Nearly a quarter of the way into the season, there may not be a more disappointing team than the Detroit Tigers. After making a flurry of moves this off season, headlined by the Eduardo Rodriguez and Javier Báez signings, expectations were that the team would be contending for the final wild card spot this season. Sitting at 20-30 as of Thursday afternoon, they are now looking more like a team that will be in contention for a top draft pick instead. While injuries have no doubt played a large part in the slow start, which has seen four fifths of the Opening Day rotation land on the IL thus far, it has been the lifeless offense that has bogged the team down most.
Offense throughout MLB has been down to begin this season, in part due to the shortened spring training as well as the newly “deadened” baseballs. The Tigers’ struggles have gone far beyond this. The team is dead last in runs scored by an alarming margin, averaging just 2.86 per game. One may think that a team this putrid on offense would be suffering from some poor batted ball luck, yet what is more alarming is the team’s league worst average exit velocity, coming in at 87.2 mph. There is clearly very little to be encouraged by here, but at least some improvement can be expected in coming months.
Although greatly to the dismay of fans, the 2019 Tigers regularly ran out players who profiled strongly as career minor leaguers where production like we’ve seen thus far in 2022 could’ve been expected. Yet what has made the start even more of a head scratcher for the organization is that players struggling most immensely are all at least moderately established big leaguers with a proven track record of hitting. Among those seeing drastic shifts from their past outputs have included Robbie Grossman, Jeimer Candelario, and the aforementioned Báez. While the struggles have played a part in what has been an early demise of the Tigers’ season, one shouldn’t expect all four to continue to scuffle like this the rest of the year. Let’s take a look at each player’s offensive profile to see who we could expect some sort of renaissance from in weeks to come.
Grossman’s signing before the 2021 season went under the radar, mostly due to his being a platoon player for most of his career. However, after a strong showing in the shortened 2020 campaign, he followed it up with a career year for the Tigers, putting excellent pitch recognition and discipline at the plate on full display. He finished the year with an outstanding 15.6% chase rate, often extending at bats to drive up pitch counts as well as leading to a very strong 14.6% walk rate. In addition to the strong on-base skills, he also posted 23 home runs, which greatly exceeded his previous career high. He entered 2022 as the only entrenched outfielder that was filled with inexperience, at least up until the Austin Meadows trade, leaving the Tigers to rely on his steady performance.
A month into the season, Grossman has struggled mightily. While his plate discipline and on-base skills remain elite, he has been unable to make consistent hard contact. Grossman has never been one to post exceedingly high exit velocities, yet his inability to hit fastballs has really weighed him down of late. In 2021, he did a good portion of his damage against heaters, hitting 15 home runs to the tune of .455 slugging percentage. Thus far, in 2022, he is hitting just .175 against fastballs and has been consistently late during at bats. He has also been unable to hit a single home run yet this year, let alone against fastballs, further limiting a Tigers team that has severely lacked power threats to lengthen the lineup. This leaves one to wonder if his jump in the power department could be a flash in the pan, as before 2021 his previous career high was only 11 home runs. With Grossman now hitting the IL due to a neck sprain, the hopes for a turnaround from their leadoff hitter are now quite distant. Younger players such as Daz Cameron and Kody Clemens will now get their chance to stick at the highest level, leaving the chance open that Grossman is moved at the trade deadline, if anyone even comes calling for him.
Since being acquired by the Tigers in the trade that sent Alex Avila and Justin Wilson to the Cubs back in 2017, Jeimer Candelario has seen his fair share of ups and downs with the organization. He struggled mightily to establish himself in the major leagues in 2018 and 2019, even receiving a demotion to Toledo. However, after an 0-17 start to 2020 made it seem his time with the Tigers was over, Candelario had a breakthrough over the past two years that seemed like it may never come. After a monster finish to the shortened season, he was able to produce a 119 wRC+ and even led MLB with 42 doubles, making him one of the Tigers most valuable hitters in ’21. By showing that the small Covid season sample was no joke, it had come to seem as if Candy had finally found the consistency he had so strongly lacked in the past.
Yet two months into the season, Candelario is again struggling to find his stride at the plate. He has produced just a 69 wRC+ through 48 games, while also seeing his walk rate tumble from a strong 10.4% in 2021 to a career low 5.9%. Similar to Grossman, Candelario has never been one to post gaudy batted ball numbers, but nonetheless his expected slugging and wOBA figures always ranked among the top half of the league thanks to his gap to gap approach. This season, these numbers are down, but not by such a margin that would make Jeimer one of the worst hitters in all of baseball. A portion of his struggles can be attributed to some poor batted ball luck, as his batting average on balls in play sits at just .230 thus far, among the worst in the league. However, this doesn’t explain his scuffle entirely.
