Major League Baseball returned to action Sunday, and it was a beautiful thing for Detroit Tigers fans.
And for a subset of particularly nerdy Detroit Tigers fans, yesterday was fun for another reason:
That’s right, Detroit Tigers fans and writers can now pore over the statistical minutiae of pointless exhibition games. And Tigers fans are particularly lucky, as 28 of their 29 spring training contests will feature full pitch tracking — Saturday’s game in Sarasota against the Orioles is the only outlier.
Spring training statistics are notoriously unreliable, with hitters still ramping up to game speed, and pitchers sometimes working on specific offerings. But the underlying Statcast data can still clue us in to interesting changes or trends.
But first, a more traditional stat. On Sunday the Detroit Tigers took four bases-loaded walks. That’s one more bases-loaded walk than the 2002 Tigers took for the entire season! A.J. Hinch is already working his magic. (not a guarantee)
Anyway, let’s dig into the Statcast data from the Detroit Tigers’ 10-2 victory against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday to see if anything interesting happened.
Willi Castro’s Bomb
Most of the talk surrounding Willi Castro involves his questionable defense (he was charged with an error on Sunday) or his unsustainable batting average on balls in play (.448) last season. Maybe it’s because he’s just 6’1 and 205 lbs., but we don’t often discuss how remarkably strong he is. On Sunday Willi Castro kicked off the Detroit Tigers season by taking the very first pitch he saw 458 feet to right-center:
Maybe it was a Statcast glitch, or maybe MLB’s changes to the ball have accidentally made it travel farther, but that was a poke. And we have evidence it wasn’t a fluke. Willi Castro was credited with a 445-foot home run against Cleveland last year, and a 457-foot blast in Toledo in 2019. Castro’s 458-foot bomb yesterday was longer than any Detroit Tigers home run in 2020, and it ranks as the 5th longest home run for a Tigers hitter in the Statcast era. Not a bad way to kick off the new season.
Alex Lange’s Velocity
Alex Lange was one of the two pitching prospects the Detroit Tigers acquired from the Chicago Cubs in the 2019 Nick Castellanos trade. He’s a former first-round pick, and the Tigers invited him to their summer camp last year, so teams clearly feel like there’s something there. Still, as a somewhat nondescript middle-reliever, it was a mild surprise when Detroit added him to their 40-man roster last year. But Sunday gave us a pretty good idea why.
Lange threw nine fastballs against the Phillies, and all of them registered above 96 mph. He topped out at 97.7 mph, and his average heater was 96.7. That’s fairly commonplace in Major League Baseball now — there were 56 pitcher whose fastball averaged 96.7 mph or higher last year. But it’s not too common for the Tigers, as only Gregory Soto regularly showed that kind of velocity in 2020. It’s just one outing, and Lange had trouble throwing his fastball for strikes, but that kind of velocity, paired with a slider that flashes plus, could make him a valuable member of the bullpen this season.
Kody Clemens’ Missile
Kody Clemens has always been an interesting player to watch in the Detroit Tigers farm system. He has that famous last name, of course, but he earned plenty of attention of his own after a monster junior season in college. The Tigers drafted him in the 3rd round in 2018, and the organization is lacking in second base prospects, so his progress is worth monitoring. Clemens only saw one plate appearance on Sunday, but he did well with it, lining a single at 107 mph. It was the second-hardest hit ball of the day, behind only Castro’s home run.
But it wasn’t so much the exit velocity that made Clemens’ hit impressive, but the pitch velocity. He scorched a 96.9 mph fastball from JD Hammer, which was the fastest pitch put in play in the game. In fact, just 4.3% of the 14,439 base hits in all of Major League Baseball last year came on pitches 96.9 mph or harder. And just 48 of those 617 hits left the bat at 107 mph or more. Kody Clemens can hit the fastball.