Detroit Tigers: The most pleasant surprises in 2021

Yes, it is early. The season is young, and the Detroit Tigers are off to one of the rougher starts in recent memory. They head into Thursday already five games out from even a wild card spot– leaving the fanbase antsy, to say the least.

But while there are a plethora of bleak standings, stats, and scores, there have also been some surprises most were not expecting. In the 360-degree view, these performances are not likely to propel the Detroit Tigers to contention. Surely some players have performed below expectations, too, but focusing on those doing well can offer a sliver of entertainment in an otherwise enraging season.

Not only that, but it will be important to see how the organization decides to react to these performances. Do they trade these players to ‘sell high?’ Do they hang on to them as a piece for the future? Do they possibly extend someone they otherwise wouldn’t have?

We’ve been a little down on the club at the site lately, so I wanted to dig deep to find some pluses out of the bunch thus far:

Akil Baddoo

Not starting with Baddoo would have been criminal. When he was selected from the Rule 5 Draft by the Detroit Tigers after not even finding Double-A at any point in his minor league career with the Minnesota Twins, I was convinced that Baddoo would be Victor Reyes 2.0. Not from a talent or skillset perspective necessarily, but from an organizational strategy standpoint.

I was expecting Baddoo to be stashed on the roster until season’s end, then give him a year in Triple-A in 2022 to refine his skills. I like to think many fans held a similar stance, but after a hot start in spring, that narrative slowly shifted to, “They need to trade for his rights so they can put him in the minors this year.”

As he continued to perform, the narrative then shifted again. This time to, “This guy needs to be a starting outfielder on this team.” He’s delivered thus far; slashing .241/.262/.621 with 4 home runs, 3 doubles, and 3 triples thus far–good for a 0.4 fWAR.

His strikeout rate is alarming and he is not walking nearly as much as he did in the minors, but there is plenty of time for Baddoo to adjust to a league that was forced to adjust to him. He’s not putting up all-star numbers by any stretch, but in the context of the Rule 5 Draft and the expectations of him heading into the season, his presence has been powerful.

Matthew Boyd

I wrote in the offseason that I felt Matthew Boyd was due for improvement. I shuttered as I typed it in some facets, just because we have continually waited for the Matthew Boyd breakout campaign to come and it just never has. Admittedly, my thoughts were more predicated on the fact I did not think Boyd could regress from his 2020 performance more than what I thought he would do this season, but Boyd has had an outstanding opening.

Boyd has already amassed 1.3 bWAR across his five starts; pitching 34.2 innings to a 1.82 ERA and a 0.837 WHIP. Boyd’s ERA+ of 231 would more than double his career-best of 103 in 2019. The biggest stat with Boyd, perhaps, is that he has only given up one home run so far this year. Given his homerun pace last year, he would have given up around eight by this point in the season.

Do not expect Boyd to keep such a feverish flurry through a full season, but his ability to pitch to contact, go deeper into games, and not rely so heavily on the slider puts this season head-and-shoulders above the rest already.

Michael Fulmer

I was disappointed in the comeback season of Michael Fulmer. While Tommy John is sometimes viewed as a routine procedure in the modern game, it does not affect every pitcher for the better in comparison to their former selves. I felt the days of the 96-98 mph Michael Fulmer heaters were in the rearview, as I watched him struggle to scrape 93-94 across shorter outings in 2020.

A bullpen role was implied and came to fruition, but as they do, these issues worked themselves out and the injury to Julio Teheran gave Fulmer another opportunity to start after a couple of encouraging bullpen performances.

Fulmer has added 2 mph to his fastball and 2.4 mph to his sinker this season (according to Statcast) by, from his perspective, just waking up mentally following the demotion to the pen. 3.32 ERA, 0.842 WHIP, and nearly a strikeout per inning is an exceptional reverb to a renaissance 2021 campaign.

To those who only want winning baseball in Detroit, I empathize with the sentiment and this article probably didn’t do much for you. But as long as we are going to watch this team all summer, we may as well have some intrigue and acknowledge some folks who have set themselves apart from their former selves.