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Scouting by the numbers: Detroit Tigers

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An analytic preview of Detroit - Aug. 29-30, Sept. 4-7, Sept. 22-23

Chicago Cubs v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

After a mutually agreed upon postponement Thursday amid widespread professional sports protests for racial equality and justice, and a pair of rainouts on Friday, the Twins and Tigers will begin their season series in Detroit with a Saturday doubleheader. Ten of the Twins remaining 28 games are against Detroit. The Twins come into Detroit off a series loss in Cleveland that shrunk their AL Central lead to just a half-game and dropped their road record to 8-9. The Tigers have won two series in a row from the Cubs and Cleveland. They are currently 13-16 and five and half games behind Minnesota.

Opponent Overview:

Coming off three consecutive losing seasons, including MLB’s worst record last year, the Tigers over-achieved to begin 2020 by jumping out to a 9-5 record. Then a 9 game losing streak ensued against division rivals Chicago and Cleveland and the Tigers are back to being about what we expected. They’ve improved their projected record a game from the pre-season estimates but have seen their playoff odds fall from their already low levels as Minnesota, Cleveland, and Chicago have gotten off to strong starts in the AL Central.

Now in his third season in the Detroit dugout, former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is overseeing a rebuild with front office boss Al Avila (yes, that’s Twins’ catcher Alex’s dad). Gardenhire and Avila are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Detroit’s Minnesota connection, though. Gardenhire brought along his long-time aides Rick Anderson and Joe Vavra to be his pitching and hitting coaches and the 2020 Tigers roster has three former Twins in Niko Goodrum, Jonathon Schoop, and C.J. Cron (out for remainder of 2020 season with injury).

Beyond the former Twins, the Tigers are a mix of young-ish players acquired in recent sellers’ trades and transactions – Goodrum, Jeimer Candelario, JaCoby Jones, Isaac Paredes – that are trying to break through and stick and veteran re-treads – Schoop, Cameron Maybin, Austin Romine – who have full-time opportunities in Detroit that probably wouldn’t be available elsewhere. Of course, Miguel Cabrera still gets penciled into the middle of the lineup but he’s a only a shadow of the threat he once was. As a group, the Tigers have been below average offensively, illustrated by their .313 wOBA that ranks 22nd and a 96 wRC+ that ranks 19th.

Most of the excitement for this franchise is on the mound or remaining in the minors. Right hander Michael Fulmer is back from elbow surgery and top prospects Casey Mize (#1 overall 2018 draft) and Tarik Skubal were recently promoted to fill out the rotation after injuries and poor performance for veterans Ivan Nova and Jordan Zimmermann. The average-ish Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull are the other regular starters for Detroit, both coming off about 3 WAR seasons in 2019. Approaching the trade deadline on Monday, it will be interesting to see if a start this weekend is the last for Boyd in a Tigers uniform. While he’s struggled mightily in 2020 (8.48 ERA), he’s been speculated as a deadline trade candidate since last July. Collectively, Tigers’ starters have MLB’s worst ERA (7.22), a figure that is supported by MLB’s 2nd-worst FIP (6.10), and have covered the third fewest innings. Only Miami and St. Louis starters, pitching for teams that have lost several games due to COVID-19 postponements, have thrown fewer innings.

The bullpen has been more middle of the pack, despite that heavy workload. By ERA (4.68, 18th) and FIP (4.51, 17th), the group has somewhat held their own. There are a few names you might recognize, including Daniel Norris, Buck Farmer, and Joe Jimenez. Otherwise it’s a bunch of 25 and 26 year olds – Gregory Soto (LHP), Bryan Garcia (RHP), John Schreiber (RHP), Kyle Funkhouser (RHP), Tyler Alexander (LHP), Rony Garcia (RHP) – that are mostly in their first taste of the majors.

On the prospect front, Detroit has probably already made all the big moves that they will in 2020 in promoting Mize, Skubal, and Paredes. There are a few other highly regarded names in their 60 man player pool, but they are unlikely to get the call to Detroit this season. Prospect arms Matt Manning and Alex Faedo were shutdown due to injuries just this week and 2020 top draft choice Spencer Torkelson is not expected to get a chance in the majors this year.

All told, this is a rebuilding club that looks pretty far away from competing for the AL Central.

Three Breakdowns:

★ ★ ★

Swing Happy Kitties

One of the weird things about a season like this is all the oddities that come about from small sample sizes. For instance, I mentioned above Detroit’s offense is not particularly menacing. However, despite their overall results, the Tigers have baseball’s best Hard-Hit rate, 43.1%, and 5th best average exit velocity, 89.3 mph. Any batted ball with an exit velocity 95 mph or higher is classified as “hard-hit.”

