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The Tigers’ focus on strikeouts misses their real offensive weakness

The Tigers are obsessing about strikeouts when other teams have already found the answer.

Oakland Athletics v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Developing hitters has long been a major weakness in the Detroit Tigers organization. They rarely had high end talent in the farm system to work with during their decade as an AL Central powerhouse, but the list of hitters the team has nurtured into major league material is still a short one. That has to change if the team is to produce a contender built from their farm system. Unfortunately, the announced organizational focus on limiting strikeouts and approach their coaches are taking seem to clash with the philosophy employed by teams with strong track records of success in this area.

Rising strikeout totals have certainly been one of the more obvious trends across baseball in recent years. Just a decade ago, the league-wide strikeout rate stood at 17.5 percent. In 2018, that mark reached 22.3 percent. The proliferation of high velocity arms, data-informed training, increased breaking ball usage, and continued moves toward specialization probably means that this trend won’t be notably reversed any time soon. However, Tigers general manager Al Avila and his coaching staff don’t appear to agree. Instead, they have repeatedly emphasized cutting down on strikeouts as an overriding goal in player development this season.

Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon articulated some of those concerns in an interview with the voice of Tigers radio, Dan Dickerson, published recently in these digital pages. And both general manager Al Avila and manager Ron Gardenhire emphasized that reducing strikeouts is now a major organizational focus.

As reported by Chris McCosky of the Detroit News on December 13, Avila offered his thoughts on the issue.

“We’ve talked a lot about hitting for most of the winter,” general manager Al Avila said. “How we are going to approach it. When we get to spring training there’s going to be an emphasis on approach, on two-strike approach.”

Gardenhire weighed in with a similar perspective.

“Good hitters on good teams, they shorten their swings with two strikes and put the ball in play in big situations,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We need our guys to learn that striking out is not going to help us. It’s not going to help us grow as a team.”

The problem here is that the numbers McCosky used in his piece to argue that the Tigers have a major organizational problem with strikeouts don’t hold up to even basic scrutiny. He repeatedly mentions the 5,848 strikeouts Tigers hitters accumulated from the Single-A level to the major leagues. Without context, that number is meaningless.

The Tigers posted a 22.2 percent strikeout rate this season, which was in line with league average. They ranked ninth-best among American League teams, and 17th overall. The Tigers were a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of strikeouts, despite the absence of Miguel Cabrera and numerous temporary Tigers in the lineup throughout the year. Yet they were second-to-last in run scoring in the AL, with only the Baltimore Orioles scoring fewer runs.

The key reasons won’t surprise you. The Tigers posted a .300 on-base percentage, second-worst in the American League and third-worst in baseball, and an isolated power (ISO) of .138, which was also third-worst in MLB. In terms of home run totals, they were third-worst again, with only the San Francisco Giants and Miami Marlins hitting fewer. Walk rate? Tied for fourth-worst in the game. The correlation between low home run totals and low walk rates isn’t particularly surprising, as hitters without home run power don’t command a lot of respect from major league pitchers.

Similar trends hold up throughout much of the four full season levels of the Tigers’ farm system. Using totals rather than rates is a bit misleading begin with, of course, but without a comparison between clubs, they are wholly useless. Rates by team are not readily available throughout the minors, so let’s just look at the general case for whether strikeouts are the prominent issue in the system.

For clarity, offenses are ranked in reverse order. The Toledo Mud Hens, for example, had the fifth-fewest strikeouts of the 14 teams in the International League.

2018 Offensive Rankings

Team League No. of Teams Strikeouts Walks Home Runs
Team League No. of Teams Strikeouts Walks Home Runs
Toledo Mud Hens International 14 5th 10th 5th
Erie SeaWolves Eastern 12 11th 5th 12th
Lakeland Flying Tigers Florida State 12 8th 7th 10th
West Michigan Whitecaps Midwest 16 8th 9th 16th

There is certainly a clear trend throughout all levels of the organization, but strikeouts have little to do with it. The Tigers’ fundamental issue is the black hole where their home run power used to be. This is an issue that has plagued the Tigers’ drafts and international signings for years now, and it reared its head at all levels in 2018. With a few individual exceptions, their hitters are not plagued by strikeouts. More than anything, the entire organization has a disastrous power outage to contend with.

