Tigers need healthy V-Mart to rejuvenate offense

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

There are occasional jailbreaks. A six-run surge in Saturday's game almost allowed the Tigers to catch an Angels team that hit five home runs the first two innings against starter Shane Greene.

There also was an eight-run uprising May 24 against the Astros. Of course, the Tigers that day didn't pitch and lost 10-8.

Mostly, though, during a dispiriting stretch of baseball for a former first-place team, the Tigers in May were scoring one, two, or, on a good night, maybe three runs.

Last week, it turned worse. Twice the Tigers were shut out.

The answer is obvious. So obvious a Tigers manager can do little but acknowledge that five hits in a game, as the team got Sunday, won't often beat a big league team.

"We've got to find a way to score runs," Brad Ausmus said after a 4-2 plunge that gave the Angels a four-game sweep of their friends from Detroit.

"That's it. We've got to find a way to score runs."

In fact, there is a way out of Detroit's offensive straitjacket.

His name is Victor Martinez. And he's on the disabled list, trying to strengthen a left knee weakened by February surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

In the most telling statistic for why a Tigers lineup has been constrained, Jon Morosi of Foxsports.com reported a statistic following in the finale.

In 2014, the Tigers had the best production from their designated hitter of any team in the American League: .958 OPS.

This year, the Tigers are in the basement: .592 OPS, or about what you would expect from a light-hitting utility infielder.

Of course, Martinez was last year's designated hitter, just as he had been this year's, at least when he was in the lineup.

But there is a distinction, clear in each season's numbers, in viewing Martinez and the Tigers designated hitter and the ultimate goal of production.

Martinez's left knee must be at full strength when he returns to the lineup. Anything less will leave the Tigers with DH numbers closer to this year's, given that Martinez played 34 games before he was moved to the disabled list May 19.

"There's no question we miss Victor's bat," Ausmus said. "But we've got to get back the real Victor — not the Victor who's scuffling with the knee.

"The rearview mirror doesn't concern me. We're going to have to figure it out," Ausmus went on, focusing on a team that so often lacks the big hit, or anything close to a mix that produces runs. And to do that, getting a healthy Victor back certainly helps."

Ausmus, naturally, is not exactly Detroit's favorite baseball manager these days. Ausmus' predecessor, Jim Leyland, has been supplanted in the minds of fans who believe a dugout skipper can change game outcomes.

Of course, Ausmus has tried everything baseball rules allow.

■He has attempted to steal more bases — not only to put runners in scoring position, but to chop down on double plays that so often have been a habit with a team that puts men on base but doesn't drive them home.

■He has tried hit-and-runs — and been betrayed a handful of times by hitters and runners who have missed signs.

■He has changed the order of his cleanup hitters, which once was the province of Victor Martinez, and not a lot has happened, mostly because neither Yoenis Cespedes nor J.D. Martinez was making a great deal of difference.

In fact, baseball metrics prove there isn't a lot that shuffling a batting order can change — at least until people in that lineup begin hitting.

One possible alteration might be to move up Jose Iglesias, who is hitting .338 and who, during last week's trip, hit the ball better than his average.

Iglesias has speed and a bat that refuses to wilt and could be an answer at the No. 2 spot, where Ian Kinsler, who has had a tough few weeks, is now anchored.

But the manager knows something about numbers, as well. And numbers that matter come down to these:

A team must hit. Throughout its lineup it must hit. And not until good hitters swing a bat consistently and productively in all segments of an order will a team move past its tendency to score a couple of runs — or fewer — in a big league game.

Unless the raw dynamics of putting wood on a baseball change, the Tigers aren't necessarily the third-place American League Central team they are today.

They can finish even lower.

But that will all change for the better when, and if, a capable Victor Martinez returns — and when a few more hitters dealing with a combination of bad luck and some wobbly at-bats reacquire some former habits.