Detroit — Niko Goodrum led off the eighth inning Wednesday night with a walk. The Tigers, who had blown a seven-run lead the night before, were clinging to a skinny two-run margin and an add-on run would look mighty favorable. Goodrum was eyeing second base with bad intent.
On the mound, though, was Royals’ hard-throwing right-hander Josh Staumont — not the easiest cat to run on. Goodrum measured him for five pitches and drew two pickoff throws. Finally, on the sixth pitch he bolted and stole his sixth base of the season.
“Niko hung at first base while it was 1.2 (seconds to the plate), 1.25, 1.3, and when it crept into 1.4 he stole second,” manager AJ Hinch said. “That, to me, is great awareness. Part of our style of play is to take 90 feet when you can take it.”
As the Tigers are slowly coming out of their April hitting funk, we are starting to see the style of play Hinch has been trying to instill in Detroit. The two-strike hitting has improved in the last two weeks. More balls are being put in play. The situational hitting has ticked up. Guys are going first to third aggressively and successfully.
“We’ve been focusing on that,” said Miguel Cabrera, who going into the game Thursday had six hits and four walks in the last four games. “Not chasing pitches. They’ve been pitching us too much around the zone. We are an aggressive team. We go up there to swing and make something happen, but that’s not the way we are going to get hits and score runs.
“Hopefully we can continue this, continue to have good at-bats.”
With the increased traffic on the bases comes the threat of the stolen base. The Tigers have stolen 18 bases in 21 attempts. Goodrum is leading the way with six steals in nine attempts.
“I know that’s a lot by today’s standards, but it’s not a lot by baseball standards, if you watched the game over the last couple of decades,” Hinch said. “It’s an area of the game where the analytics have slowly chiseled away at that part of the style of play.
“But it’s a part that might bounce back a little if you teach it the right way.”
Such aggression comes with some risk-reward, of course. The Tigers have already had 10 runners thrown out on the bases, four at home plate. But only three have been caught stealing. Hinch, though, says the risks are calculated and the price of playing aggressively.
“I understand the value of an out and risk of giving an out away without putting a ball in play,” he said. “As the game has gotten more analytical, the fear of making an out on the bases has exploded. But when the game gives you that, gives you a chance to advance 90 feet, you can also create more opportunities for yourself if you are willing to risk an out.
“If teams are not going to pay attention to the stolen base and they’re going to be 1.4, 1.5, 1.6 seconds to the plate and we have an opportunity to take 90 feet, why wouldn’t you take it?”
That mindset feeds another tenet of Hinch’s managerial style — apply pressure on the opponent in every facet of the game. In the second inning Wednesday, Goodrum got a huge secondary lead off first base and on a routine ground ball to the left side of the infield he beat the throw to second base.
He then tagged and went to third on a fly out to center and scored on a two-strike, two-out, opposite-field single by JaCoby Jones.
“It’s great to see him getting on base,” Hinch said of Goodrum. “He’s on pace to steal a lot more bases. He beat out that ground ball at second base. The other day he got to second on a ground ball single. It’s just all these small little things that are very productive.”
Goodrum has been the model for the adjustments the Tigers hitters have made this month. After hitting .191 with an on-base average of .257 and 31 strikeouts in April, Goodrum, who had two hits Thursday, is hitting .382 (13-for-34) with a .475 on-base percentage and a .944 OPS in May. He has seven walks, five RBIs and five stolen bases.
“Some two-strike hits, too, that’s been nice to see,” Hinch said. “He’s making that adjustment. A little while back he started choking up for a little more bat control. He’s understanding more about hitting in lanes and picking pitches he can handle. He’s fouling off some of those high fastballs that have plagued him in the past.
“Those adjustments on the bat to ball, both on the preparation side and the function of the swing — it’s been a nice thing to see him get low-liner base hits, drive some balls the other way and draw some deep-count walks.”
The Tigers, averaging five runs a game in the first nine games of the month, are hitting .263 (up from .199 in April), getting on base at a .355 clip (up from .257) and have an OPS of .729 (up from .602)
It’s a small sample, sure, a baby step. But it’s a forward step, nevertheless.