That lack of power is glaring, particularly as scoring is actually on the rise. To put it simply, better teams have countered increased strikeout totals with more power and better strike zone discipline, which has completely negated the effect of the strikeouts on overall run scoring. The so-called launch angle revolution — better described by adherent Josh Donaldson as “plane-matching” — coupled with rising strikeouts and a (less exaggerated) rise in walks has turned the game into more of a three true outcomes contest at the plate. Teams who have rolled with these changes have succeeded. Teams who have ignored or fought these trends generally have not.

The Tigers need to find the power switch

In the end, some of this can be overcooked and oversimplified. We’re talking about the very fundamentals of hitting. Every team is trying to strike out less often and hit for more power. Presumably, the Tigers’ harping on two-strike approach does not mean that hitters are going to spend the whole spring playing pepper. All teams coach their hitters to battle with two strikes. You don’t ignore fundamentals with young hitters, especially. It’s just a matter of emphasis.

There are individual Tigers players and prospects — JaCoby Jones or catching prospect Jake Rogers come to mind — who are only a modest improvement in contact rate from being above-average major league players. For them, working on using the whole field and shortening up with two strikes could be beneficial, particularly for a player with Jones’ speed and ability on the basepaths.

However, far more common are players like Dawel Lugo, who has the contact ability to avoid high strikeout rates, and at least average raw power. Unfortunately, he also appears quite far from becoming a quality major league hitter due to a distinct lack of in-game power. Lugo is undone by impatience early in counts and poor swing mechanics that limit him from driving pitches in the air. His two-strike approach has little to do with it.

Considering the Tigers’ need in the power department and the fact that very few players survive in the majors without at least modest pop nowadays, it’s somewhat frustrating that McClendon remains dismissive of the fly ball, or “launch angle” revolution. It’s difficult to ignore what is going on around the league, particularly in the town where J.D. Martinez transformed into one of the most feared power hitters in the game. While the whole concept of changing launch angles is sometimes misunderstood as advocating some kind of huge uppercut swing, the actual methodology is mechanically sound for almost everyone. Simply put, players are trying to tailor their swing to optimize their actual raw power more effectively.

The Tigers had another example just this year in the form of a resurgent Leonys Martin. Prior to the 2018 season, McClendon cited Martin as a player who had lost his way trying to hit home runs, and who would benefit from a flatter swing and more of a line drive approach. With good speed, and as a player of modest size, he was a poster child for the type of guy who should stop trying to pull everything in the air, and simply put the ball in play more often.

As it turned out, Martin did strikeout a little less than his career average in 2018, so he did walk or put the ball in play more often. But in every other respect, he was an example of a player succeeding by hitting the ball in the air more often. In 2017, Martin’s average launch angle was 9.8 degrees. In 2018, it was 16.2 degrees. A player with a career 33 percent fly ball rate posted a 46 percent fly ball rate, with a little bump in line drive rate as well. He rode those changes to a career-high isolated power score (ISO) of .170, and had the best overall offensive season of his career.

In Martin’s case, perhaps McClendon’s approach was exactly what was needed to tame down extremes in his swing and approach. But once again, we see an example of a guy who doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, but who found his way to better production largely by hitting the ball in the air more often. It would be nice to hear the coaching staff speak more fluently on that subject, as opposed to harping on choking up against the steady diet of flamethrowers your average major league pitching staff has to offer nowadays.

Getting better at staying in at-bats, battling in bad counts, and putting more balls in play are fine things to work on. But it would also be nice to see the Tigers unlock a young hitter’s bat speed and power. Better still, we would like to see some of the 2018 draft class show signs of life in the power department and rescue a farm system in dire need of players who can drive the ball in the air. Trimming a few strikeout rates is pretty far removed from the Tigers’ real issues.