The Detroit Tigers hit the forty-game mark in a bit of a skid in 2019. They were 18-22 last Tuesday, a modest start, and proceeded to reel off nine straight losses. Rebuilding is a tough time for any franchise, and it is easy to lose hope. At the same time, bright spots do exist; we just need to look for them.
Sparky Anderson famously noted you could tell a lot about a team after forty games. That was his mark—a quarter through the season—by which organizations measure themselves today. The Detroit Tigers and the rest of Major League Baseball eased right by that mark last week. Unquestionably, the Tigers are rebuilding. Statistically speaking, though, has this season been one of growth or one of decline? Compared with last year, different stats tell different stories.
One undeniable observation from this season is that Tigers hitters strike out a lot. Across the last two seasons, despite not scoring many runs or winning many games, the Tigers kept their team strikeouts below the league average. At the very least, they were putting the ball in play. This season, the Tigers are eighth in the league in total strikeouts, meaning they strike out far more often than most teams.
In fact, they strike out at a staggering rate of nearly 30% of at-bats. Only the San Diego Padres are performing worse. Regular culprits, Nicholas Castellanos, Jeimer Candelario, and Niko Goodrum, are at the top of the team, with Miguel Cabrera striking out more than usual as well. This inability to put the ball in play is at least part of the reason why the team is scoring the second-fewest runs in the league.
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Not everything is bad, though. A positive trend so far has been the amount innings from starting pitchers. To put it lightly, the Tigers bullpen has struggled the last few seasons, so the longer a starting pitcher can last, the better the typical outcome of the game.
The 5.3 innings pitched is an improvement on last season and only a slight decrease from 2017 (when they had added production from Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer). Matthew Boyd, who has had a stellar start, is averaging at least six innings per start, a first for him in a Tigers’ uniform. Although starters have yet to tally a complete game, that should come soon enough. This is an encouraging look from a pitching staff that has been strong point this season.
Of course, it is not possible to tell how a team is performing or will performing, looking at one or two stats. Nor are these the only or even the most important stats to consider. Those stats merely provide context for the season as a whole. Instead, these point to overall change, parts of the team’s framework that has improved, and parts that can still improve. They are signposts on the road of rebuilding.
During the 2014 NBA draft, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla declared on-air that the mostly unknown Bruno Caboclo was “two years away from being two years away.” Sometimes, watching a team in the midst of a rebuild feels the same way. The Detroit Tigers are grasping for contention, which is seemingly unattainable. Hopefully, there is a light at the end of that tunnel.