Milwaukee – It’s not the sort of thing you make t-shirts or throw parades for. But in the context of the Tigers’ recent history, it deserves at least a huzzah.
The Tigers posted a winning record in the month of May, going 14-13. It was their third winning month in five years.
“Yeah, that’s hard for me because I don’t want that to be a surprise to anybody,” manager AJ Hinch said before the game Tuesday. “I realize historically where it’s been for the last few years. But we need to make that more the norm around here. Because winning months are exactly what we’re trying to do.”
The turnaround from an abysmal 8-19 month of April was fueled primarily by improved pitching. The club’s ERA dropped from 5.08 in April to 3.66 in May and the bullpen, worst in the Majors with a 6.70 ERA in April, posted a 3.91 ERA in May, which coincided with Michael Fulmer’s emergence as a late-inning stopper.
Offensively, the Tigers put up more quality at-bats, taking 39 more walks in May than April and posting an OPS-plus of 115, up from 64 in April. Jeimer Candelario, who has been steady as a rock in both months, and Jonathan Schoop helped fuel the surge.
“I do want to acknowledge the work we’re putting in,” Hinch said. “Moving forward, this is what we want our standard to be, what we want our goal to be. It’s hard to do consistently. But I want to celebrate it enough to acknowledge we’re getting better.
“But to say we’re where we need to be and just put up our feet and acknowledge success, no, there were still a lot of winnable games in that month that we didn’t win.”
Epitome of resiliency
If you want a poster child for the Tigers’ offensive improvement, and maybe for the overall resiliency of the entire team, look no further than rookie Akil Baddoo. Nobody was more mired in the depths than he was, enduring a 5-for-50 stretch with 27 strikeouts, a stretch that bled into early May.
Somehow though, this 22-year-old outfielder who hadn’t played organized ball in two years and never took a swing above A-ball, not only pulled himself out of the muck, he’s been putting up some of the best at-bats on the team of late.
In 20 games in May, he posted a .431 on-base percentage, .419 slugging percentage, .850 OPS and a 141 wRC-plus. In 20 games in April, he struck out 29 times and walked twice. In 20 games in May, he’s struck out 17 times and walked 14 times.
“Really, it’s just having a game plan and sticking to what got you here,” Baddoo said before the game. “It’s just about staying mentally strong throughout the whole process. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but I just took what the coaches and the veteran players were giving me and I made my own routine, my own plan on how to attack the game of baseball.”
The volume of failure that even the best endure in this game has crushed the spirit of more experienced players. The failure didn’t as much as knock the smile off Baddoo’s face.
“Once I stop smiling, we’ve got a problem,” he said, laughing. “When I’m smiling, we’re good to go.”
The failure just seemed to strengthen his resolve. In April, he said, he got caught up in his early dramatics, hitting home runs in his first two games and hitting near .400 in his first nine. He got outside himself.
The only positive offensive statistic that went down in May was his slugging percentage — from .571 to .419. That was by design. He needed to shorten his swing, needed to get back to what opened eyes in spring training — his mature plate discipline.
“Just get back to taking what the pitcher was giving me and putting a good swing on it,” he said. “I’m a strong fella so I need to trust that and use my legs and not try to do too much. I was kinda doing a little too much there early.
“I’ve learned to stay more relaxed and let the game come to me.”
Case in point: Baddoo had gone 100 plate appearances without a home run until he came to the plate in the seventh inning Monday with the Tigers trailing 2-1. Even then he wasn’t chasing the home run. He hadn’t done that all month. He was leading off the inning and just looking for a good pitch to hit.
Right-handed Brewers reliever Trevor Richards threw him a 1-1 change-up. In April, Baddoo might’ve swung out of his shoes at that pitch. This time he stayed back, put an easy swing on it and pulled it over the right-field wall.
“Just didn’t try to do too much other than put a good swing on it and trust the rest,” he said.
Foundation of strength
The foundation of Baddoo’s mental strength is his family, particularly his mother who he credits for constantly keeping him grounded and humble. But you will occasionally catch him several hours before game time walking the outfield with Dr. Spencer Wood, the Tigers mental skills coach.
“He got me to like take just 10 seconds and take a deep breath and let it all go,” Baddoo said. “Stick with your routine and your approach and don’t lose sight of it. Continue to have fun and stay positive. It’s just a lot of ups and downs, that’s the game of baseball, that’s part of learning how to overcome failure.”
May is in the archives now. June brings new challenges and new opportunities. Which is another reason why Hinch is typically loathe to bask in past success or linger on past mistakes for too long.
“Keeping your head where your feet are is very important for teams,” he said. “We’ve got to focus on what we do right here. The Yankees series doesn’t count anymore. The big win over the Cubs doesn’t count anymore. That’s in the past.
“We need to be ready to move forward and not revel in the success of the previous series. Put your focus where your feet are. Good teams have the ability to compartmentalize the season and flush the bad and flush the good, to be honest, and just focus on today.”