Entering 2018, optimism within the Detroit baseball fan community was close to a 15 year low. The dreadful close to 2017 had left Tigers’ fans with a bitter taste in their mouths. Would the 2018 squad come close to 2003’s 43-119 team? Now that speculation was always misguided, but it was assumed that this team would come close to 100 losses, if not exceed it. After all, last year’s team ended the year 24-47 in their final 71 games.
Well here we are on June 18, 2018, and the Tigers are 35-37, just 2.5 games out of first in the AL Central. That latter part is more a testament to how atrocious the AL Central is this year than anything else, but the 35-37 record is astonishing. So just how in the world did this squad turn things around? Let’s go through a few reasons:
The starting pitching is a lot better
The September 2017 Detroit starting rotation consisted of some combination of Myles Jaye, Matt Boyd, Buck Farmer, The Artist Formerly Known As Anibal Sanchez, Daniel Norris, and Chad Bell. It was really, really ugly. This year’s rotation has improved by a lot, from a combination of internal growth and free agent signings. You have to start with the presence of Matt Boyd, who was bad last year, and Michael Fulmer, who was hurt late last year. Boyd has benefitted from new pitching coach Chris Bosio more than anyone else. He’s throwing the slider more often than he has in the past and it’s resulted in the best numbers of his career: a 3.23 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 7 K/9, 3.86 FIP, 2.3 WAR. He’s emerged as an above average #3 starter and that has elevated the team. Michael Fulmer is also a story. He’s had an up and down year, tinkering with his stuff, but his last two starts have been lights out and on the whole, he’s still miles better than anything Detroit had late last year.
But also helping the squad out has been the signings of Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano. Both were signed for one reason: to be traded. The classic low cost veteran reclamation project is a smart idea for any rebuilding team and Al Avila played it perfectly. Liriano and Fiers have both put up durable, back-end caliber numbers for the team. The most stunning thing has been Blaine Hardy. The former lefty reliever has been remastered as a starting pitcher and in his last six starts has a 3.31 ERA. Who knows how much longer it can last, but he’s been a revelation.
The emergence of Joe Jimenez and Louis Coleman (!!!!) can’t be ignored, either. A year ago, Joe Jimenez had a rough go in the MLB, losing his command and getting hit hard. This year, he’s one of the MLB’s best relievers. He has a 2.04 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP with over 10 K/9 innings. Even better, in his last 15 appearances, he’s surrendered 1 run in 14.2 innings, with 20 strikeouts. He’s currently tied with Edwin Diaz for the most appearances in the MLB, at 38. Just unstoppable. Louis Coleman, a journeyman reliever with good years in his past has also emerged as an asset for the Tigers. He’s now appeared in over 15 games for the team, with a 2.37 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP, with close to 11 K/9 innings. Coleman has settled in as an excellent 7th inning man. Those two lead up to Shane Greene, who still has frustrating inconsistency, but since May 1, has been a plus closer and logging a ton of innings. With the usually steady Alex Wilson now healthy, the Tigers might have (gasp) a good bullpen.
Attention to detail
The Tigers in the Brad Ausmus era were often defined by considerable talent but sloppy play. This has reversed under Ron Gardenhire. No one is going to argue that a team starting Dixon Machado, JaCoby Jones, John Hicks, and James McCann/Grayson Greiner is really talented. But they do the little things well. BsR, a sabermetric stat by FanGraphs looking at baserunning, has the Tigers at 7.3, best in the AL and #2 in the MLB. A year ago, the Tigers were -19.8, last in the MLB. Defense is a similar story. No matter what metric you look at, be it DRS, UZR, or another sabermetric of your choice, Detroit has improved relative to the league substantially. Some of the change may be players with better skill sets for defense/fielding, but unquestionably it has to do with a managing style stressing attention to detail.
Can this all continue?
Probably not. I hate to be a killjoy, but things continuing at this pace is unlikely. The team will go through slumps and play tougher teams, but that doesn’t mean everything will revert to 2017. I think Matt Boyd’s improvement and the breakouts of Jimenez and Jeimer Candelario are here to stay. But I do expect some reversion to the mean from guys like John Hicks and Louis Coleman. Additionally, the trade deadline stands in the way. The Tigers are almost certain to trade Leonys Martin and Francisco Liriano (if he’s healthy) in July, no matter the return, since they are on one year deals. Mike Fiers could go too, if there’s a market. Would they consider moving Boyd if the return is high enough? Who knows. Shane Greene will likely be on the market, as will Jose Iglesias. While the front office has to like the surprising success of the team, they also are committed to a rebuild and the purpose of signing Martin, Fiers, and Liriano was to trade them. Expect the team to take a dip after that. But even a coming back to earth will still likely be a level of play few Tigers’ fans thought was possible this season. And between the emergence of a cornerstone third baseman (Candelario) and a closer of the future (Jimenez), along with strong showings from trade chips, this season really couldn’t realistically have gone any better so far.