Facing Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani isn’t easy.
That’s something the Detroit Tigers learned first-hand this past weekend, as the Ohtani-led Angels sent the Tigers (30-42) back to Comerica Park with some discouraging losses during their four-game clash on the West Coast.
“Ohtani can do so much on the field,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “We’ve seen it over the last few games. He can hit any pitch at any point out of any part of the ballpark. That’s why he’s special.”
But the Tigers boast a 22-23 record since the beginning of May, better than their 8-19 mark in April. Despite some glaring holes, the team is improving and finding ways to survive health troubles to starting pitchers Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull. As a result, top pitching prospect Matt Manning received his first taste of the big leagues.
The offense, meanwhile, has been carried by infielder Jonathan Schoop.
“Our pitch selection has gotten better over the course of time,” Hinch said. “In April, we were pretty erratic in and around the strike zone. In May, we cleaned it up a little bit. In June, we’ve tightened it up even more with what we’re trying to swing at and what we’re trying to hit with power.”
After a break Monday, the Tigers take on the St. Louis Cardinals for two games at Comerica Park before a four-game slate against the Houston Astros from Thursday through Sunday. Manning is starting Wednesday against the Cardinals.
These players are trending up and down after 72 games, or 44.4% of the way through the season:
Upon searching for offensive standouts since May 22, considering they have at least 80 plate appearances, one of the first names to show up in most categories is Schoop, who signed a one-year contract this offseason.
Dating to May 22, Schoop is among the best in baseball with his .369 batting average (second), .431 on-base percentage (ninth), .718 slugging percentage (fourth), 10 home runs (third), 20 RBIs (eighth) and 1.7 WAR (third). The only players with more WAR (Wins Above Replacement): Baltimore Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins (2.1 WAR) and Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (1.9 WAR).
Schoop’s WAR at the plate — at least since May 22 — is better than Oakland’s Matt Olson (1.6 WAR), Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (1.6 WAR), San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. (1.6 WAR), Houston’s Jose Altuve (1.4 WAR), Ohtani (1.3 WAR) and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. (1.3 WAR).
“When Schoop gets going the way he has for the last month,” Hinch said, “I want to get him as many at-bats as I can.”
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Arguably the most impressive feat — keep in mind his career 22.8% strikeout rate — is his 14.7% strikeout rate in his past 26 games, which ranks 26th among players with 80-plus plate appearances. And his 7.8% walk rate during this span is better than his lifetime 4.1% walk rate.
There’s a chance he makes the All-Star Game for the first time since 2017, either as a first baseman or second baseman. And there seems to be an even greater chance he gets traded at the July 30 deadline. He is making $4.5 million in 2021.
“Honestly, I’m not (thinking about trades),” Schoop said. “I’m just trying to control things that I can control. You can’t control those things. I’m trying to show up and do what I’m supposed to do and help the team win. I’m not thinking about those things.”
But where would Schoop fit into the mix?
Start with the Chicago White Sox, stuck with Danny Mendick at second base now that 24-year-old Nick Madrigal is out for the season (right hamstring surgery). Just 3½ games behind the American League Central-leading White Sox, Cleveland could use a veteran upgrade at first base. (Bobby Bradley only has 85 at-bats in the majors.)
As ex-Tiger Sergio Alcantara’s offensive tear comes to a screeching halt, the Chicago Cubs could join the conversation in hopes of making Schoop their everyday second baseman. Many teams would benefit from a power-hitting infielder with some defensive versatility.
Schoop fits the bill.
“This is my second year with the Tigers,” Schoop said. “I feel like we have really good things going on. I feel like we have really good things moving forward. The young players are progressing and getting better. This year, we’re playing really good baseball and starting to win more games.”
Through a team-high 67 games, Schoop is hitting .275 with nine doubles, 13 home runs, 34 RBIs, 19 walks and 60 strikeouts. With 91 games remaining this season, the nine-year MLB veteran is on pace for approximately 30 home runs and 78 RBIs.
