In advance of the upcoming Tigers series, I exchanged some questions with Ashley MacLennan of our sister site, Bless You Boys, asking about life with a rebuilding franchise and the few bright spots in a losing season.
You might think you know her as Ashley MacLennan of DRaysBay, but don’t be fooled. Totally different aspect.
You can find my answers to her questions here on Bless You Boys.
Ian Malinowski: The Tigers have had a pretty terrible season, trailing the league with a winning percentage around .300. It seems hard to lose that many games. How did they get to this dark place? How are the fans taking it?
Ashley MacLennan: It has been... not great. The Tigers recently just won their first back-to-back games since LATE MAY, their first time winning two in a row at home since April. That two-game winning streak then ended in another loss. They could very well make history this season by being worse than the 2003 club, so I guess at least we could be historically bad. That’s something. The fan base hasn’t been turning out to games as much, as one might expect, but when they do it seems that they’re there to have fun and aren’t taking the losing too seriously. As for what got them here, it’s an intense focus on the idea of a rebuild for some uncertain future season, while doing their best to spend no money at all in the interim.
IM: On the bright side, 28 year old starting pitcher Matthew Boyd, who the Rays will face in this series, has been a real bright spot, striking out nearly 32% of the batters he’s faced while walking under 6%. That’s far better than anything Boyd has done before. What’s been the difference? And how has he done it? Do you believe in the breakout?
AM: I believe Matthew Boyd is good. He gave up four home runs against the Mariners on Tuesday and has looked unsteady since the trade deadline, making many quick to say the Tigers made a mistake not moving him when they could. But even good pitchers have bad outings. Boyd took a lot of time doing self-focused work on his pitching in the offseason, and he changed his training regimen, what he was eating, and added natural supplements to the mix. Whether any of those things individually helped him is hard to say, but I think the overall intense focus on his overall health and well-being was a big factor in him starting so strong. I think his current slump is just a blip.
IM: Boyd won’t be a free agent until 2023, making him one of the most valuable players potentially available this past trading deadline. Yet the Tigers held on to him. Why? What’s the plan in Detroit? Does the team think it can contend while Boyd is still around to be a part of it? And are more Tigers fans happy or unhappy that they still get to watch him?
AF: I think the idea is that they want guys like Boyd and Fulmer around still for the next contending season (2022? Maybe?). Because of that extended control time, I think they needed a very big return if they were going to trade him, and I’m sure they didn’t get offered anything close to what they assumed his future value for the club is. That said, the same situation occurred after the 2016 season with Michael Fulmer and they held onto him. Now he’s missed a whole season due to surgery, and has never really shown a season performance close to his breakout year. Time will tell if holding onto Boyd was a mistake, but I don’t think it was.
IM: Niko Goodrum is interesting. While not a big steals guy, and not a standout on the Statcast sprint speed leaderboards, Ultimate Base Running (which tries to measure a player’s ability to take extra bases) thinks he’s been the best baserunner in the league. Can that be right? How does he do it? And I see that he’s played literally every position except catcher, and is leading Tigers hitters in fWAR. What’s Goodrum’s role on a hypothetical winning Tigers team?
AM: The Tigers just recently tested Goodrum in centerfield again, following the JaCoby Jones injury, and the result was a bobbled catch that got converted into a three-run homer for the Mariners. So basically, it was not a great outing, and I can safely say his future is not as a centerfielder. Where I see Goodrum being the most useful is in the infield. Prior to the season I said he should be the Tigers every day second baseman, and then they signed Josh Harrison. Harrison has missed most of the season, and hasn’t produce a ton in the games he was in. I think using Goodrum probably would have been more helpful.
Last year he was one of the few Tigers with a wRC+ over 100, this season he’s right near the line at 96. He is a good utility player who could be a solid second baseman, but I think he’ll continue to be used all over the field. Just not center.
IM: What pitch from the Tigers staff is going to make Rays fans sit up straight and go “Wow!” when they see it.
AM: I said wow to former Tigers Alex Avila and Ian Kinsler this week as they both pitched. But that’s not what you meant. Edwin Jackson’s fastball surprised us recently!
IM: Rays fans are going to miss Jackson this series, so I’m going to show the people what you mean. For all of us who wonder how the well-traveled Jackson keeps getting major league jobs at 35, it has something to do with the fact that he can still pump mid-90s heat on a starter’s workload, both four-seamers and two-seamers.
That’s the Edwin Jackson Rays fans know. Here’s the one they don’t. He’s also added a low-90s cutter to his repertoire, that has impressive gloveside action for a pitch that hard. And he can, on occasion, amp it up to the mid-90s as well.
I wish there was a better camera angle on this pitch, but it’s definitely something. It’s not unlike one of those hard cutting four-seams Tyler Glasnow was throwing earlier in the year.
IM: Al Avila was just given a contract extension. Are Tigers fans on board with that? Is he the man to oversee this rebuild?
AM: The answer to this has been a resounding “meh.” Avila has been a fine GM, but not an exciting one, and not one who makes any bold or unexpected moves. He hasn’t been able to spend a lot, and he hasn’t done much that’s flashy. I think a lot will depend on what he decides to do when Ron Gardenhire’s contract is up. I think Gardy was a great pick for the early years of the rebuild, but I think the team needs someone younger or more willing to lean on statistical analysis going forward.
Honestly, as far as the GM role goes, fellow editor Brandon Day and I are BIG champions of the Tigers stealing Chaim Bloom away.
IM: FanGraphs has the Detroit minor league system currently ranked 11th, and it’s headlined by one of the most exciting pitching prospects in baseball, in Casey Mize. Beyond Mize, what have Tigers fans got to look forward to? And are any of them up right now?
AM: Lots of solid pitching in Mize, Matt Manning, Beau Burrows, and even periodically Alex Faedo. Mize is obviously the most exciting of the lot. 2019 amateur draft pick Riley Greene has also had a hot start. As for players soon to move into the majors, there’s catcher Jake Rogers (who IS in the majors now), and I believe is the Tigers catcher of the future, and then there’s Willi Castro who we’ll likely see in September, and I believe is going to be a really solid SS for the Tigers, who needed a good prospect there after they traded away a different Willy...
IM: Prediction for the series?
AM: Rays will definitely win the series, but the Tigers will sneak in a single win.
Big thanks to Ashley. See you on the other side of the series.