Franchise strikeout record serves as Tigers’ call to action

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Nick Castellanos

Detroit – The Detroit Tigers went into the final weekend of the regular season needing to win at least two of three against the lowly Braves to steal a wild-card spot. After winning the first game of the series Friday, the Tigers proceeded to lose the next two – striking out a flabbergasting 27 times in the final two games.

Unheralded Aaron Blair struck out 10 Tigers in six innings on Saturday, and in the 1-0 season-ending loss Sunday, Julio Teheran struck out 12 in seven innings.

This was the last image of the 2016 season: With the tying run on first base in the top of the ninth, former Tigers reliever Jim Johnson struck out J.D. Martinez swinging and Justin Upton looking.

Is it any wonder, then, when manager Brad Ausmus was asked in what areas he felt the team needed to improve – his immediate answer was: “I would like to see us strike out less.”

The Tigers struck out 1,303 times last season – a franchise record. Their strikeout percentage was 21.3, 1.3 over the league average, and Tigers hitters struck out once every 4.2 at-bats, which was right at the league average.

“I think certain guys that produce runs, drive in runs, you live with strikeouts, and that happens,” Ausmus said. “But I think we've got some other guys that can cut down on their strikeouts, and that will be a topic of discussion early on in camp.”

Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, two of the run producers Ausmus referred to, were among the best in putting the ball in play. Martinez’s strikeout rate was 14.8 percent and Cabrera’s was 17.1.

“Miguel has the ability to shorten up and go the other way with two strikes, especially with runners in scoring position,” Ausmus said. “For me, other guys should be looking at that. Here is a guy that hits 35 homers, drives in a hundred and he still has the ability to shorten up with two strikes.”

Shortstop Jose Iglesias’ 9.8 percent strikeout rate was best in the American League.

Upton represents the other side of the equation. His 179 strikeouts were a career high. He fanned 28.6 percent of his plate appearances, or every once every 3.2 at-bats.

When the count got to 0-2, Upton put the ball in play just 63 times in 128 at-bats, hitting .198. When the count got to 1-2, Upton put it in play 93 times out of 204 at-bats (.162).

But Upton, a career free swinger who still produced 31 home runs and 87 RBIs, won’t be the main target of Ausmus’ spring training emphasis on developing a better two-strike approach. Catcher James McCann, third baseman Nick Castellanos, second baseman Ian Kinsler and outfielders J.D. Martinez, JaCoby Jones and Tyler Collins will be among those sitting in the front row of those classes.

James McCann

McCann posted a career-high 109 strikeouts last season, 29.2 percent. He put the ball in play 34 times in 84 plate appearances when the count got to 0-2 (.084) and 54 times in 115 tries (.132) when the count got to 1-2.

Kinsler also posted career-high strikeout numbers – 115, 16.9 percent – though his 28 homers were his most since 2011.

J.D. Martinez fanned 128 times, 24.8 percent – nearly once in every four plate appearances. He put the ball in play 49 times in 105 plate appearances when the count got to 0-2 (.202) and 80 times in 163 tries (.140) when the count got to 1-2.

Castellanos improved his two-strike hitting from the previous season, but still struck out 24.8 percent of the time. He put the ball in play 59 times in 109 plate appearances that the count got to 0-2 (.192) and 77 of 146 trips when the count got to 1-2 (.165).

“He made huge strides this year,” Ausmus said. “He just needs to keep trending in that direction. He made huge strides offensively, especially from a perspective of not chasing pitches out of the zone. He was much better about not chasing breaking balls out of the zone.”

Jones, in his short time in the final month of the season, struck out 42.9 percent of the time. Collins fanned in 25.2 percent of his plate appearances. Before being sent to the minor leagues, center fielder Anthony Gose struck out in 37.6 percent of his plate appearances.

Shifts in analytics, Ausmus said, has made the strikeout more permissible these days. But for players like McCann, Collins, Jones and Gose -- and even Castellanos -- a strikeout rate of over 20 percent is too high.

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“Analytics helps the game tremendously,” Ausmus said. “They give you insight and make the team better. But now you're getting that trickle-up effect. Kids that have been reading about power and how important doubles and homers are analytically, well, they swing for the fences, and I think that's why there are more strikeouts.

“There is something to be said at times, especially for specific types of players, to putting the ball in play and put pressure on the defense.”

Tigers hitters will be guided by a couple of new old faces – Lloyd McClendon and assistant Leon “Bull” Durham. They replace Wally Joyner and David Newhan. Both have long ties in the organization and both were together at Triple-A Toledo last season.

“In the back of my mind, Mac was the guy, because he has a rapport with some of the veterans,” Ausmus said. “He's been around some of these hitters. He has the respect, and I like that with our veteran core, having someone of that type of stature as the hitting coach.

“And then Bull is the other end of the spectrum. He's seen a lot of our young guys. He's been in Toledo for 15 years or so and has seen a lot of these guys at some point and worked with them. I thought it was a good combination.”

Ausmus said he and McClendon have already talked about developing better two-strike habits and emphasizing putting the ball in play.

“We will talk about it early on, probably the first day or two of spring training,” Ausmus said. “It’s an area we can certainly improve.”

Twitter @cmccosky