Desperate times, desperate measures: Tigers try to get Niko Goodrum back on track
Cleveland — It’s an almost impossible ask in a 162-game season. To try to do it 24 games into a 60-game season — well, things would have to be downright desperate.
This is where the Tigers are with shortstop Niko Goodrum right now. Desperate times. Desperate measures.
After going 0-for-5 Friday night, Goodrum is in a 3-for-35 tailspin in his last nine games, striking out 14 times. His at-bats are all starting to look the same — getting beat by fastballs up in the zone, chasing breaking balls out of the zone.
It’s pushed hitting coach Joe Vavra to the brink of doing something he’d rather not do.
“We’re kind of at the point where we’ve got to some adjusting,” he said. “We talked about it yesterday. It’s a trend that’s been going on for a few years since I’ve been here. He attacks low pitches, so he's getting pitched with high fastballs and then they're getting him to chase breaking balls. For the most part when he commits (to swinging), he commits. He has a hard time holding up his swing.
“I am going to present him with some things (Saturday).”
Goodrum was not in the starting lineup Saturday, so he will have time to clear his head and work with Vavra on whatever changes are presented.
“I spent most of the morning looking at his video, along with a couple of other guys,” Vavra said. “Trying to iron out some things. Instead of looking at numbers and film with some of the other guys, I just said today I’m going to concentrate on him.”
Trying to make a swing change or even significant mechanical adjustments, Vavra knows, is risky in the middle of a short season. There’s no time to work through the changes and get comfortable with them. But the alternative is to watch Goodrum continue down this particular rabbit hole, which might be the more painful.
“At this point in time, when they’ve been doing something over and over — it’s like on a golf course and you keep slicing the ball. You think next time it’s going to be different when you are doing the same thing,” he said. “I don’t think it’s (going to be) an overhaul at all. I think it’s kind of minor.
“But it will be major in their mind. You can’t sit there and tweak too many parts, you have to go after one thing. Maybe it’s significant but you have to go after it and try to talk him through it.”
Vavra planned to spend time showing Goodrum video of swings from players Goodrum respects.
“Just show him exactly what they have going on,” he said. “And then from seeing them, maybe see what he can do and not push it too much further than that…His routine is pretty good. We’ve addressed trying to get on a better bat path to the fastball, but also trying to keep his mind focused and staying positive so he can lay off some of the pitches outside the zone.”
The Tigers have the fourth-worst chase rate in the American League (34 percent), something that Vavra has emphasized since being named the hitting coach this winter.
“It’s got to get better,” he said. “I’ve watched this for three years now. I don’t know if our plan has to get better or our early pitch recognition has to get a lot better. There’s things we are trying to do.”
The Tigers have machines that show hitters various spins and simulate pitchers' release, which helps them identify pitchers’ grips, help them try to identify if the ball is a strike or not out of the pitcher’s hand.
Fixing physical flaws is tough, getting a struggling hitter into a more positive and productive mindset is tougher. Christin Stewart, who took a 1-for-21 drought into the game Saturday, is a case study there.
Vavra and Stewart made significant mechanical adjustments after Stewart’s struggles in Lakeland, and by the end of summer camp, he looked like he was locked in.
“But somehow, when the hits don’t start falling and the contact is bad and the chase rate goes up, you start to trend back to what you’re more comfortable with more than you want to stay on the adjustments that’s going to help you down the road," Vavra said.
“He’s a work in progress. If we had 162 games we might be able to tone some things down and make it right for the rest of his career. Unfortunately, we’re in August and it’s just the first month of the season, but it’s go time. It’s hard to make adjustments.”
It's not like Goodrum and Stewart don't study their own heat maps. They know how teams are trying to get them out, where their perceived weakness are at the plate. But you don't get to the big leagues accepting any weaknesses in your game.
In most situations, that's called perseverance and it's a virtue. When it comes to trying to hit pitches that you know you can't, it's called stubbornness.
"Pitchers will attack certain areas and sometimes our guys want to prove they can get there," Vavra said. "That's not how it works. If you get away from your strengths to try and cover your weaknesses, you won't have any strengths.
"Try to stay with your strengths."