Tigers left-handed reliever Phil Coke owns a 6.75 ERA, surrendering a pair of earned runs in Monday's 10-0 road loss to the A's. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Managers do not call clubhouse meetings if a team is dealing with flaws the world regards as “aberrations.”
Brad Ausmus did not shut the doors and talk soulfully with his team following Sunday’s Tigers debacle at Comerica Park, a 12-4 loss to the Rangers, because of some isolated silliness — an aberration — that turned a first-place team’s past week into a fright show of baseball misconduct.
An aberration is Justin Verlander having a bad inning — not a bad month
An aberration is Phil Coke getting slammed in one of two outings — not in one or two years of appearances.
An aberration, utterly inexplicable, is Torii Hunter, who once was a gold standard for outfield defenders, suddenly turning into one of the deeper defensive liabilities the Tigers have known since Delmon Young was sent on suicide missions in left field.
Somehow, after days and even weeks of displaying the best baseball a big-league team could brandish, the Tigers entering Tuesday’s road game against the A’s had authored a horrific eight-game stretch. Their presumed strength (starting pitching) disintegrated while their known challenges (bullpen, certain hitters, etc.) intensified to a point unimaginable during an earlier 11-game road winning streak that had cleared the way for Detroit having baseball’s best record.
The response to Ausmus’ meeting either proved that such meetings are of limited help or that the Tigers skipper should speak louder. The A’s on Memorial Day destroyed the Tigers, 10-0, which officially shifted Detroit’s troubles from weird to ominous.
Issues, with answers that might or might not evolve, include:
Verlander is getting crushed
In fact, it’s worse than crushed.
In the past month, spanning five starts, Verlander is walking nearly as many batters (15) as he has struck out (19). Verlander in his prime was good for a dozen strikeouts in a game and maybe a couple of walks. The flip-flop is chilling for a man 31 who not long ago was considered the best pitcher in baseball.
Batters in the last 30 days are hitting .300 against him — .359 in his last three starts. His WHIP, which annually cruises just beneath 1.00 when he is being Verlander rather than Jose Valverde, is at an appalling 1.51.
His fastball, according to research by Fangraphs.com, is on average almost 2 mph lower (93.1) than his career average (94.7). That translates into hittable stuff when the remainder of his four-pitch quiver has been little better.
Is it temporary? Probably, although in that context his 2013 turnaround is not necessarily comforting. Verlander had an off-key May, June, July stretch a year ago (5.00 ERA) before settling into his old, nearly indomitable ways.
The hang-up is that pitching and playing well in the regular season is how teams make it into the playoffs. Verlander has now added May 2014 to a bad string from 2013, which means a team and its ace one of these years could risk waiting too long for his old wizardry to return.
Verlander said, following Sunday’s thrashing: “I guarantee that I’m going to work my butt off to turn this around.”
Work has never been a concern with Verlander. Incredibly, pitching is now the worry.
Coke isn’t getting any better
Make a move that should have been made in spring camp and release Coke for his good and that of his team.
This situation is long past the point it should have been addressed. A front office’s credibility is at stake, no matter how many 93-mph fastballs or occasional sharp sliders his bosses might see that convince them he could yet be the second left-hander they require and have not been able to find apart from a man with a 6.75 ERA and 1.73 WHIP.
You knew the situation was untenable when, in several high-pressure instances this spring where the Tigers needed a bullpen left-hander, they ignored Coke for fear he would implode. Imagine that: Not using a pitcher who is specifically on your roster for particular situations because you don’t trust him.
They have preferred instead to use Coke in lopsided circumstances where he could tighten his pitches and build confidence.
It isn’t working. It has not been working since Coke saved his roster job in spring camp with an 11th-hour, single-performance outing that convinced the Tigers to spend $1.9 million and take him north.
In retrospect, it was a mistake. It’s doubling down on a mistake to believe anything will change within a timeframe that should have expired some time ago.
If the Tigers need to opt for six right-handers and Ian Krol as their lone left-hander, so be it. If they need a second lefty, they know, as well as anyone who has watched him pitch recently, that 25-year-old Pat McCoy, who has shined at Double A Erie and now at Triple A Toledo, has a better shot at succeeding.
This is one argument the fans have won. In fact, they won it weeks ago.
Too many stalwarts aren’t hitting — or fielding
A few habits need to change in a hurry — if that’s achievable.
Heading into Tuesday’s game, here were some May batting averages and OPS numbers, with any respectable OPS beginning in the .750-.800 range:
Rajai Davis: .239 average, .633 OPS.
Austin Jackson: .216, .579.
Hunter: .244, .666.
Nick Castellanos: .234, .602.
Andrew Romine: .211, .505.
Throw more than one-half of a batting order at a good big-league pitcher when numbers are as wispy as those and it’s no wonder the Tigers were having nearly as much heartache at the plate as on the mound.
On the plus side, Ian Kinsler, the team’s best all-around player this season, has been giving Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez at least an occasional runner to drive home. Alex Avila, despite his .229 batting average, had a healthy .772 OPS in great part due to his ability to grab a walk and craft an on-base average of .359.
Castellanos is enduring rookie miseries anticipated even for a 22-year-old hitter as good as he is, and will be. Expect him to find a remedy for sliders away and breaking pitches out of the strike zone. By June he should be returning to warmer numbers.
But the Tigers will need more help, especially from the left side, where Andy Dirks could be of immense help even after a long layoff as he recovers from back surgery.
It would be nice, also, if Hunter begins playing right field in the fashion he, for years, displayed so artfully. Dirks should also boost an outfield whose corner defense has been marred not only by Hunter, but by Davis, who has particular trouble with balls hit over his head.
But for all the grimaces over Ausmus’ team and its occasional troubles at the plate and in the field, and for all the anxiety about Detroit’s bullpen, starting pitching never was a debate topic, unless people wanted to argue this season’s starting rotation might be one of the best in baseball history.
Eight lousy days turned Tigers conversation upside down in tone and substance. The front office and manager have to believe it’s short-term. An aberration, if you will.