After finishing with the worst record in the majors in 2019 and the third-worst last year, the Detroit Tigers drastically improved in 2021. Behind controversial new managerial hire A.J. Hinch, the Tigers finished at 77-85 after losing 114 games in 2019. Hinch, of course, was the manager of the Houston Astros during their 2017 cheating scandal and was suspended for the 2020 season. Then, as soon as he was available to be hired again, Detroit bounced on it. The hiring was not received well by fans throughout baseball at the time, but it worked in the team’s favor as he gave them an extra edge to win games (no I don’t mean they cheated). Just like the Astros were and are good without cheating, so is Hinch. The Tigers have a lot that they can build on, going into next year.
Manager: A.J. Hinch
Position: Third in AL Central
Postseason: Missed Playoffs
The Tigers were led by a couple of breakout seasons and a young pitching staff. Overall, they had an average age of 28, one of the younger teams in the majors. They didn’t have a set five-man rotation, with seven pitchers starting at least 15 games on the season. Those seven starters averaged out to have a 4.32 ERA, but they had a couple of outliers who had over a 5 ERA. The Tigers’ bullpen was solid as well, having a 4.50 ERA, allowing just over a homer per nine, and leaving 71.7 percent of baserunners on.
On the offensive side, Detroit had five hitters at or above the MLB average 100 wRC+ and four hitters with over a .750 OPS. Akil Baddoo was on fire to begin the season before he fell back down to earth in a breakout year. But the 22-year-old still wound up having a good overall season, recording a 108 wRC+, 13 homers, and 18 stolen bases.
Most Valuable Player: Jeimer Candelario
After a big breakout year last season, Candelario kept it going in 2021. The 27-year-old led the team in bWAR (3.7), fWAR (3.2), and wRC+ (119), along with mashing 16 homers and leading the league with 42 doubles. In 2019, he hit just .203 over 94 games and was up-and-down between Triple-A Toledo and the majors. After not being sure whether he would be in the Tigers’ long-term plans, Candelario quickly proved he can hit and be a leader for years to come.
Starting Pitcher of the Year: Spencer Turnbull
Despite starting just nine games, Turnbull was that dominant in those starts to earn this award. The right-hander led all Tiger starters with a 1.5 fWAR, 2.95 FIP, and 2.88 ERA. Over 50 innings, the 28-year-old struck out batters at a 21.9 percent rate while walking just 6 percent of batters and allowing 0.36 HR/9. Back in May, Turnball pitched the fifth of a single-season record nine (10*) no-hitters throughout baseball against the Seattle Mariners, a near playoff team. Unfortunately, Turnbull’s season was cut short as he underwent Tommy John surgery back in July. But what he did in the time he was on the field was outstanding.
Relief Pitcher of the Year: Michael Fulmer
The starter turned reliever was tremendous out of the bullpen, becoming one of the Tigers’ most reliable arms. In 52 appearances, Fulmer recorded a 2.53 ERA, 3.27 FIP, and a 1.4 fWAR. In 57 innings, the 28-year old struck out 66 while walking 15 and allowing less than a homer per nine.
Best Hitter of the Year: Jeimar Candelario
Candelario had a .286 xBA, .456 xSLG, .355 xWOBA, and a 39.1 percent hard-hit rate. All of these marks were near the top for Tigers hitters, with his xWOBA being the highest. His 10.4 percent walk rate was also in the 70th percentile in all of the majors.
Best Fielder of the Year: Jonathan Schoop
The Tigers were not a great defensive team, but Schoop was fairly good at second and first base. Overall, he had six outs above average, five at first base and one at second base. His 8.78 range factor per nine innings ranked first among all first basemen and his 58 assists at first was fifth. The former Baltimore Oriole also had four total zone runs at second which ranked third in the majors.
Comeback Player of the Year: Michael Fulmer
Fulmer hit rock bottom in 2020, after missing all of 2019 with injuries and coming off of Tommy John surgery. In 10 starts, the right-hander had an abysmal 8.78 ERA and 6.91 FIP in 27 2/3 innings. The 2016 AL Rookie of the Year seemed to have fallen off a cliff before the Tigers decided to give him a shot in the bullpen. It worked out mightily, as he wound up as the closer by season’s end, converting 14 save opportunities, including the last five straight. He will be a free agent following the 2022 season, and another solid year will earn him a good contract.
The Tigers have a bright future ahead of them, as they have a number of terrific prospects on the way, including two top 10 prospects in all of baseball, Spencer Torkelson (#4) and Riley Greene (#7). They both will likely be up at some point next year and could give Detroit a huge spark. Their young pitching will have to continue to get better to speed up the rebuild. Bringing in a veteran arm or two to bolster the rotation and/or bullpen would be key. Next season will start out with a milestone watch, as Miguel Cabrera is 13 hits away from 3,000 for his career. Cabrera eclipsed the 500 career home run mark this past season.
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images