‘Not a simple fix’: Offensive inadequacies continue to hamstring Tigers’ ascent

Detroit News

Pittsburgh — Occasionally they rise up and smack a team around, like they did in Cincinnati with five home runs and 18 hits, or like they did to the Angels last month when they scored 10 runs in the first five innings.

But on whole, offensive inconsistency and inadequacy is keeping the Tigers from climbing at least back to .500.

Take the most recent example. In losing the first two games of this series against the Pirates, they scored in exactly two of the 18 innings. They were blanked over the final three innings on Monday and the final six innings on Tuesday. They were 4-for-17 with runners in scoring position in those games.

That against one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball. The Pirates have allowed the third-most earned runs (675) and have the third-highest WHIP (1.42) in the major leagues.

The Tigers have won two games all season, two, when they trail after seven innings. Going into play Wednesday, they had lost nine of their last 13 games, averaging 2.7 runs in those losses.

And here’s the kicker — they’ve actually made steady growth on the offensive side all season. They have a long way to go, but unlike the last couple of seasons when the offense completely stagnated, progress is measurable.

“The team question is hard for me,” manager AJ Hinch said when asked to assess the offensive development. “We don’t have the same team. So when you are looking at aggregate numbers over the course of the first five or six months and broad questions about the season, it’s going to be hard to answer. We’re not the same team we were in April.”

That is a fair point. In aggregate, the Tigers still chase pitches out of the strike zone more than any team in the American League (33%). They still swing-and-miss more than any team (12.4%). They still strike out more than any team (25.6%).

Their 7.6 WAR (Fangraphs) is the lowest in the league and their minus-46.1 offensive WAR ranks 12th. The one obvious area of improvement is the 8.2% walk rate, which is ninth. The Tigers walked less than any team in baseball last year.

But their 30.9% hard-hit rate ranks 12th in the American League.

To Hinch’s point, though, there has been marked improvement since May 7, and, cause-and-effect, they have had a winning record since then (56-51). Here are the same numbers and league rankings since May 7:

► Chase rate: 32.2%, eighth.

► Swing-and-miss rate: 11.9%, third most.

► Strikeout rate: 24%, fourth most.

► WAR: 9.8, eighth

► Offensive WAR: minus-.09, eighth.

► Hard-hit rate: 31.2%, 13th.

“With hitting, the topics are the same — we want to decrease chase rates, increase barrel rates, be able to hit with runners in scoring position and score runners with less than two outs,” Hinch said. “But we still have some young players who are trying to find their way.”

Hinch pointed to the individual growth of players like rookie Akil Baddoo, Eric Haase and Derek Hill — all of whom have gone through peaks and valleys but are finishing the season on a positive track. Since May 7:

► Baddoo: .277/.353/.449, 119 wRC-plus, eight home runs.

► Haase: .234/.287/.483, 105 wRC-plus, 20 home runs.

► Hill: .264/.324/.384, 94 wRC-plus.

“Do the eye test,” Hinch said. “Take the numbers out of it and watch what Akil has done. The ebbs and flows throughout the year — the good performances center around his (strike) zone control and the gaps in his performance center around the times when he chases.

“That’s growth in itself, regardless of what the numbers tell you. The performance through the course of a season will sort out over time. It’s a journey. It’s not a simple numbers comparison when you are looking at the growth of a player.”

Leading the way since May 7, of course, have been the four veteran hitters:

► Jonathan Schoop: .303/.343/.483, 123 wRC-plus, 17 home runs.

► Jeimer Candelario: .269/.353/.451, 120 wRC-plus, nine home runs, 34 doubles.

► Robbie Grossman: .245/.350/.454, 119 wRC-plus, 19 home runs.

► Miguel Cabrera: .281/.345/.429, 111 wRC-plus, 13 home runs.

Still, as Hinch said, controlling the strike zone continues to be a grave concern across the board. Even the good hitters are chasing too much — Schoop 39%, Candelario 31%, Cabrera 31%, Harold Castro, 44.7%.

And the chases tend to get exposed late in close games. Per Baseball Reference, the Tigers are hitting .211 with a 31% strikeout rate in late and close game situations.

The inability to lay off bad pitches has changed the trajectory of Willi Castro’s career in Detroit. He’s hitting .218 with a .281 on-base percentage, striking out 23.8% of the time with a 41% chase rate. He’s gone from the starting shortstop and second baseman to spot duty.

“He’s found himself in swing mode a lot this year and he’s had a hard time recovering from getting in and out of bad counts,” Hinch said. “It’s not as simple as saying don’t swing the bat, but we have to harness the zone control in his offensive profile for him to maximize his offensive potential.

“If he keeps chasing at the pitches he’s chasing, it’s going to be very difficult to sustain success.”

It’s a message that Hinch and hitting coaches Scott Coolbaugh and Mike Hessman have hammered to all the hitters since spring training. Consistent offense starts with getting into hitter-advantage counts, and you can’t do that by chasing more than 30% of the pitches you face out of the strike zone.

But as Hinch said, “It’s not a simple fix, but it’s a simple analysis.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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