Tigers’ feast-or-famine offense weathers 18th shutout

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — The Tigers have invested millions into the study of advanced metrics and analytics. Still, it’s understandable that the recurrence of the number zero can feel like a pattern.

Thursday’s 7-0 loss to the Mariners at Comerica Park marked the MLB-leading 18th time the Tigers have been shut out this year.

“It’s only that many? It’s not higher? Feels like it’s higher,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said with a mix of sarcasm and frustration. 

Historically, it’s already a lot. With 31 games left, the Tigers have tied the 2018 team for the most shutouts in a season in the Comerica Park era. A 19th shutout would be the most by a Tigers team since 1976, and tie the 2014 Mariners for the most by an American League team in the last 40 years. A 20th shutout would tie the 1975 team for the most by a Tigers team in the live-ball era.

And after a four-game streak of scoring six or more runs against the Giants and Rangers — 32 runs total — the latest blanking completed a three-game sweep in which Detroit scored six. The Tigers ran into a Mariners team on a playoff push, and they struggled to match the level.

“They have one of the best records in the last 60 games,” Hinch said of Seattle. “They win close games. They blew us out today. They’re in prime position for a playoff berth for the first time in a long time. So there is credit to them. They’re a very good team. They’re tough outs. They had some two-out hits this series. They hit some balls out of the ballpark. Soft contact led to some success for them. They drew a few walks. We’ve got to counter that. 

“I mean, it’s a competition. It’s not just conceding, hat-tipping to the other side and get to the next game. There’s a real competition going on out there. If that’s what they’re going to bring to our ballpark, you want to counterpunch.”

While the Mariners punished Tigers pitching by hitting offspeed pitches for power — Matt Manning’s slider and curveball on Tuesday, Alex Lange’s breaking ball on Wednesday and Eduardo Rodriguez’s slider and changeup on Thursday — Detroit hitters struggled with fastballs. Two days after George Kirby drew eight called strikes, five swings and misses and a 77.8 mph average exit velocity off his mid-to-upper 90s heater, Logan Gilbert’s fastball drew 10 whiffs, eight called strikes and an average exit velocity of 83.6 mph on his way to six scoreless innings and nine strikeouts.

This has been a pattern for the Tigers. Detroit’s average exit velocity of 89.3 mph off two- and four-seam fastballs ranks 27th out of 30 Major League teams, according to Statcast. Against pitches 95 mph and harder, Detroit’s average exit velocity of 88.8 mph ranks 26th. Its expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) ranks last in both categories.

“We’re not a good fastball-hitting team. We haven’t been,” Hinch said. “We kind of show it from time to time, but generally, [Gilbert] pitched off his fastball. … Coming in, we knew he was going to challenge us, similar to [what] Kirby did, a little different fastball but a similar approach. He was going to make us hit his fastball, and we didn’t.”

The Mariners haven’t hit velocity particularly well, either, but their ability to hunt and attack offspeed and breaking pitches was a clear factor all series. The Tigers need to find an avenue to more consistent production. While Spencer Torkelson and Ryan Kreidler received promotions from Triple-A Toledo Thursday to join the expanded September roster, Mud Hens hitting coach Adam Melhuse also joined the team to work as an extra hitting coach. He can’t be in the dugout during games due to coaching limits, but he’ll work in the cages, and not just with the younger hitters.

Long term, the Tigers need to establish a hitting identity, a tougher task than it sounds. Individual hitters have different body types and strengths, and many have their own hitting instructors that they work with during offseasons and consult in-season. Still, as Hinch explained Thursday, Detroit is looking for young hitters to find a process that they can repeat to be successful at this level.

Shorter term, the Tigers need to battle over the final month.

“There’s no choice but to look forward,” Barnhart said. “I don’t know how many games we have left, but we’ve got games left that we have to play. We have to perform. We all get paid to go out there and play. Can’t shut it down. It’s hard to lose at this level. It’s hard to lose this much and play like this. It’s pretty frustrating, to be honest.”

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