Niko Goodrum looking comfy at top of Tigers batting order

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Cincinnati — Just looking at the numbers, you don’t necessarily see Niko Goodrum as the prototypical lead-off hitter — if there even is such a thing in today's game.

Certainly he wouldn’t be the first choice of most analytics departments. Not with his 29% strikeout rate and 9.8% walk rate last season. Not with his .322 on-base average nor his career .276 OBA, with 47 strikeouts and 14 walks from the lead-off spot.

But there he was Tuesday night, hitting lead-off against the Reds in an exhibition game, smacking a line drive home run to center field, getting hit by a pitch and drawing a walk in four plate appearances. Truth is, with Goodrum it's best not to judge the book by its cover. Because there is a lot inside that most of us just haven’t seen yet.

The Tigers' Niko Goodrum rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run during the second inning of an exhibition game Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds.

This is his 10th year in pro ball, if you can believe it, and until this past winter few saw him as more than a utility player. That is until the Tigers gave him a 38-game audition and discovered, well how about that, he can really play shortstop.

Then manager Ron Gardenhire started using him in the lead-off spot, Goodrum made some subtle but profound adjustments to his approach and, voila, in both the spring and summer camps he was taking more pitches, working counts and getting himself on base — and still taking his power hacks when the situation presented itself.

“I don’t sit and tell Niko any of that,” Gardenhire said Tuesday night. “He understands it. He’s one of those guys who does see pitches, he’s not afraid to take pitches, and he’s going to let it fly at times, too. I just want him to be himself.

“I have all the confidence in the world in him.”

It’s not that Goodrum sees his role in the order as strictly a table-setter. In fact, the approach he brings to the top of the order differs only slightly from the approach he’d take if he hit farther down in the order.

“I’m just searching for a pitch and trying to lay off the ones that are borderline,” Goodrum said. “I want to be able to give a report back to the guys on what I’m seeing if I do get out. Just seeing the ball, but if I see my pitch, I will take a hack at it.”

Goodrum is 28 and still clearly evolving offensively. Through much of his career in the minor leagues, he was more of a slap-and-dash hitter. His slugging percentage over eight minor-league seasons was .379. But as he grew into his body, things started to change, starting in 2017 when he hit 13 home runs at Triple-A Rochester.

In 2018 with the Tigers, he had a career-high 16 home runs. He was on his way to bettering that last year (12 home runs in 112 games) when an adductor (groin) strain ended his season in late August. He also stole 12 bases in each of the last two seasons and achieved a slight bump in his OBA.

Here’s the change:

“I’m trying to get a pitch I can drive, more than a pitch I can hit,” Goodrum said. “There’s a difference. And in doing that, you will start to lay off a few more things. That’s been my approach, just trying to get something I can drive and with that I feel like I can lay off some borderline pitches, tougher pitches.”

Goodrum, a switch-hitter who has in his career hit for more power left-handed and for a much higher average right-handed, has gradually cut down on swinging at pitches outside the zone, though his 32.4% chase rate last year was still too high for his liking.  

Whether Gardenhire sticks with him in the top spot remains to be seen, but Goodrum is trending in a positive direction.   

“We’re still ad-libbing with this thing,” Gardenhire said. “We’re just writing names down trying to get these guys in the right spots and see what it feels like. It may not be the lineup for all 60 games. You’ve seen me do that for a couple years here, I’m not afraid to move people around against different pitchers.

“We’re going to have more conversation about what does work and what doesn’t work. But I have no problem with Niko hitting at the top.”

Twitter: @cmccosky