Tigers’ Austin Meadows conducting a master class in at-bat management

Detroit News

Minneapolis — A little peek inside Austin Meadows’ active and astute hitting brain.

Saturday night at Comerica Park, ninth inning of Game 2 against the Rockies and the Tigers are trailing 3-0 with two runners on, down to their final out. Meadows, inserted into the game in the seventh, is grinding against slow-paced closer Alex Colome, who has been painting corners with his cutter.

Meadows sees five straight cutters, all of them targeted for the outside edge, away from his power. Two of the first three are dotted on the outer edge, putting Meadows in a 1-2 hole.

“I’ve faced him before,” Meadows said later. “He just throws cutters away. He has to miss. He can’t be perfect, right?”

Meadows never came off of the cutter, never expected another type of pitch. And he never cheated to the outer edge. If Colome paints three cutters on the outer black, Meadows tips his hat.

He laid off the next two, one missed down and away the other in the dirt. The dirt ball was in the middle of the plate, most likely by design. Colome probably hoped Meadows’ eyes would light up when he finally saw a pitch middle in and he’d chase it.

Didn’t happen. And with the count full, Meadows felt in control of the at-bat.

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“I knew he had to throw something to hit,” he said. “I know he didn’t want to walk me especially to load the bases, two outs, you never know what could happen. I knew he wanted to throw something there and I was just waiting on it.”

Colome was the one who blinked. He went away from his cutter and threw a 94-mph four-seam fastball. It was just 3 mph firmer than the last cutter Meadows took, and it was center cut.

“That last pitch, he left it over the plate more than he wanted to and I was able to put a good swing on it,” Meadows said.

The ball left his bat with an exit velocity of 103 mph and traveled 386 feet into the right-center field gap, a two-run triple.

“It’s all a battle,” Meadows said. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game, you and the pitcher. I knew the situation of the game. I knew they didn’t want to get the bases loaded and I knew he would hopefully leave something there. I was able to take advantage of it.”

Impressive stuff, even if the rally fell 90 feet short.

“What Austin does, similar to Robbie Grossman, early in a count — whether a pitch is called a strike he doesn’t agree with or he falls behind because a guy paints on him — you never quite feel any anxiety or anxiousness in the at-bat,” manager AJ Hinch said. “It’s just part of the at-bat for him.

“I think he’s got a pretty good understanding of where the strike zone is and he knows what he’s trying to do against a particular pitcher. There is zero panic in his at-bats.”

Through 54 plate appearances, Meadows is slashing .333/.444/.444 with a 170 OPS-plus. He’s scored eight runs and knocked in nine and he has just about as many walks (eight) as strikeouts (10).

“He really knows how to conduct an at-bat,” Hinch said.

More: Explore Miguel Cabrera’s 3,000-plus hits in this interactive

Is the high on-base percentage sustainable? His career-high .429 batting average on balls in play would suggest it is not. The exit velocity on balls in play is a career-low 86 mph, as well. But if you want to play the projective stat game — that zero in the home run column isn’t sustainable, either.

Meadows slugged 60 home runs in 2019 and 2021 combined. As the weather warms, maybe the BABIP goes down and the power numbers go up. Regardless, the sound, patient and intelligent approach isn’t likely to waver.

Syncing up

In his first start of the season, Tarik Skubal threw just six sliders. Mind you, Skubal had a 29% whiff rate and limited hitters to a .204 average with that pitch last season. So, the White Sox said thanks and scored five runs off him in four innings.

Since then, Skubal has thrown 56 sliders, given up just four hits off them, and hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last two starts (11.2 innings).

So, what happened? Maybe with the shortened spring, as he was trying to learn an entire pitching staff, new catcher Tucker Barnhart didn’t get the memo about how vital the slider is for Skubal.

More: ‘We didn’t play well’: Tigers hit road after rough 2-4 homestand, loss to Rockies

And Skubal, in his second full season in the big leagues, didn’t feel all that comfortable shaking off a two-time Gold Glove-winning catcher in their first start together.

“I think we jokingly told Tucker that Tarik’s got a pretty good slider,” Hinch said. “Whether that was a subtle message or a firm message, the pitch selection got a little bit different. I think like anything, it’s a very understated thing that needs to happen throughout the course of a season when you add a new catcher and you start interacting together.

“They seem to be very much in sync.”

Watching him grow

Baseball is a game of adjustments, right? You might have heard that a few thousand times or so. But it is. And Tigers’ rookie Spencer Torkelson has already made a big one in his first month in the big leagues.

The book on him coming out of spring training is he couldn’t hit the inside pitch. So he was getting pitched in a lot, jammed a lot, getting hit a lot (four times in spring training, once so far this season).

But he adjusted. Two of his three homers have gone to the pull field. Both came on pitches on the inner half of the plate.

“It’s just sticking with and trusting the approach,” he said. “When they throw in, they’re not really trying to thrown in to get a strike. They are throwing in to get you off their stuff away. So it’s really about just trusting my approach and staying out there.”

He learned that from one of the best.

“Miggy (Cabrera) does it best,” Torkelson said. “He stays to the opposite field and he lets the inside pitch just be reaction and timing.”

More: Tigers notebook: Bullpen depth forcing tough decisions; Mize, Manning to Lakeland

Torkelson said he got his first taste of inside pitches when his Arizona State team played University of Michigan back pre-COVID in 2020. Michigan had this pitching coach named Chris Fetter.

“Fett had the best plan going in against our team,” said Tork, who went 0-for-3 that day. “They pounded it in and we didn’t really know what to do.”

Fetter, as you might know, is making pitch plans for the Tigers these days.

On deck: Twins

► Series: Three games at Target Field, Minneapolis

► First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday — 7:40 p.m.; Thursday — 1:10 p.m.

► TV/radio: Tuesday-Thursday — BBD/97.1 FM

► Probables: Tuesday — LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (0-1, 5.27) vs. RHP Chris Paddack (0-2, 5.00); Wednesday — RHP Michael Pineda (1-0, 0.00) vs. RHP Joe Ryan (2-1, 1.69); Thursday — LHP Tarik Skubal (1-1, 2.30) vs. RHP Bailey Ober (1-1, 2.81).

► Rodriguez, Tigers: It might be refreshing for him to face a team outside the AL East for a minute, even if it is the always-pesky Twins. Rodriguez had his best out of the season last time out against the Yankees, going six innings and allowing three runs.

► Paddack, Twins: He hasn’t been hard in his two starts (86.5 average exit velocity) but he’s still looking for his first quality start with the Twins. His FIP (fielding independent pitching) is 1.86 and his ERA is 5.00 — speaks to some bad luck. He has used his fastball (93) and curveball primarily early, perhaps still searching for a feel on his change-up, which has been a key pitch for him.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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