September 2, 2009 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

No common cure for Tigers hitters

On May 3, Brandon Inge was hitting .316 and had almost as many walks (15) as strikeouts (17). Now he's hitting .239 with 44 walks and 136 K's. (Gail Burton/Associated Press)

Detroit

Why and how so many supposedly good Tigers hitters shut it down in 2009 -- either for a season, a half-season, against left-handers, etc. -- is only one of the mysteries to Detroit's baseball season.

Three supposedly stellar starting pitchers -- Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson -- were also missing. And yet the Tigers have used otherwise solid pitching and defense to maintain a nearly four-month ride in first place.

It's stunning stuff, and not simply explained by the mediocrity of the American League Central Division. The Tigers have a 22-14 record against the American League West. They were 10-8 against the National League.

They have played sturdy, if not formidable, baseball, mostly because of starting pitching, and in spite of those weird battery-outages in manager Jim Leyland's lineup.

The offensive numbers are staggering:

  • Curtis Granderson is batting .180 against left-handers and was hitting .255 entering Tuesday night's game against the Indians at Comerica Park.

  • Brandon Inge's average is .177 since the All-Star Game, with 51 strikeouts in 42 games.

  • Magglio Ordonez had seven home runs and 17 doubles through Monday's game. Gerald Laird was batting .225 as he got ready for the Indians series. Marcus Thames has missed some time, which helps account for his 13 home runs, but he's batting .176 in August.

    Don't blame the coach

    So, how did it happen? Why have hitters still with age in their favor, or at least with fuel in their tanks, experienced so many assorted problems at the plate?

    A lot of fans want to blame Tigers hitting coach, Lloyd McClendon, which is what happens when batters or teams go into prolonged slumps. But coaching isn't the problem. McClendon was coaching when Ordonez won a batting title and when Miguel Cabrera won a home run championship.

    He was coaching when Granderson had his superb 2007. He got Inge out of a funk during the first half of this season. Inge's knee tendinitis is probably most to blame for the second-half slip, but in any event it's a stretch to lay his recurring problems on McClendon.

    The 2009 failings are easier to explain case by case:

    Granderson simply hasn't touched left-handers. He has hit for power (25 home runs), but that's been of minimal gain when he can't be trusted in situations against lefties. If he had not made progress in previous years batting against left-handers -- like he did in 2008 -- you could perhaps write him off. But this one appears to be Granderson's issue to solve.

    If the Tigers are privately persuaded he won't cut it against lefties, be prepared for a blockbuster offseason trade.

    As for the others ...

    Ordonez, 35, has shown he can't get around on fastballs. He simply aged prematurely. How the Tigers deal with his contract next year (he's now destined to return) is going to be some kind of sticky wicket in 2010 -- potentially even more of an issue than it was even this season.

    Laird has done a lovely job behind the plate. But he has demonstrated his bat is best used in a platoon situation, which is probably what will evolve next year in tandem with Alex Avila.

    Then there's the issue of Aubrey Huff, who arrived here 2 weeks ago, presumably to put left-handed muscle into Leyland's lineup.

    He entered Tuesday night with an .088 average since joining the Tigers.

    Batting slumps, like viruses, apparently are contagious. To a team chasing a playoff spot, this strain that has ripped through the Tigers in 2009 could yet prove fatal.

    lynn.henning@detnews.com">lynn.henning@detnews.com

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