Detroit – Tigers manager AJ Hinch’s flight back to Detroit from Houston Friday night got delayed just long enough for him to watch another rough start by lefty Joey Wentz.
It gave him plenty to think about during the two-hour flight. Wentz was charged with five runs in his four innings and over his last three starts has yielded 21 runs and 34 hits in 21.1 innings. His ERA is just under 8.0 (7.80).
“I view it as all pretty bad,” Wentz said. “I’ve had some good starts this year and I’ve had more bad ones. I need to go out and do better.”
Wentz’s accountability is noble. It’s also a concern.
“When you openly admit that you’re struggling, that’s good in one sense – that you are admitting reality,” Hinch said. “But on the back end, that’s a lot of pressure that you’re putting on yourself.”
Hinch said he expects Wentz take his next turn in the rotation, which will be against Texas Wednesday. But it may not technically be a start.
“We may have to do some creative things,” Hinch said. “We’ve talked about, ‘Do we open for him and give him a change of scenery?’ Maybe throw less fastballs – that’d probably be a good start. But the adjustments need to happen here (and not in Triple-A).
“We have a lot of trust and faith in him.”
Wentz’s fastball has, statistically, been the issue. Last season he limited big-league hitters to a .209 batting average with his four-seam fastball. This year, even though he’s throwing it harder (93.7 mph on average), hitters are feasting on it — .405 average, .676 slug.
Part of it might be mechanics. He’s not throwing it from the same arm angle as he did last season. But more than that, his command issues with his secondary pitches are allowing hitters to zero in and sit on his heater.
In the first inning Friday, of the 12 secondary pitches Wentz threw, only three were strikes. The RBI double by Andrew Vaughn and two-run single by Yasmani Grandal came off his fastball.
“My general theory on that is it’s usually a combination of things,” Hinch said. “You throw four fastballs to Grandal, he’s going to hit them. That’s what he does. If you fall behind a ton and go middle-middle, it doesn’t matter what kind of fastball you have or what the metrics are.
“It’s a combination of count and characteristics. How many you’re throwing, how much you’re exposing it and what pitches you are using off it to make it better. There’s a lot of sequencing that goes with it. But honestly, I just want Joey to grip it and rip it a little bit and throw it to where it’s to his advantage.”
The Tigers firmly believe Wentz has it in him to fight through this slump. They don’t presently feel like a stint in Triple-A will benefit him. Also, there is no obvious option to call up to replace him. Maybe by using a right-hander like Will Vest or Mason Englert to start the game on Wednesday, going either an inning or one time through the order, will help Wentz enter the game with a fresher perspective.
“It’s similar to a hitter when he goes through these ruts,” Hinch said. “You’re one good outing away from feeling a ton better. We’ve got to keep urging Joey to not carry his previous starts into his next starts.”
Wentz seems up for the fight.
“Up here, it’s about getting results,” he said. “Certainly it’s a man’s league and I can’t sit around feeling sorry for myself. I have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.”
Hinch’s brief hiatus
Friday was just the second game Hinch has missed in his time with the Tigers. He missed a game against Cleveland last season when he was ill. On Friday, he flew to Houston to attend his youngest daughter’s high school graduation.
“It was a very special trip for me,” he said. “It’s a reminder to stay connected to your family. You miss a lot in this sport. To go home and be a part of that with my daughter and the rest of my family was awesome.
“But you still feel guilty missing the game. It’s amazing what this game will drag you in and out of.”
Hinch will likely miss a game next season, too. His oldest daughter will be graduating from college.
Locked on Skubal
Hinch joked that he was the only one who missed Tarik Skubal’s live batting practice session Friday. Indeed, from president Scott Harris to most of his teammates, they came out to support the lefty’s 20-pitch, four-batter outing.
“I had breakfast with him this morning,” Hinch said. “He was pretty emotional that so many people came out and saw him. It’s a first big step in front of an audience. There was a lot of attention. … It’s the next step to being a player again and not a rehabber.”
Skubal, coming off flexor tendon surgery, was impressive. His fastball was hitting 98 and he was commanding all of his pitches. Still, Hinch cautioned everyone not to get too far ahead of the process.
“I don’t have a lot of fear about what Tarik is going to be coming out of this,” he said. “It’s just a matter of can we stay disciplined enough to the approach. You start to question, like, does he need a second live BP? Of course he does.
“We’re going to stay super disciplined, even to the point of frustrating a lot of people, to make sure he is sent back to a mound in a big-league game and able to stay the course.”
Skubal will throw a second live BP next week.
Around the horn
The Tigers made a minor league trade Saturday, acquiring Double-A left-hander Lael Lockhart from the Dodgers for cash considerations. Lockhart, 25, had been a two-way player up until this season. He was struggling at Double-A Tulsa (allowing 19 runs in 15 innings). He is expected to be assigned to Erie.
White Sox at Tigers, Comerica Park
TV/Radio: Bally Sports Detroit, 97.1, 1270.
RHP Dylan Cease (3-3, 4.60), White Sox: He’s 10-1 with a 1.72 ERA against the Tigers in 13 starts but he’s scuffled some this season. Opponents are hitting 100 points higher against him than last year (.240-.140), his hard-hit rate is a career-high 48.5% and his strikeout rate is down (23%). After blanking the Astros over six innings, he’s allowed 11 runs in 10 innings in his last two starts (against the Twins and Royals).
LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (4-4, 2.19), Tigers: His last start was confusing. He struck out nine in five innings, but he also gave up eight hits and two walks. Uncharacteristically inconsistent. He threw his four-seam 53% of the time and it got hit hard (100 mph average exit velocity on the five balls put in play). He wasn’t commanding his cutter, either (102.5 mph exit velocity on four put in play).
— Chris McCosky