In 2020 and 2021, Candelario could credit much of his success to the line drive approach discussed above that he deployed. This allowed him to rack up doubles at an elite clip by staying through the ball while still permitting to tap into some of his power when he finds a pitch he can drive. Through the early part of the season, however, the average launch angle for Candelario has shifted from 12 degrees to 18 when hitting fastballs and from 15 to 12 when facing breaking balls. This flip works counter against the approach he tries to employ, as he is no longer pounding hanging breaking balls but rather hitting them into the ground, while also causing him to get under fastballs. His fastball struggles, combined with a career worst chase rate of 36.5%, could explain why he is popping up pitches in an astronomical 12.9% of his at bats so far in ’22. All of this sums up to a hitter who is struggling mightily with their timing on pitches and is trying to do too much to make up for a brutal start. While some improvement should be coming Candy’s way soon just based off batted ball luck, it would behoove the Tigers to give him a few days off to truly reset and get more comfortable in the batter’s box. Although there are very few other options to play third while he takes the off days, getting Candelario back to the hitter he was would be among the biggest sparks this offense could receive.
The most high profile of the Tigers free agent signings this offseason, Javier Báez came into Detroit with sky high expectations after the team passed on a number of other options at shortstop. Báez is a known commodity throughout the league, as teams who employ him understand his extremely free-swinging nature is part of the package that also includes sparkling defense and big time power. So, while Báez is no stranger to major slumps caused by this approach, he has still found plenty of success throughout his career and was also coming off one of his best seasons in 2021. He posted a 116 wRC+ while also barreling up plenty of baseballs at a 13.4% clip, despite chasing pitches outside of the strike zone more than any other hitter in baseball. The flaws in his game were impossible to miss, but there was still plenty of reason to believe Báez could return strong value on his brand new 6 year, $140 million contract.
After providing some fireworks with a walk-off single on Opening Day, Báez has been the worst hitter for the Tigers through the first chunk of the season. Strikeouts have actually been down for Báez this season, but the Chase Rate remains among the worst in the league at a startling 48.4%. While watching any player swing at nearly half the pitches they see outside the strike zone is going to be absolutely infuriating, this is especially difficult for fans when the player was brought in to be the face of the franchise. Yet this hasn’t even been the most puzzling part of Báez’s case. The contact he has made in 2022 is no longer anywhere near as powerful as previous seasons, as he has barrelled up just 7.8% of pitches this year and has 11 total extra base hits. For a guy who was signed to provide an infusion of pop into the middle of the Tiger’s lineup, this is simply unacceptable.
Very little has gone right for Javy through his first two months as a Tiger, but the numbers paint a very clear picture of what is holding him back. For those that watch the Tigers frequently, there is one pitch in specific that Báez quite simply hasn’t been able to adjust to thus far. Breaking balls low and away from right-handed pitchers have given Báez fits throughout the year, with teams at times even attacking him with this same pitch throughout the entirety of an at-bat. In 2021, Báez still swung and missed plenty against these sliders, but the pitches he did make contact with were often crushed. While some of this may have been good fortune, evidenced by a near 60% discrepancy between his actual and expected batting averages against the pitch, he still slugged 14 home runs and was very competitive when pitchers tried to attack him this way. At the moment, he is hitting just .147 against breaking balls and has yet to hit a single home run when facing them. This should provide a pretty clear blueprint for Báez to recover from his atrocious start to his Tigers career, as he simply has to lay off these breaking pitches outside of the zone. If he can’t, no team will respect his ability to lay off of them and he’ll continue to see fewer fastballs as well as pitches in the zone that he can work with. It’s clear from past data that Báez can manage this distinct plate approach when he is at his best, but even he cannot overcome this level of haphazard free swinging without making a change.
Frustration with the state of the Tiger’s offense thus far in 2022 is beyond justified after nearly half a decade of rebuilding. When a pitching staff as beaten down as this team has performed so admirably, it is hard to not wonder what their record could look like if these players had provided even league average production thus far. However, with the team winning six of their last eight games and some key players getting closer to a return from injury, better days could be on the horizon. However, the three players highlighted above must heat up and make the necessary adjustments for the Tigers to come anywhere close to reaching their ceiling this year. If they cant, this could leave the organization with some very difficult decisions on these players in what is shaping up at this rate to be a make or break 2023 season for the Al Avila regime.
*All stats courtesy of Baseball Savant and FanGraphs*