Detroit — Jonathan Schoop is coming out of it. Jeimer Candelario, you can argue, is out of it. Austin Meadows continues to be steady as a rock. The hits aren’t falling for Robbie Grossman, but he’s still getting on base at a productive clip.
Slowly — glacially, you could say — the Tigers are showing signs of breaking out of the offensive malaise they’ve been in for the first month-plus of the season.
“These guys need hits,” manager AJ Hinch said, answering for the sluggish offense for the umpteenth time. “You can encourage them. You can hug them and love on them. But what they need is hits.”
Schoop, who came back from the four-game series in Houston hitting .134, has five hits in his last four games, including a towering home run to left field in Game 1 Tuesday.
“You’ve got to look at the guy in the batter’s box, not the numbers,” Hinch said. “The numbers aren’t going to correct for a while. But the batter’s box is telling us he’s doing a lot better. It was coming. He had some bad luck in Houston, hitting balls hard, right at guys.
“But usually that’s a sign of things to come.”
Schoop’s home run was the Tigers’ first since May 5, fourth since April 16 and just their Major League-low 12th of the season. The club’s slugging percentage of .303 is also last in baseball. The power shortage is a problem, certainly, but it’s just one of the symptoms of the overall condition.
“I don’t know that we’re trying to hit homers as much as we’re trying to get pitches we can hit into the air,” Hinch said. “The power and homers are byproducts of a good approach, making hard, solid contact and getting the ball up in the air. We’ve been talking about it for a while. I don’t want to say too much and make it worse.
“But we’re not selling out for home runs. We’re trying to have productive at-bats.”
Meadows and Grossman have yet to hit a home run this year, though both have driven balls to the base of the wall in the deep gaps at Comerica Park. Meadows in Game 1 Tuesday hit a ball 399 feet that was caught in the cutout in right-center.
“Look at the ballpark we play in,” Grossman said. “Meadows hit a ball today that’s out of every single stadium but here (actually it would have been out in 27 of the 30). It’s a different game when you play in this park. You have to remind yourself of that.”
The baseball, by MLB design, isn’t flying as far as it did the last few years, either. Still, 29 teams have hit more homers than the Tigers. Only the Royals have produced fewer total bases.
There may be no real common denominator in all of this. It’s a collection of hitters who have gotten off to slow starts at the plate for a variety of reasons.
The one metric they have in common, though, is the inability to do consistent damage against fastballs. According to FanGraphs, they rank 28th in baseball in fastball runs (minus-12). They have created 12 runs fewer against fastballs than the league average.
“But that’s measuring production,” Grossman said. “How many times are we hitting 95 mph (exit velocity) on fastballs? That’s more telling. Production is different for every stadium.”
To his point, the Tigers hit 12 baseballs with exit velocities of 95 mph or better Monday night and got nothing to show for it. But overall, on all pitches, the Tigers’ average exit velocity on all balls in play is 5.7%, near the bottom of baseball.
“As soon as you start hitting fastballs, they’re going to start throwing you breaking balls,” Hinch said. “You’ve got to cover one or the other. We do have to do a better job getting on the fastball, especially in fastball counts.”
The Tigers are beating a lot of fastballs into the ground. Their 44% ground-ball rate is 13th highest in baseball, while their 34% fly-ball rate is 25th.
“Some of it is contact point and some of it is trying to get the ball in the air too extremely (too steep of a launch angle),” Hinch said. “It’s part of the story, for sure, and it’s been addressed. The players know it. We just need to make a game plan, stick to it and execute.”
It’s part of the story, too, that there’s been a lot of solid contact that’s gone unrewarded.
Last Thursday in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, Grossman hit a ball with 98-mph exit velocity and a launch angle of 28 degrees. He hit it 378 feet and got a double. Tuesday night in Game 2 at Comerica Park, he hit a ball with 100-mph exit velocity and 33-degrees of launch — it went 374 feet and was caught on the track.
Between the deader balls and humidors regulating the atmosphere in just about every park in baseball, it can drive a hitter nuts.
Around the horn
Right-handed reliever Will Vest went into play Wednesday on a run of nine straight scoreless innings. He’d allowed just one hit, struck out 12 and walked two.
“We say results matter,” Hinch said. “When you have the results Will’s had, you get more opportunities. When the roster went from 28 to 26, it would have been easy to see if Will was on that line. He wasn’t. We made a move yesterday to bring Joey Wentz up, Will wasn’t even under consideration. He’s earned that.”
… Outfielder Victor Reyes (left quad strain) went 0-for-2 with a walk in his rehab debut for Toledo Tuesday. Hinch said the plan was for Reyes to DH Wednesday, then play back-to-back games in the outfield Thursday and Friday before any decisions on his activation are made.
Athletics at Tigers
First pitch: 1:10 p.m. Thursday, Comerica Park, Detroit
RHP James Kaprielian (0-2, 5.87), Athletics: He missed the month of April because of shoulder inflammation (AC joint), so this is just his third start. He hasn’t had his command yet, walking six in 7⅔ innings. He throws predominantly a four-seam (93) and slider to right-handed hitters, four-seam and curveball to lefties.
RHP Beau Brieske (0-2, 4.20), Tigers: There is no debating that his fastball and change-up are big-league grade. Hitters are 7-for-48 with nine strikeouts against his two best pitches. But for him to turn average-to-good starts into great starts, he needs to establish either his slider or curve, or preferably both. He hasn’t thrown breaking balls for strikes enough yet to make hitters honor them.