Detroit Tigers, searching for batting answers, know they must ‘scratch and claw’ for runs

Detroit Free Press

PHILADELPHIA — The Detroit Tigers have played 44 innings since 22-year-old center fielder Riley Greene, the future of the franchise and the driver of its offense this season, landed on the injured list with a stress reaction in his left fibula.

How many runs for Detroit in those 44 innings?

Nine.

“That’s usually the case at this level,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said after Sunday’s 6-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox, when asked if hitters were trying to do too much in Greene’s absence. “It’s hard not to try to do something. That’s what we’re here for. … There’s a little bit of expansion (chasing pitches), there’s a little bit of tough matchups for some guys, but it’s the big leagues. We’ve got to find a way to scratch and claw a couple more runs across.”

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The Tigers (26-32) have lost four games in a row during their five games without Greene. It’s their worst offensive stretch since scoring six runs in five games from April 18-23.

The Tigers scored three runs in Wednesday’s 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers, the first game without Greene in the starting lineup. They scored three runs in three games over the weekend in a sweep by the White Sox, then three runs on one swing in the seventh inning Monday. (That swing, by Nick Maton, at least broke up Aaron Nola’s no-hitter in an 8-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.)

Greene provided something special to the lineup, described perfectly by teammate and close friend Spencer Torkelson, that hasn’t been provided by a Tigers player in arguably half a decade.

“It seems like you just can’t get him out,” Torkelson said in mid-May.

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This season, Greene is hitting .296 with five home runs, 21 walks and 64 strikeouts in 52 games. His 127 wRC+ ranks 41st among 162 qualified players. The 2019 No. 5 overall pick focuses on getting a good pitch to hit and typically sets the tone for the team approach against individual pitchers.

Now, he’s gone.

Greene played the best baseball of his career in May, and he finished the month as the sixth-best hitter in the big leagues. His 184 wRC+ through 25 games in May trailed only five players: Aaron Judge, Freddie Freeman, Juan Soto, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Anthony Santander.

His .365 batting average in May ranked second in the American League.

“We have to admit that it’s really frustrating, and it’s hard on a team,” Hinch said Wednesday, after announcing Greene’s placement on the injured list. “At the same time, we have to collect ourselves and figure out a different way. It’s going to get better as guys get healthier. Things are going to get better and feel better, but we’ve got to find a different way to do it with different guys, and quite honestly, find some different guys to pick up the slack a little bit.”

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Greene’s consistency against right-handed pitchers bolstered the Tigers’ offense, too.

In the past four games, the Tigers scored six runs while hitting .128 (16-for-125) with 12 walks and 45 strikeouts. They happened to face four veteran right-handed starters: Mike Clevinger, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech from the White Sox and Nola from the Phillies.

Among the 30 MLB teams, the Tigers rank 29th with a .638 OPS against right-handed pitchers and 24th with a .695 OPS against left-handed pitchers. The production against righty pitchers has taken a hit without lefty hitters Greene, Kerry Carpenter (right shoulder sprain) and Austin Meadows (anxiety). Shortstop Javier Báez, the second-highest paid player on the roster and a right-handed hitter, has a .583 OPS this season, dragged down by just three home runs in 55 games overall. But he has been even worse against righties: a .560 OPS with 34 strikeouts and one home run in 176 plate appearances.

Lefty hitters Zach McKinstry and Akil Baddoo have exceeded expectations, but fellow lefty Nick Maton — acquired in an offseason trade from the Phillies — hasn’t lived up to the hype through 54 games. Maton is tied for the team lead with six home runs, including Monday’s three-run homer shot, but he carries a .167 batting average.

Carpenter, currently rehabbing in Triple-A Toledo, is expected to be the next lefty hitter to join the Tigers.

“Without Greene, without Meadows, without Carpenter, specifically the left-handed presence in our lineup is being challenged,” Hinch said Saturday. “That’s where you’d like Nick to get going. Obviously, Akil has had a really good stretch. McKinstry has been incredible. But to truly have balance in your lineup and have the ability to maneuver in and around different matchups, balance is key.”

The most glaring problem is the Tigers’ season-long trend of stranding runners in scoring position. They went 1-for-21 with runners in scoring position in three games against the White Sox and 1-for-4 with runners in scoring position Monday night.

The two hits were both home runs.

“We’re getting guys on (base), and we’re getting them in scoring position,” Torkelson said Sunday. “But I think we can simplify our approach to get those guys in. Not try to score two runs, just get one guy in, and the wheels will start turning and the momentum will start picking up.”

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Greene hit .261 and provided a .370 on-base percentage when he stepped to the plate with runners in scoring position before the injury. A majority of the 12 hits were singles to pass the baton to his teammates.

A few times, Greene talked about not trying to do too much because he trusted his teammates.

“I feel like we’re trusting each other,” Greene said in mid-May. “I’m going to move this guy over (on the bases), so I’m going to trust you to drive him in, and most of the time, we get him in. I feel like that team chemistry is what we’re building and what we’re going to continue to build.”

Entering Monday, the Tigers found themselves on track for one of the worst performances with runners in scoring position in baseball history. The 1969 San Diego Padres remain seated on the throne with a .200 batting average, followed by the 1942 Philadelphia Phillies (.202) and 1968 New York Mets (.204).

But the 2023 Tigers — hitting .207 with runners in scoring position — are next on the list, dating back to 1901. (They could have company from this season in baseball’s annals, however: the 2023 Padres entered Monday hitting .196 in RISP situations.)

Without Greene’s potent bat, the rest of the offense needs to work together to avoid what’s shaping up to be a miserable June.

“I wouldn’t say anyone is trying to do more,” said Torkelson, hitting .230 with five home runs in 57 games. “I think it’s just maybe a coincidence. We definitely miss him, but we don’t have him right now, so we’re going to do our best we can with what we got.”

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

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