Detroit — You draw fast conclusions at your own peril with this Tigers baseball team. As manager Ron Gardenhire repeated before the game Friday, it’s going to be a mix-and-match situation at a few positions.
If somebody is in left field one day, it doesn’t mean he will be there tomorrow.
“We’re still trying to use everybody,” he said. “I don’t want anybody sitting for too long a time. But we’re trying to win games at the same time. That’s the delicate part of it.”
Still, looking at Gardenhire’s lineup Friday night raised some questions. Veteran Cameron Maybin, activated from the injured list (right quad strain), was to start in right field. No surprise there, of course.
“It’s nice to have him back,” Gardenhire said. “He brings a lot to this team, not just on the field but in the clubhouse and in the dugout. He’s an important guy for us.”
But in left field, Gardenhire went with switch-hitting Victor Reyes over left-handed hitting Christin Stewart against the Indians right-handed starter Aaron Civale. Could this be a little nudge to Stewart who has just three hits in 17 at-bats this month and is 7-for-37 on the season?
Or is it just an affirmation of how valuable Reyes has become in this lineup?
Little bit of both?
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“I just have to find a place for Reyes to play,” Gardenhire said. “He makes things happen. He sprays the ball over the field, he plays great defense and the whole package. This guy (Civale) is a really tough pitcher and I just don’t have enough spots right now.
“We just have to mix and match now. Definitely wanted to get Maybin back in there. We’re just going to mix and match and do the best we can. Everyone is going to get their at-bats.”
Make no mistake, though, it’s going to be hard to keep Reyes out of the lineup. He’s been hitting ball much harder than his .267 average and .379 slugging would suggest. In fact, Statcast’s formula says Reyes’ average should be .329 based on the 90.5 exit velocity on the balls he puts in play.
His hard-hit rate is in the top 73 percentile in the game.
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“Not frustrating,” Reyes said through Tigers’ interpreter Carlos Guillen on Friday. “In fact, I am happy for that because it means I’m hitting the ball pretty well. I am sure at any given moment the results are going to change.
“If I keep hitting the ball hard, the results are going to be different than what you are seeing and what I am seeing.”
Some will fret about Reyes’ low walk rate. Last year he hit .300 in 292 plate appearances, despite a 4.8% walk rate. Analytics would suggest with that walk rate and a .384 average on balls put in play, hitting above .300 would not be sustainable.
Gardenhire doesn’t buy that.
“All I know is he has quality at-bats,” he said. “He barrels up a lot of baseballs. He fights off tough pitches. He makes the pitcher work to get him out. Somehow or another he ends up putting it in play most of the time and gives himself a chance to get a hit.
“He’s not going to walk much, he’s going to take his swings, But he gets a lot of hits and that’s what we want — a lot of hits.”
He also brings another element to the lineup — speed. His four steals lead the American League. He has been on base 15 times and scored 11 runs.
“It’s very important,” Reyes said of that aspect of his game. “You want to take advantage of every opportunity in the game to help the team score runs and win the game. If I have a chance to steal a base or take an extra base, then I have an opportunity to score a run.
“And if you can help the team score runs, that’s the main goal.”
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With C.J. Cron (knee) out of the lineup, Gardenhire has had to shuffle his batting order. With Stewart out Friday against a right-hander, he moved Reyes up to the No. 2 hole, moving Jonathan Schoop down to the clean-up spot.
“He’s a good base runner, very aggressive base runner,” Gardenhire said. “He gets good leads and he knows if he doesn’t get a good jump he doesn’t go. He has a pretty good plan when he’s running the bases.”
Time flies. It was just a couple of years ago when as a Rule-5 rookie straight out of Double-A that all Reyes did was run. He was essentially Victor Martinez’s personal pinch runner in 2018. But Reyes wasn’t just sitting idly by in the dugout waiting for the call. He was studying — hitters, pitchers, base runners.
“Preparation is important, that’s what I have learned,” Reyes said. “I learned to watch hitters and learn from them. I took a little bit from a few and a lot from others — like Victor and Miguel (Cabrera). But the most important thing I learned is preparation, how to prepare every day.
“So far that has been beneficial.”
Before every game, Reyes, along with JaCoby Jones, Niko Goodrum and some of the other speedier Tigers, go over reports on the opponent’s pitchers, their times to home, and catchers, their pop time to second, and the arm strength of the outfielders.
“We help each other,” Reyes said. “We have a lot of good base runners here — Niko and JaCoby for sure. I just pay attention. If we have a chance to take an extra base, we’re going to do it.”
Stewart had been getting all the starts in left field against right-handed pitching when Maybin was out. Reyes would start in right field against right-handers and in left field against left-handers. Now, with Maybin back, it will worth watching how Gardenhire works Stewart back into the mix.
As it stands now, though, Jones and Reyes seem like they’re daily fixtures in the outfield.
“I like this kid a lot,” Gardenhire said of Reyes. “I think he has earned the right to play and get on the field – just because of what he did last year alone.”