Detroit Tigers respond to 2-7 record with the same approach. Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch isn’t wavering from the message he has sent to his players over the past two seasons, despite another poor start. Make it three years in a row for the third-year manager.

Win today’s game.

The Tigers are 2-7 in the 2023 season, swept in three games by the Tampa Bay Rays in the opening series and swept in three games by the Boston Red Sox in the home opening series. They’re on a four-game losing streak with a minus-35 run differential through nine games.

“Nobody likes to lose any day,” Hinch said Sunday at Comerica Park. “When we come to the ballpark, we come with a clear thought that we’re going to win today’s game. We don’t carry a lot of baggage with us. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about what’s happened in the rear-view mirror.”

This marks the worst start for the franchise since the 2008 season, when the Tigers lost eight of their first nine games under Jim Leyland and finished 74-88. It was Miguel Cabrera‘s first season with the Tigers (after spending five seasons with the Florida Marlins).

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A bad start to the season isn’t unfamiliar territory.

The Tigers in Hinch’s first two seasons all but officially eliminated themselves from postseason contention before the summer months. In each season, he reminded players to leave the past in the past, and focus on winning today’s game.

In 2021, the Tigers had a 9-24 record after May 7.

They finished 77-85 for third place in the American League Central.

In 2022, the Tigers had a 9-23 record after May 12.

They finished 66-96 for fourth place in the AL Central.

“It’s our reality,” Hinch said of the 2-7 record. “That’s why they keep the standings. But we spent a ton of time and focus on what we’re doing that day, and that has nothing to do with the previous X-amount of games. We just can’t afford to drag that negative shit into the day.”

This season, the Tigers have flashed potential upside on offense with the sporadic production of Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Matt Vierling, Nick Maton, Kerry Carpenter and Jake Rogers.

Greene, a 21-year-old center fielder, and Vierling, a 26-year-old corner outfielder, are tied for the team lead with a .286 batting average. Greene paces the team with 10 hits and six runs. Greene, Vierling and Carpenter have produced at above-average rates through nine games.

The veterans, though, have struggled.

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Javier Báez is hitting .121 with zero extra-base hits and two walks in 36 plate appearances; Jonathan Schoop, who has entered a platoon role, is hitting .167 with zero extra-base hits and three walks in 15 plate appearances; Eric Haase is hitting .120 with zero extra-base hits, one walk and nine strikeouts in 26 plate appearances; Cabrera, playing in his 21st and final season, is hitting .190 with two walks and four strikeouts in 23 plate appearances.

“Losing sucks,” Greene said Sunday. “We hate to lose. It’s one of the worst things ever, but we really got to try our hardest to just leave it in the past. We got the off day tomorrow, and then we go to Toronto for three games. Just forget about everything that happened. New series, new city.”

The pitching staff, both starters and relievers, has been unsteady.

Spencer Turnbull, in particular, couldn’t find his groove in his first two starts in return from Tommy John surgery. He allowed 12 runs on 13 hits and five walks with four strikeouts in eight innings.

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Top relievers Alex Lange and José Cisnero have combined for more earned runs (five) and walks (five) than strikeouts (two) across 6⅔ innings. Lange, who had a 30.3% strikeout rate last season, is searching for his first strikeout following four appearances, which includes three walks.

The starters have thrown 39⅔ innings this season, the lowest total in the major leagues, leaving the bullpen to cover 39⅓ innings. The starters have a 7.49 ERA, 23 walks and 24 strikeouts; the relievers have a 6.18 ERA, 14 walks and 31 strikeouts.

Relievers have inherited 22 runners from starters and allowed 12 to score. Hinch has replaced his starter with a reliever in the middle of an inning in every game, often because of walks. There hasn’t been a clean runway — not once — for the relievers to take over on the mound.

It’s not a recipe for success.

“You can’t win without throwing strikes,” Hinch said. “You can’t win if you continually swing at non-strikes. It’s directly correlated to how successful you’re going to be as a team. That is fact. … It’s not an effort thing. It’s not a knowledge thing. It’s not like anybody is defiant and fighting back against that. It’s an execution thing.”

The Tigers next play at the Toronto Blue Jays for three games at Rogers Centre. The opposing starting pitchers don’t get any easier with Alek Manoah on Tuesday, Kevin Gausman on Wednesday and Chris Bassitt on Thursday.

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Manoah, 25, finished third in AL Cy Young voting last season with a 2.24 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 196⅔ innings. Gausman, 32, was ninth in AL Cy Young voting last season with a 3.35 ERA and 205 strikeouts in 174⅔ innings. Bassitt, 34, signed a three-year, $63 million contract after posting a 3.42 ERA with 167 strikeouts in 181⅔ innings last season for the New York Mets.

The Blue Jays’ lineup is arguably the most powerful in baseball with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Matt Chapman, Daulton Varsho, George Springer and Alejandro Kirk. The trio of Bichette, Guerrero and Chapman has combined for seven home runs this season.

That’s two more than the Tigers’ entire team.

A lack of power on offense remains a problem.

“It’s out of our heads, I can tell you that,” Greene said of Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Red Sox in the series finale. “We got the off day tomorrow (Monday), and we go to Toronto. We’re going to forget about what happened the past three days, and we’re going to go and try to win a baseball game.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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