It is no secret the Detroit Tigers are not a great offensive team. As a club, they are hitting .240/.297/.376. They are one of two MLB teams with an on-base percentage below .300, and their 81 wRC+ ranks dead last in the majors, tied with the Miami Marlins. The Tigers have averaged 3.81 runs/game, second-to-last in the American League, just ahead of the Kansas City Royals’ 3.65 runs/game.
It has been even worse lately. Since June 19, the game that started their 11-game losing streak, the Tigers are averaging 3.22 runs/game and are hitting .221/.276/.335 in those 46 games. Their 64 wRC+ during that time period is the worst in the majors, and no other team in the American League is below an 80 wRC+ during that time span.
Last Sunday in Oakland, the Tigers were shutout for the 14th time this year (they have since been shutout once more). In 2017, the Tigers were shutout 12 times all year. Manager Ron Gardenhire made a statement before that game.
But Gardenhire said Detroit could learn something from the A’s. While he’s seen the Tigers chase too many pitches too often, he looks at the A’s and sees a club that isn’t overly eager.“
Sometimes a bit of panic sets in; we make a lot of pretty quick outs,” Gardenhire said without singling anyone out. “We make a lot of first-pitch outs because we’re not confident.”
There is some truth to that statement. The Tigers have swung at 1,349 first pitches, sixth most in the majors. They have made 310 outs when putting the ball in play, 12th most in the majors (as opposed to 279 outs by the Athletics). However, the Tigers have a batting average of .361 on the first pitch, third-best in the majors.
When swinging at first pitch
The problem lies deeper than the first pitch. The Tigers are just overall free-swingers. They swing at nearly half the pitches that they see (49.6 percent), the highest number in the majors. Their out of zone swing rate is at 35.1 percent, also the most in the majors.
Detroit Tigers swing rates
Nicholas Castellanos, ranks seventh in the majors among qualified players at 55.4 swing percent. With Miguel Cabrera injured and Leonys Martin traded away, Victor Reyes (61.9 percent), Jim Adduci (57.1 percent) and Ronny Rodriguez (53.2 percent) are getting more playing time, which intensifies the problem.
Part of the blame can be put on Ron Gardenhire himself. While he is flexible with his lineup, there is one spot where he is stubborn. Jose Iglesias has started 110 games for the Tigers this year, 97 of them (88.2 percent) he has batted eighth. Not only is Iglesias one of the more patient hitters on the Tigers (49.6 percent swing rate) but when he does swing, he makes contact (87.4 percent contact rate, ranked 11th in all of baseball). Iglesias consistently ranks near the top in this category, at 86.2 percent in 2017, 91.1 percent in 2016, and 90.3 percent in 2015.
Ronny Rodriguez, on the other hand, is the least experienced hitter on the Tigers, with 93 career plate appearances. He has the lowest on-base percentage on the Tigers, at .228, and only makes contact 71.5 percent of the time. It makes no sense that guys like Rodriguez have batted near the top of the order while Iglesias wastes away in his usual eight spot. The results have spoken for themselves.
Hindsight is 20/20, there is no way in knowing that the Tigers would have scored substantially more runs had Iglesias batted in the lead-off spot instead of Rodriguez. Ron Gardenhire also cannot make these Tiger hitters more patient at the plate. That is the job of the hitting coach, Lloyd McClendon, and the work ethic of the hitter. Gardenhire can control his batting lineup by putting his players in the best possible position to win. A good start would be to utilize Jose Iglesias in a more important part of the lineup. It should be noted that Iglesias has batted second in the last eight games, so Gardenhire has at least addressed this issue more recently.
Plate discipline is difficult to teach, and rarely improves if a player didn’t develop those skills in the minor leagues. Major league hitters, with some exceptions, are who they are in this regard by the time they reach the show. So the Tigers aren’t going to be able to do a whole lot about it in the short term. Their recent drafts show at least a modicum of awareness that they need to value this particular tool much more highly in their acquisition of young talent. But for the time being, they’re going to continue to generate a lot of wind and little thunder with the bats.