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Inbox: What's the deal with Tigers' strikeouts?

Beat reporter Jason Beck answers questions from fans
@beckjason
April 15, 2019

DETROIT -- Digging into the Inbox yielded different questions this week than last. A tough week against Cleveland and at Minnesota will do that.

DETROIT -- Digging into the Inbox yielded different questions this week than last. A tough week against Cleveland and at Minnesota will do that.

Strikeouts were a topic for manager Ron Gardenhire after the Tigers left 10 runners on base in Sunday’s 6-4 loss, after going 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position a day earlier. Gardenhire has preached putting the ball in play and forcing defenses to do something, but it’s not showing right now.

Part of the weekend struggles come from what was essentially a makeshift lineup that included John Hicks batting cleanup on Sunday, with Grayson Greiner hitting behind him. Part of the struggles in Sunday’s ninth inning, too, dealt with late-afternoon shadows that left their right-handed hitters struggling to pick up spin on pitches from two Twins relievers that spin the ball.

Still, Gardenhire noted, “We need to learn to shorten our swings up and put the ball in play a little bit. We’re taking big whiffs an awful lot at a lot of pitches. As we talked about for a long time here, there’s a two-strike approach, and we need people to really buy into it a little bit. That’s how [the Twins] got their runs. We have to get better at that. We have guys that should hit the ball out of the ballpark, but there’s also a way to cut down on the strikeouts and put it in play and give yourself a chance. We’ll get better as we go along. We’ve got a lot of young people in our lineup.”

The young players, notably Christin Stewart and Jeimer Candelario, provided some of the better at-bats in Minnesota, including two ninth-inning walks, as well as a good share of strikeouts. But an offensive rebound realistically hinges on veterans picking it up. Miguel Cabrera hasn’t gotten going yet despite some hard-hit outs early, and as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello noted, he’s seeing more breaking balls and fewer fastballs.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Castellanos’ hard-hit rate is at a career high, but his barrel rate is down and his ground-ball rate is up. When you consider that Gardenhire built his batting order around getting Castellanos and Cabrera as many at-bats and RBI opportunities as possible, their struggles are going to be the team’s struggles. You don’t replace them. As for the young hitters around them, this is part of the maturation process. Stewart is going to strike out, but he also has two home runs and nine RBIs in two-strike counts this season, which is more than he has done in three-ball counts or on the first pitch.

Gardenhire addressed this after the game. The Tigers bench consisted of Castellanos, who was unable to hit due to his sprained right big toe, an ill Niko Goodrum and Josh Harrison, who was battling a sore left shoulder. The only one who might have been able to hit was Goodrum, and he would’ve had to come into the game had it gone to extra innings.

“He takes a few swings in the cage, hasn't been out on the field in three days,” Gardenhire said. “He's sitting there and he's got a heat pack on his nose.”

The bigger concern Gardenhire cited was losing one of his two catchers. Had Hicks been pinch-hit for and Greiner been injured, they would’ve been left with an emergency catcher. It’s a long shot, but it’s something that worries managers quite a bit.

The Tigers signed Harrison in part to have a veteran bat in the leadoff spot, so I’d expect they’ll stick with him up top and let him try to hit his way out of his struggles. That said, he’s struggling mightily on fastballs, as Chris McCosky of The Detroit News noted something that will have to change for Harrison to improve his .220 on-base rate and provide more RBI opportunities for Castellanos and Cabrera behind him.

Candelario has shown better at-bats in the leadoff spot (7-for-10) than when he has batted in the middle of the order (4-for-43 with five walks and 15 strikeouts everywhere else). It’s an intriguing development, but as long as Castellanos and Cabrera are batting second and third, the Tigers have few options for the middle of the order. Candelario batting leadoff would eliminate one of them.

A big reason why the Tigers called up Ronny Rodriguez on Sunday was versatility. He wasn’t simply replacing Jordy Mercer, who went on the 10-day injured list with a quad strain. He was also helping fill voids with Harrison and Goodrum sidelined. Gardenhire left open the possibility that they could change course and make another move later in the week when they get some healthy depth back. That might be more of an opportunity for Pete Kozma than Castro at this point as long as Mercer’s injury isn’t expected to be long term.

I see what you did there.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.