Gardenhire: Tigers can't grow as a team until strikeout epidemic is vanquished

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
JaCoby Jones

Detroit – Let’s call it what it is, OK. It’s an organization-wide epidemic. (It’s a baseball-wide epidemic, as well, but let’s keep the focus local for now.)

The strikeout. It’s the most useless result a hitter can achieve, and the Tigers continue to amass record amounts of those useless results annually.

Tigers hitters struck out 1,341 times – a rate of 22.2 percent. They averaged 8.28 strikeouts per game. It’s the fourth straight year they set a new franchise strikeout record.

“Good hitters on good teams, they shorten their swings with two strikes and put the ball in play in big situations,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We need our guys to learn that striking out is not going to help us. It’s not going to help us grow as a team.”

This epidemic runs deep. Every team in the Tigers’ system, from Low-A to Triple-A, struck out more than 1,000 times this season: West Michigan (1,167), Lakeland (1,078), Erie (1,187) and Toledo (1,075). Including the big-league club, there were 5,848 punch-outs in the Tigers system in 2018.

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That should be alarming. But, in this age of true-outcome baseball, where the home run is king, walks draw high praise and strikeouts are increasingly accepted, nearly 6,000 whiffs in one organization barely raises a red flag.

“That’s been the biggest change for me,” said Gardenhire, who returned to the manager’s chair for the first time in three years. “All the information we have to cipher through, just so much information, the swing plane, all the talk of lifting and the home runs and the strikeouts – that’s all true.

“Back when I managed before, you kind of got embarrassed when you struck out. Nowadays, it’s the normal thing in baseball.”

Strikeouts were up across the league for the 13th straight season. Home runs, though, after a record 6,105 were slugged in 2017, dropped to 5,585. That despite the Yankees hitting a MLB-record 267 of them.

“Guys come back to the dugout, ‘Darn, I just missed that ball,’” Gardenhire said with a chuckle. “But they look like a cartoon character sometimes – swinging three times at one pitch. That’s the change. No one worries about striking out anymore because it’s just part of the game now.

“We talk about that all the time among us coaches. Striking out was the worst thing you could do when we were growing up playing. Just put the ball in play. When you strike out, you have no chance to get a hit. But shortening up your swing with two strikes and putting it in play – that’s taboo now.”

Gardenhire isn’t on an old-school rant here. He understands the power of the home run. He’s not asking sluggers, true home run hitters, to go into full protect-and-battle mode when they get two strikes. But here’s his dilemma: He can count the true home run hitters on his roster with one hand – and maybe not use all his fingers.

“We don’t deny the fact that home runs are a big thing,” he said. “But I think you have a better chance of success if you shorten your swing and put the ball in play. There are guys who you want to just let it go (with two strikes).

“But the role guys, the guys who are supposed to handle the bat, they need to get back to shortening their swing and putting the bat on the ball.”

It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive – a home run or strikeout, feast or famine. The Astros won a World Series last year with a low strikeout rate and a high slugging percentage. The Red Sox this year have a 19.5 percent strikeout rate and a .453 slugging percentage.

You hate to make him the poster child for this epidemic, but Tigers center fielder JaCoby Jones is the case study for what Gardenhire is trying to instill throughout the organization. He struck out 142 times in 467 plate appearances – and that 30 percent whiff rate was an improvement over his 42 percent whiff rate the previous season.

Jeimer Candelario

He hit career-best 11 home runs and six triples, but his batting average was an untenable .207. The difference, as general manager Al Avila said, between him being an All-Star or a fourth outfielder, will be his ability to cut the strikeout rate in half.

“JaCoby can hit a ball in the seats and he might hit 20-plus home runs one day,” Gardenhire said. “But he’ll hit 20 home runs after he shortens his swing and puts the ball in play a little more. I guarantee it. Right now, he’s still letting it fly (with two strikes).

“There are times when we want him to get on base and he’s going to have to do that to remain up here at this level for any length of time. He has to cut down on the strikeouts.”

Jones’ primary big-league asset is speed. It’s his speed and athleticism that makes him an elite center fielder. But the strikeouts are negating his speed offensively. As Gardenhire said, the more he puts the ball in play, the more pressure he puts on defenders to make plays, the more chances he’ll have to get on base.

“If he can change his approach and learn how to fight it off with two strikes, he’ll make a lot of money in this game,” Gardenhire said.

Jones isn’t the only player who can benefit from a better two-strike approach. Jeimer Candelario (26 percent strikeout rate), Niko Goodrum (27 percent), Mikie Mahtook (26 percent) and James McCann (25 percent) all would do well to heed Gardenhire’s words.

It would behoove some of the Tigers’ top hitting prospects to buy in, as well: Jacob Robson (25 percent), Parker Meadows (30 percent), Daz Cameron (26 percent), Jake Rogers (28 percent), Reynaldo Rivera (27 percent).

Twitter @cmccosky