Tigers’ farm teams wrestle with whiffs, but they’re hardly alone

Detroit News

Not that Tigers fans have been in the dark here, but a certain big-league baseball team from Detroit has had its strikeout issues in 2021.

The Tigers have the third-most whiffs of any team in the majors, which invites inquiries about whether things might be any better on Detroit’s farmlands in terms of swinging and missing at pitches that ideally need to be struck.

The short answer: Not as bad as might be presumed, especially when all of baseball — major and minor leagues — has learned in the hardest way that hitting is merciless and power pitchers have been on a dramatic rise the past decade-plus across all of baseball.

A look at the Tigers’ minor-league punch-out proclivity, in order:

► Triple-A Toledo: The Mud Hens on Sunday were the best of Detroit’s affiliates in strikeouts, with 93 — third-fewest in the 20-team Triple-A East.

► Double-A Erie had 125 whiffs in 11 games — third-most of any club in the 12-team Double-A Northeast configuration.

► The West Michigan Whitecaps, playing in their new jurisdiction, High-A Central, were tied for seventh place in most strikeouts among a dozen teams, with 113.

► And in the Low-A Southeast, where Lakeland’s Flying Tigers are now housed, the Tigers’ representative is doing comparatively well, with Lakeland having fewer strikeouts in the 10-team league than any but two clubs.

Individually, some hitters were having their issues, for sure, notably at West Michigan where the Whitecaps are acclimating to life as a newly promoted High-A outpost.

Parker Meadows, a high-profile outfield prospect, has 17 strikeouts in 11 games; Reynaldo Rivera, a troubled soul since he was a second-round pick in 2017, has 14 in nine games; Spencer Torkelson, last year’s first overall draft prize, has continued with his spring-camp issues, racking up 17 strikeouts in 11 games, albeit with 10 walks.

And then there’s Dillon Dingler, the Tigers’ second draft grab last June, who had smacked three homers in his first nine minor-league games, which more than offsets the 13 punchouts he experienced in the 2021 season’s first 10 days.

The Tigers aren’t into viewing strikeouts as defensible even if there has been something of a growing nationwide epidemic.

Nor can too much be deduced when the 2021 minor-league season isn’t quite two weeks old and when samplings are not only small, but must reflect the fact there was no minor-league baseball in 2020 as COVID-19 savaged a globe.

Still … Making contact is the object for any hitter, and the Tigers, organizationally, have known for some years now that this is one category in need of work. Not that they’re alone.

“That’s the interesting thing, as everyone has seen — strikeouts are up everywhere,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads player development for the Tigers, and who split his past week eyeing prospects at Erie and West Michigan.

“Not that you condone it in any way, especially in the player-development business where we’re trying to get guys to work on controlling the strike zone and swinging at pitches in the zone, all while working in a situational-hitting component.

“It’s about taking a two-strike approach, of course. And with everything going on in the industry, everyone’s trying to develop a system when strikeouts are up everywhere.”

Fundamentally, that has to do with pitching. Twenty years ago, the number of players throwing 95-mph-plus, compared with today’s flame-throwers, was astonishingly low. Now, it seems, every team has a triple-digit pitcher, if not more, while most starters at the top and even in the mid-range of big-league rotations regularly hit the mid-90s.

Toss in high-spinning secondary stuff that also has evolved, coupled with varied speeds and better location than the game perhaps has ever known, and it’s no wonder offense has become the game’s at-large concern.

Still, strikeouts are to be viewed with perspective, as the Tigers farm probably confirms beyond the Dingler example at West Michigan.

Riley Greene, the Tigers’ top prospect, has struck out 15 times in 12 games at Erie. Greene, however, is 20 years old and is playing Double-A baseball. He has a home run and triple as part of a dozen hits in those first 12 games.

The Tigers, rest assured, aren’t overly concerned about those whiffs when Greene is hanging in nicely and adjusting steadily to a sophisticated level of professional pitching.

Torkelson struck out two more times Sunday, minus a hit, and his evolution as a mid-order mauler remains, for now, in low gear.

The Tigers are hardly worried.

“I saw him get a game-winning hit last night,” Littlefield said, referring to Torkelson’s walk-off, game-winning single against Great Lakes at Comstock Park. “He’s making progress, working the count well. Things will open up for him soon, no doubt.

“He’s hit some balls hard. He’s also hard on himself, but he’s a competitive guy, and that’s a good thing — most of the time. It can be challenging when things aren’t going well.”

That, of course, is the story of baseball. If you have an enormous capacity for humility, it’s a wonderful sport in which to indulge one’s athletic passions and fantasies. If you’re looking for something more secure, well, remember that one of the English language’s primary references to a man failing in any endeavor is that three-word metaphor:

“He struck out.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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