Nobody expected much of Niko Goodrum after the Detroit Tigers signed him as a minor league free agent heading into the 2018 season. The infielder was 1-for-17 in 18 plate appearances in his MLB career with the Minnesota Twins and was never considered a top prospect in the system. The Tigers seemed to like his minor league numbers, however — he posted a 102 wRC+ in Triple-A that year — and gave him a shot to make the team that spring.
Naturally, Goodrum has been one of the most reliable players the Tigers have had in the past two seasons. He ranked fifth on the team in rWAR (1.6) and first among position players in 2019. While that top billing might sound better than it actually is given Detroit’s embarrassing dearth of actual talent, it is comforting that there is at least one well-rounded player in the everyday lineup.
What went right in 2019?
Again, the Tigers offense was not good this season, to put it lightly. That said, Goodrum finished third in hits (105), second in doubles (27), tied for first in triples (5), fourth in home runs (12), third in RBI (45), first in stolen bases (12) and second in walks (46) on the team. His 94 OPS+ ranked third among Tigers hitters, and he had the highest oWAR of the group at 1.8.
Better yet (for Goodrum, at least), all of this came despite playing only 112 games, as he sat out a good chunk of August and all of September due to a groin strain.
He walked a decent amount (for a Tiger) and, when he did hit the ball, he was making more hard contact and less soft contact than he did in 2018. On top of that, Goodrum’s hit spray chart is pretty darn impressive.
Goodrum also played every position except for pitcher and catcher, logging most of his innings at shortstop and in the outfield. He was markedly better at shortstop this year, improving his UZR 4.5 points from 2018 up to 3.2, bringing him into “above average” territory in 362 2⁄3 innings.
What went wrong in 2019?
There were two main detractors to Goodrum’s game this season: strikeouts and playing out of position.
We will start with the latter. Remember how Goodrum was actually solid at shortstop in nearly 363 innings? He played a total of 925 2⁄3 innings in the field, and the only other positions he registered a positive UZR at were third base (0.1 in nine innings) and right field (2.0 in 45 innings).
The lowlights come at second base, where he posted a -2.4 UZR in 184 2⁄3 innings, and left field, which saw him at -1.9 in 154 2⁄3 innings. None of these are particularly damning as there are certainly worse options on the team, but knowing that he had a clear strong position and was instead often plugged where he is not entirely suited is a frustrating thought.
It is understandable that Goodrum was needed pretty much everywhere, considering how there was practically nobody else on the roster who truly earned their starts day in and day out throughout the season, but he would have been far more valuable had he played a lion’s share of the team’s innings at shortstop.
Then there are the strikeouts. His 138 punchouts were the most on the team, and his already bad strikeout rate went up this year to 29.2 percent, a figure well above the MLB average of 23.0 percent.
Goodrum is all but guaranteed to return to Detroit in 2020. What his role will be remains to be seen. General manager Al Avila is a noted fan of bringing in veterans, as he did last offseason with Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison. If the Tigers bring in another shortstop like they did with Mercer, Goodrum could lose even more time at one of his strongest positions. Throw Willi Castro in the mix, and Goodrum appears destined to play everywhere once again.
He will likely fall right back into the role he has occupied for the past two seasons: a passable hitter and defender, one that can swipe a base every now and then. Ron Gardenhire will throw a dart at a board, and wherever it lands is where Goodrum will play. Nobody is threatening his spot on the roster since he can play nearly everywhere on the diamond.