There isn’t much optimism with Detroit’s professional sports teams right now.
The Pistons just finished a 20-52 season and haven’t won a playoff series since 2008. The Lions are obviously starting over; at least Matt Patricia is gone. The Red Wings finished at the bottom of the NHL’s Central Division and probably don’t have a signature player. No one’s planning a parade route on Woodward Avenue anytime soon.
Maybe the Tigers can offer some hope. You have to squint to see it, but let’s find a positive spin.
Two young pitchers offer hope for Detroit Tigers
The pitching staff was on point in Monday’s 4-1 victory at Seattle. Casey Mize had the best start of his career, working 7.2 strong innings (3 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 7 K) and scoring his third win. Mize lowered his ERA to 3.69 and his WHIP to 1.19, playable numbers in some mixed leagues.
The key for Mize is the strikeouts; he hasn’t had a lot of swing and miss in his game thus far. For the year he’s averaging a mere 6.6 K/9, and he’s also been walking 3.7 batters per nine. His fantasy hook right now is as possible streamer, when the opponent looks reasonable. But that K/BB ratio needs to bump up before we take him seriously.
The hope is that Mize can grow into a legitimate ace. He was the first pick in the 2018 Draft after a sterling career at Auburn University. When a team selects a college pitcher, it expects him to be on a fast track, close to a finished product. Mize turned 24 at the beginning of the month. If he’s going to be special, we should see it soon, perhaps later in the year. I’m keeping an open mind.
If you’re looking to grab a Tigers pitcher today, focus on the guy who finished the game. Michael Fulmer worked a tidy ninth inning after Gregory Soto cleaned up the eighth. Fulmer now has three saves to Soto’s four, and Fulmer’s under-the-hood stats are much better. Perhaps this bullpen belongs to Fulmer now.
A few years ago, Fulmer was in Mize’s shoes, seen as the future ace of the team. Fulmer hit the ground running, winning the AL’s Rookie of the Year in 2016 and making the All-Star team a year later. But he pitched hurt for most of 2018 and eventually needed Tommy John surgery. His 10 starts last year were a disaster — ERA over 8.
But maybe those stats are irrelevant. It takes a few years for pitchers to feel back to normal after the TJ procedure. Fulmer’s been sharp for most of 2021.
Although Fulmer has made four starts this year, it looks like the bullpen transition might be permanent. So far, so good — his fastball velocity is up two ticks from last year, and his swinging strike rate is at a career-best 13 percent. His strikeout and walk rates are both over his career norms, too.
If I ran the Tigers, I’d park Fulmer in the ninth inning and leave him alone.
Fulmer is rostered in a modest 14 percent of Yahoo leagues if you’re looking for a possible saves source. Mize draws the Royals next, a team I’m willing to stream against. You can add him in about three-quarters of Yahoo leagues.
Tyler Rogers surging in San Francisco
Although strikeouts smother the current shape of baseball, the Giants aren’t a team beholden to that stat. Jake McGee pushed off to a strong start in the ninth inning but he’s scuffled of late, and maybe that opens the door for Tyler Rogers to take the San Francisco baton.
Rogers isn't someone who throws with his hair on fire; he's a soft-rock artist. His average fastball, if we can call it that, clocks in the low 80s. For Rogers, it's all about angle and deception, living that submarine life.
Style aside, Rogers has been the handshake guy the last two games, finishing at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. His ratios are too good to be true — 0.73 ERA, 0.77 WHIP — and it’s come as a pitch-to-contact special. He’s only whiffed 12 batters in 24.2 innings. The sidewinder sleeps (and saves) tonight.
Anyone with even a tiny bit of statistical experience knows that outlier ERAs are almost never supported in the expected stats, but when you look under the hood with Rogers, his dominance is mostly validated. His expected ERA only moves to 1.94 if you work off Statcast data. Rogers has two key skills that virtually guarantee pitcher success: he’s inducing a ton of ground balls (67.6 percent), and he’s inducing very soft contact. A ground ball never goes over the fence. And a ground ball to the San Francisco infield usually turns into an out.
Rogers is still free to add in about half of the Yahoo universe. The Giants look like they could be a surprise contender for 2021, with a starting staff that’s been better than expected.
Brandon Crawford reinvents himself
Speaking of the Giants infield, we need a quick word on Crawford. Generally, we think of him as a great defender and an ordinary hitter, but he’s found his power stroke this year.
Aided by a surging barrel rate and a more aggressive launch angle, Crawford already has nine home runs. He’s also stolen three bases, and when someone has that kind of category juice, I don’t care what the average is. (Yeah, Crawford’s at .239, but that’s not a kill shot in today’s game. And he’s also walking at a career-best 10.5 percent.)
The Giants kept their archways closed last year and for once, the ball really flew at their beautiful home park. They’ve kept the archways closed this year, too, though it’s not clear if it’s a permanent decision. All I know is this; so long as the ball is playing more fair in San Francisco, I’m open to their left-handed batters. Crawford, Brandon Belt, Mike Yastrzemski, come on down — I'll make room for you.