When Cabrera is playing his best baseball, the Tigers always seem to be doing the same.
The 38-year-old’s season-long numbers are nothing to jump for joy about. He is hitting .220 with five home runs, 28 RBIs, 16 walks and 56 strikeouts over 53 games. Since the beginning of June, however, Cabrera has a .288 batting average, one home run, nine RBIs, with two walks to 19 strikeouts, in 15 games entering Sunday.
While Cabrera’s 3.2% walk rate and 30.2% strikeout rate throughout this month entering Sunday are poor, he ranks third on the team in runs scored (10) and fourth in RBIs (9), behind Schoop (16), Eric Haase (10) and Robbie Grossman (10).
“We’re confident when he comes up to bat that he’s going to deliver and get a hit,” Hinch said. “The overall numbers, it’s going to take a while for them to normalize and get better. There are a lot of at-bats in April and May that you can’t get back and simply just add hits. A consistent approach is going to be really key. I think he’s found a comfortable approach that has paid off for him. I hope that can continue.”
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If Cabrera sticks around the .280 mark each month moving forward, regardless of his strikeout and walk issues, the Tigers can justify hitting him in the middle of the batting order. Also, Cabrera hasn’t grounded into a double play since May 31.
Cabrera’s health doesn’t seem to be a problem either, which is always a positive sign. He has spent 26 games each as the first baseman and designated hitter, after Hinch said this spring the likely future Hall of Famer would only play first base once or twice per week.
The Niko Goodrum experience at shortstop (and everywhere else) seems to be winding down, but the Tigers are waiting for players in Triple-A Toledo, such as Isaac Paredes, Kody Clemens and Zack Short, to earn their way to a long-term stay in the majors.
In 59 games, Goodrum is hitting .216 with five doubles, one triple, five home runs, 17 RBIs, 20 walks and 80 strikeouts. He has a career .231 batting average (and a .305 on-base percentage) and hit .184 in 43 games last season.
The Tigers placed Goodrum on the 10-day injured list Saturday with a left finger tendon injury. To replace him, the organization recalled Paredes from Toledo.
“That’s a premier position and a very important one,” Hinch said about shortstop. “It’s involved in as many plays as any position on the field, one way or another. The more consistent play we can get there, the better. We’re going to keep pushing our guys.”
More disappointing than Goodrum’s offense is his defense. The Tigers have kept him around not because of his offense but because of his defensive versatility. He was a one of three candidates for Gold Glove at shortstop in 2020.
Goodrum carries a minus-six defense runs saved — a number to show how many runs a player has, or hasn’t, saved on defense — in 43 games (39 starts) at shortstop, with seven errors and a .958 fielding percentage. Hinch has used Paredes, Short, Harold Castro and Willi Castro at shortstop, as well.
“We’ve tried a lot of guys (at shortstop),” Hinch said. “We’re going to continue to try the guys that we have and see how much better we can make everybody.”
Because Goodrum is on the injured list, Paredes’ bat should determine what happens next. Unless Goodrum makes changes, it’s tough to envision him sticking around through the conclusion of the season.
As Schoop could be proving his value to an interested contender, left-handed reliever Daniel Norris — a pitcher the Tigers didn’t trade last season, despite interest — has crashed into a roadblock. He has a 6.84 ERA, 12 walks and 29 strikeouts over 26⅓ innings in 26 games this season.
Norris has history as a starting pitcher, long reliever and one-inning reliever, but none of those roles will work for him unless he executes his pitches. The Tigers simply need outs from Norris before they can even think about his role or trying to trade him.
From May 31 to June 18, Norris pitched in eight games, accumulating a 10.80 ERA, five walks and 11 strikeouts, and an opponent batting average of .361, .452 on-base percentage and 1.091 on-base plus slugging percentage against him.
On Friday, the Angels tagged him for four hits and three runs in the sixth inning. The runs against Norris broke the game open en route to the Tigers’ 11-3 loss in the second of four games in the series.
Norris’ 53.4% hard-hit rate this season is one of the worst in the majors.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.