| Detroit Free Press
What Hank Aaron once told Detroit Tigers’ Niko Goodrum about hitting
Detroit Tigers utility player Niko Goodrum talks Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, about his defensive role and preparation for the upcoming season.
Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
Niko Goodrum said the word “hit” seven times in a row Tuesday to emphasize his priorities leading up to the 2021 season. It’s a task he didn’t accomplish for the Detroit Tigers last year, finishing with a .184 batting average in 43 games.
The 28-year-old finally found a primary home at shortstop but, following his return from an oblique injury, was promptly moved to second base as Willi Castro emerged in his absence. (Castro, 23, had a .349 average in 36 games.)
New manager AJ Hinch refers to Goodrum as a super-utility player, praising his versatility and Gold Glove-caliber defense. Yet Goodrum, entering his fifth MLB season, knows he can’t stay unless his offense improves.
“I don’t call the shots,” Goodrum said. “The biggest thing is hitting. That’s what it is. You got to hit. It doesn’t matter about defense. What you find out is the guys that hit, it doesn’t matter if they can play defense, they’re going to be in the lineup.”
Despite Goodrum’s offensive woes, the Tigers tendered him a contract and avoided arbitration with a $2.1 million deal for 2021. Unless he is non-tendered, he won’t become a free agent until after the 2023 season.
Among his 29 hits, Goodrum had seven doubles, three triples and five home runs to go with 20 RBIs. He struck out 69 times and worked just 18 walks. In 2019, Goodrum hit .248 with 12 homers, 45 RBIs, 46 walks and 138 strikeouts across 112 games.
His .185 expected batting average (second percentile in majors) and 38.5% strikeout rate (first percentile) were abysmal. This winter, he tweaked his approach in hopes of evolving into a complete switch-hitter.
As a left-handed batter, he owns a career .206 average with 29 homers in 788 at-bats. Conversely, he has a .323 batting average with four home runs in 254 at-bats as a right-handed batter.
“I’m a natural righty,” Goodrum said. “That’s a challenge, with left-handed not being my natural side. I’m trying to get to the point where I smooth things out left-handed and figure out where I’m at. Getting my approach there will be very beneficial.”
Defensively, Hinch plans to use Goodrum everywhere. He has big-league experience at second base (105 games), shortstop (81), first base (55), left field (31), right field (14), third base (11) and center field (eight).
“I think it’s become more valuable across the industry,” Hinch said in December. “Guys are getting paid that can do that. That’s one way (to make the utility role attractive for players), just letting them know how good guys have succeeded in those roles. Also, being very direct. You can’t hide it from players. Communication is key. Honesty is key.”
Moving Goodrum around gives Hinch flexibility throughout the roster. For example, he could put Goodrum at first base and Jeimer Candelario at third base to get a complete evaluation of Isaac Paredes at second base. That’s one of many potential combinations.
Without Goodrum, it becomes more difficult to test players at secondary spots.
“As far as me moving around, it’s whatever the team needs,” Goodrum said. “I don’t write the checks. If that’s the role I got to be, then that’s the decision the manager and front office have to make.”
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At shortstop in 2020, Goodrum recorded a .991 fielding percentage with one error in 117 chances across 31 games. He had plus-3 defensive runs saved at shortstop. (For comparison, Castro was minus-7.) As a second baseman, Goodrum had a .976 fielding percentage in 11 games.
Goodrum acknowledged he was pleased to finish in the top three for American League Gold Glove at shortstop, along with winner J.P. Crawford (Seattle Mariners) and Carlos Correa (Houston Astros).
He hopes to receive the hardware at some point in his career, but to do so, he needs to be in the lineup. And to stay in the lineup, Goodrum needs to consistently hit.
“It was enough games for me to see something,” Goodrum said. “It was just a tough season because everyone is going to judge you off however many games you play. It is what it is. I got what I needed out of it to see what adjustments I need to make.”