The glow of a big win was still fresh when hitting coach Lloyd McClendon hopped on the Tigers team bus after a 6-3 win over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on the final day of the season’s first half. The Tigers had lost six games in a row and the outlook seemed dim that the Tigers would be able to stop the skid that day against former teammate Justin Verlander.
Verlander was dominating the American League with a 9-4 record and a 2.05 ERA. On paper, it was a mismatch. The betting line wasn’t pretty. Let’s just say that Vegas wasn’t a believer in the Tigers that day.
Verlander opened the game by striking out the side in the first inning and everything was going according to script. Then it didn’t. John Hicks clubbed a second-inning homer to give the Tigers a 2-0 lead and before the day was done, the Tigers touched Verlander for four homers and scored a 6-3 win.
Yet, McClendon didn’t exactly seem excited about the fact that his offense jumped Verlander.
When reminded about the four home runs, McClendon brought the audience back to reality. “We had 16 strikeouts,” he barked. How’s that’s for a buzzkill? But that is the crux of the problem this season for the Tigers offense. The strikeouts are piling up and so are the runners left on base. It is partly due to the youth in the lineup, but it is also late July, and improvements in that area have been slow to come.
All outs are not created equally. For example, on Sunday at Comerica Park, the Boston Red Sox showed why they are the best offense in the league. They average over five runs per game this year and it is very evident why. Yes, having J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts in the lineup helps, but beyond that, they string together professional at-bats when it counts the most. In the second inning, the Red Sox had runners at second and third with no outs. A groundball by Rafael Devers scored a run and also advanced a runner. Eduardo Nunez then followed with another ground ball to score the runner from third. Or, in baseball parlance, two productive outs. That is precisely where the Tigers have fallen short this year.
Too often this season the Tigers have struck out with runners in scoring position (RISP). In fact, the Tigers have struck out 207 times this year with runners in scoring position, the fifth-highest total in the American League. As a team, they have a club average of .228 with RISP, 12th in the A.L.
It’s no secret that strikeouts are up around baseball because that is the way the game is trending. The Tigers, however, don’t have the luxury of abandoning a two-strike approach when they have men on base. Spreading out at the plate and finding a way to drive in a run is what separates the good teams from, well, the not so good.
Baseball is at a crossroads of sorts, caught between the entertainment of the long ball and the efficiency of smaller ball that tends to keep the action moving. Strikeouts across baseball have been up every year for over a decade. Fans marvel at the Rangers Joey Gallo when he hits a ball 450 feet. His strikeouts conversely are greeted with an “oh well.” He is on pace to strikeout 219 times in 2018. That would approach the single-season strikeout mark of 223.
I am all for letting the game evolve organically. If slugging homers at the expense of batting average and efficiency are becoming the norm, then knock yourself out, but only if you have a team built to do so. The Tigers are not built for that. Not as they transition to their next contender. Instead, putting the ball in play should be the emphasis. McClendon and assistant hitting Coach Phil Clark know that to be true. However, putting practice into action had been elusive. The two have preached putting the ball in play and getting into protection mode with men on base. After all, Miguel Cabrera has built a Hall of Fame career based partly on his ability to drive in runs. If he can utilize a two-strike approach, then anyone should be able to.