Unfortunately for Detroit, those hard-hit balls haven’t led to great productivity in terms of runs, partly because the team struggles to get on base (.304 OBP, 26th) and strikes out a lot (27.5%, 30th). Given those figures it’s not surprising to see that Detroit is a swing-happy bunch, offering at 48.4% of pitches thrown their way (3rd most, MLB). Many of those swings come up empty, though, as the team also sports baseball’s worst whiff rate (31.2%, MLB average: 24.4%) and 3rd-worst chase rate (30.3%, MLB average: 28.2%).

What to look for:

Twins pitchers should be aggressive in attacking the Detroit hitters, particularly with off-speed pitches early in counts. This is a team that will swing a lot and that can do some damage punishing mistakes. It will be important for Twins starters to regularly get ahead and to two strikes so they can then work to expand the zone up, and down and away. Working ahead and keeping Detroit’s hitters off of meatball fastballs is key to taking advantage of Detroit’s aggressive approach and willingness to chase out of the zone.

Chicago Cubs v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

★ ★ ★

The decline of Miguel Cabrera

Detroit DH Miguel Cabrera is likely on a path to the Hall of Fame – however, he’s also very clearly in the waning stages of his career. Cabrera has been a below replacement level player in three of the past four season (including so far in 2020). He last put up more than a single win above replacement in 2016 when he was more or less what he had been previously (.399 wOBA, 38 home runs). Last season he slugged a career low .398, with only 12 home runs in 549 plate appearances (about 1 every 45 plate appearances). So far, in 2020, the slugging has declined even further, to just .343. For comparison, second basemen Luis Castillo slugged .363 in his 227 game Twins career. A career .313 hitter, Cabrera is batting just .219 in 2020.

Oddly though, Cabrera has experienced a bit of a resurgence in terms of exit velocity in 2020. His 91.9 mph average is up from last year’s 90.3 mph, which has helped him to hit 4 home runs in 123 plate appearances (about 1 every 30 plate appearances).

What to look for:

Despite the increased exit velocity this year, Cabrera’s overall production has declined again, in large part due to a career-worst .237 BABIP. Unlike a lot of aging sluggers, Cabrera has reasonably maintained his plate discipline as he’s aged. His 12.2% walk rate so far in 2020 is above his career average and his 18.7% strikeout rate is more than palatable. He’s become just slightly more swing aggressive as his contact rates have fallen with age, but he’s not experienced the dramatic deterioration of this skills that we often see with players like this. What has changed significantly is his ability to lift the baseball, evidenced by an increased groundball rate (46.4% in 2020, career: 41.7%). If Twins pitchers can execute to their spots and stay out of the middle of the plate, they can expect the lumbering Cabrera to hit a lot of ground balls that can turn into easy outs.

★ ★ ★

Scouting Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal

Mize and Skubal were both promoted to the Majors for the first time on August 17. Both college draft selections in the 2018 draft, they represent some of the best the Tigers farm system has to offer and are the first of what Detroit is hoping is a wave of young pitching prospects to find success in the Motor City. As the Twins will most likely see both pitchers in this first four game series, here are quick scouting reports on what to expect from the two youngsters:

RHP – Casey Mize – 6’3”, 220

Mize was the prize with Detroit’s first overall selection in the 2018 draft, following a dominant junior season at Auburn. Projected as a fast mover, Mize reached Double-A Erie last year, throwing a no-hitter in his first Double-A start. His season would be interrupted by a shoulder injury and while he returned in July, the Tigers thought it best to shut him down early, ending his second pro season in August. Mize offers three plus pitches, with a 70-grade splitter standing out as the best. He works off the split with a mid-90s fastball that he commands well, and an above average slider in the mid-80s that he can also manipulate into a harder cutter at times. Mize has made two MLB starts thus far, covering 7.2 innings, striking out 9, but allowing 6 earned runs on 12 hits and 2 walks. At his best, he’s expected to get strikeouts and groundballs while keeping walks to a minimum.

LHP – Tarik Skubal – 6’3, 215

The Tigers took Skubal in the 9th round of the 2018 draft after his junior season at the University of Seattle. Skubal fell in the draft in part because of his up and down performance after returning from Tommy John surgery. Still, the Tigers trusted in his raw stuff and went overslot to sign him for $350,000, betting that he’d return to form farther away from the surgery. That bet seems to have been a good one, as Skubal reached Double-A Erie last season and finished third overall in the minors in strikeouts (179) and K/9 (13.13). From the left side, you can expect to see a lively, mid-90s fastball that he complements with three solid off-speed pitches (slider, curve, change). Scouts are high on all three, but highest on the slider that he uses to tie up right-handed batters. Because of the slider and a solid changeup, Skubal had a reverse platoon split last season, holding righties to just a .180/.259/.304 composite line. So far, Gardy has been cautious with Skubal. In two starts, he’s covered just 4.1 innings, giving up 5 runs on 10 hits and 2 walks, with 6 strikeouts.

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher.