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Can the Surprising Detroit Tigers Sustain Their Early Success?


In 2006, Detroit Tigers first baseman Chris Shelton had a ridiculous April, amassing a .326/.404/.783 line with 10 home runs and 20 RBI in the first month of the season.

He hit just six more home runs over the next three months before ultimately being demoted to Triple-A Toledo. All that is to say, Tigers fans are quite aware of the fact that a monstrous April doesn't always equate to a great season.

Fast forward to 2018, and there are a handful of Tigers who are off to unexpectedly hot starts. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario, outfielders JaCoby Jones and Leonys Martin, and starting pitchers Matthew Boyd and Francisco Liriano are all either young guys with minimal big league experience or veterans who have served as peripheral role players over the last couple seasons, but their April efforts have made them players keep an eye on. The question is, can any of them sustain this early output?

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Jeimer Candelario

When the Tigers acquired Candelario at the trade deadline last season in a deal that sent Justin Wilson to the Cubs, they received a highly-touted prospect who had appeared in just 16 games at the MLB level. He hadn't demonstrated a ton of power or speed, and struck out around 20% of the time at Triple-A. But in 27 games with Detroit, Candelario hit for a .330 average with two homers to round out the 2017 season. This year, he's picked up right where he left off.

So far on the year, Candelario's batting line is sitting at .290/.359/.548 through 103 plate appearances. He also has four home runs, 11 RBI, and 13 runs scored while hitting out of the number-two slot in the Tigers lineup, right in front of Miguel Cabrera and Nicholas Castellanos. As a result, ownership of Candelario has increased to 24% in Yahoo! leagues, with 5,902 fantasy owners adding him to their roster on Wednesday alone. Clearly, there are a number of fantasy owners who are banking on Candelario maintaining this level of productivity. While there are a few red flags on his peripheral numbers, there is also reason to believe those who have taken a chance on him could be on to something.

For starters, Candelario is still striking out 21.4% of the time and only walking at an 8.7% rate. His BABIP is a whopping .343, but it's worth noting that his BABIP was above .300 in two seasons of Triple-A ball and during his MLB stint last season, too. That's likely due to a 38% hard contact rate (it definitely doesn't have anything to do with speed). What's most impressive about Candelario, though, has been the rate at which he makes contact. Candelario has seen 4.11 pitches per plate appearance this season, comparable to guys like the Angels' Justin Upton or the Dodgers' Chris Taylor. His 423 pitches seen puts him fourth among AL third basemen. All of this can be owed to the fact that when Candelario sees his pitch, he rarely misses. In fact, Candelario makes contact on 90.2% of his swings in the strike zone, and on 81.5% of all pitches he swings at. This proclivity for putting together quality at bats and making hard contact indicate that we could be witnessing a breakout year for the 24 year old.

 

JaCoby Jones

At the start of the season, outfielder JaCoby Jones wasn't even sure he was going to make the opening day roster. He did, and saw limited time through the first couple of weeks as he shared duties with Mikie Mahtook and Victor Reyes. But Mahtook's early-season struggles earned him a demotion to Triple-A Toledo, opening a door for Jones. Since then, he's made the most of the opportunity. Over his first 50 at bats, Jones is slashing .280/.351/.480 with two homers and three steals. He's been particularly hot as of late, with nine hits, six runs scored, and six RBI over the last seven games. While his energy has made him both exciting to watch and useful in daily formats, it's incredibly likely that a regression is going to hit Jones hard.

At the moment, Jones is striking out 24.6% of the time. Believe it or not, that's a ridiculous 18% lower than his total over the previous two season at the MLB level, during which he has averaged a 42.6% strikeout rate. I don't doubt that Jones has improved his plate discipline in his age-25 season, but I do doubt that he's improved it this much. Steamer projections have Jones finishing the year with a 32.3% strikeout rate, which is far less appealing. Jones has also made hard contact 51% of the time, leading to an ISO power rating of .200 and a .343 BABIP. None of these are sustainable. Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge led all of MLB in 2017 with hard contact rates of 45.8% and 45% respectively, and to put it bluntly, Jones is not Gallo or Judge. Don't get me wrong, Jones is beginning to develop into a serviceable player, and his defense has been a tremendous help in the Detroit outfield, but from a fantasy perspective, he simply isn't a viable option in the long term.

 

Leonys Martin

A veteran outfielder on what is now his fourth team, Leonys Martin was signed by the Tigers to essentially be a stop-gap center fielder. The Tigers are in full-on rebuild mode, and they simply wanted someone who could patrol Comerica Park's expansive outfield respectably. They've gotten that and more from Martin so far this season, as he's quietly turning in a productive start. He has secured the everyday job not only in center field, but also as the Tigers' leadoff hitter, which has undoubtedly contributed to his fantasy value thus far. Martin is an example of a player who may be overachieving at the moment, but who can continue to chug along at a serviceable-but-unremarkable pace, making him a player to consider in deeper mixed leagues or in AL-only formats.

Martin's .277/.341/.494 batting line has been respectable, and his .304 BABIP would seem to indicate that luck isn't much of a factor at this point. Martin does have two infield hits and three bunt hits this April, but even if those trends don't continue, the fact that he's only striking out 18.7% of the time bodes well for the rest of the season. Martin's four home runs have been a nice surprise, but let's remember that he does have a bit of sneaky power: he put up 15 HR in 143 games in 2016 when he played for the Mariners. As Detroit's everyday guy atop the order, he is on pace for 705 plate appearances, shattering his career high of 583. In other words, Martin doesn't even have to drastically up his game-to-game output to be a fantasy-relevant player. He just needs to keep doing what he's doing, and the sheer volume of plate appearances will help to grow his counting stats. Throw in the fact that he has already scored 17 runs and has three seasons of 20 or more stolen bases to his credit, and he becomes a pretty nice fourth outfielder who can be snatched up under the radar.

 

Matthew Boyd

The early success of Matthew Boyd can actually be traced back to the end of the 2017 campaign. In September and October, Boyd made six starts for the Tigers and worked to a 2.95 ERA over 36 2/3 innings of work. It didn't translate into a winning record, as he went 1-3 during that time span while the Tigers were tanking. That success carried over into spring training, where he struck out 26 batters in 23 2/3 innings and went 4-0 heading into the regular season.

Boyd had a rough outing his last time out against Pittsburgh, but even after getting shelled by the Pirates he still has a 2.74 ERA through his first four starts. That's due to the fact that in each of his first three starts Boyd allowed no more than one earned run and lasted at least six innings. While Tigers fans have been encouraged by what looks like a young lefty finally starting to reach his potential, peripheral numbers suggest that they'll soon be disappointed. Boyd's xFIP is an unsightly 5.63 and he's been aided tremendously by a .194 BABIP against, which can be only be described as unfathomably lucky. Boyd might be worth keeping around until his luck runs out, or to use as a streaming option against teams who struggle to hit lefties, but if you're looking for a long-term piece to bolster your pitching staff, keep looking. Boyd is not the answer to your prayers.

 

Francisco Liriano

If you're the list-making type, and you put together a list of bounce-back candidates for the 2018 season, it's not likely that Francisco Liriano was on that list. Liriano hasn't been an effective MLB starter since 2015 when he went 12-7 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The veteran lefty struggled mightily in each of the last two seasons (combined 5.18 ERA) and was relegated to a bullpen role in Houston in 2017. Those struggles aren't all that surprising for a 34-year-old pitcher, but despite recent history manager Ron Gardenhire named Liriano to the starting rotation before the conclusion of spring training. Liriano's results have not disappointed, but unless pitching coach Chris Bosio is some kind of magician, they're not likely to last for the duration of the season.

Let's look at what Liriano has done first. He's 2-1 with a 3.13 ERA and has 20 strikeouts in 23 innings of work. His fastball velocity has somehow gone up to an average of 94.1 MPH, and he's throwing his slider 36.9% of the time, more than ever in his career. Both of those could be factors in his early success, but it seems much more likely that he's simply gotten lucky and that his mistakes have yet to catch up with him. For starters, consider the fact that Liriano has allowed 4.7 walks per nine innings and has an xFIP of 4.69 on the year. Next, add in that opposing players are posting a BABIP against Liriano that is somehow even lower than Boyd's at .193. Finally, wrap your mind around the fact that this .193 BABIP has occurred despite opposing hitters making hard contact 38.3% of the time. That, my fellow fantasy owners, is a recipe for disaster.

 

Conclusion

The Tigers are 10-12 on the season, a mark that is less than stellar but still exceeding the expectations of many experts. It's well known that the Tigers are rebuilding and will be for a while, so seeing hot starts from unexpected names is certainly a surprise. At this point in the season, it can be both easy and dangerous to fall fast for a player who is sizzling out of the gate. Nobody wants to commit a roster spot to the next Chris Shelton, but you also don't want to be the owner who missed the boat on the next Aaron Judge. As always, exercise caution with any fast starter. A couple of these Tigers might be able to keep rolling, but not all of them. Best of luck, RotoBallers.

 

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