handled the outfield with competence. Going forward, as long as he keeps hitting the ball hard, he should be a regular in the lineup at 2B and 3B. Outside of Spencer Torkelson and Zack McKinstry, he’s been our best infielder and brings a chance to do damage every night. Hitting the ball hard usually reaps rewards and it's a skill that can carry you through tough cold streaks when things just aren't going your way.
As the Tigers look to make roster decisions in the second half of the year and ahead of the trade deadline, Ibañez should continue to remain a fixture on the infield. He looks well on his way to being another gem plucked out of the scrap heap by Harris in year 1, joining players like Zack McKinstrey, Tyler Holton, and even Zack Short. Whether starting or coming off the bench as a dangerous pinch hitter, his ability to consistently make hard contact is going to be fun to watch over the rest of the year, and with 4 years of team control remaining, he fits the bill for a valuable multi-positional support player contenders need to have.
He isn’t quite at the level to eliminate the need for the Tigers to bring in a starting infielder at 2B or 3B, but he’s far better than the list of utility players the Tigers have used in recent years.
Editor’s note: All stats are as of July 3.