Detroit – Here’s a sports talk topic for you: Is Player X a bad player or is he simply playing bad right now?
When a season starts to crumble like the Tigers’ has – they’re in an 8-27 spiral since May 12 – that’s not always easy to differentiate. Environment impacts performance and when a team struggles collectively like this, players often tend to underperform – either by overcompensating and trying to do more than they are able, or by succumbing to the malaise.
We will offer up two players who are, for want of a better word, scuffling. While neither is an All-Star, the argument here is they aren’t bad players, they are just having a really bad run. Catcher-first baseman John Hicks and lefty reliever Daniel Stumpf are solid big-league role players playing far below their capabilities.
They are certainly not the reason the Tigers’ are spiraling, but they are emblematic of the club’s struggle.
Start with Hicks.
'Doesn't get much worse'
He hit 15 home runs and knocked in 54 runs, slugging over .400 in 502 at-bats playing part-time over the 2017 and 2018 seasons. It wasn’t a reach to expect him to hit 15 to 18 home runs and knock in close to 60 runs this season, probably getting 400-plus at-bats backing up at the two positions.
He’s going to have to catch fire in a hurry to get there. He’s presently posting career lows (for a full season) in average (.196), on-base percentage (.232) and slugging (.329). He has three home runs and nine RBIs in 151 plate appearances.
“He’s really fighting it and when it gets going like this, it’s hard to stop that thing going downhill,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s trying to find it. He’s out there every day. What happens is, they get so deep in their own head, ‘It’s all about the swing.’
“It’s not about the swing. It’s right between the ears mostly.”
Hicks is riding an 0-for-18 skid right now and he’s 6-for-47 in June with 17 strikeouts and one walk.
“What happens is, you start not letting the ball get deep because you’re not seeing it good,” Gardenhire said. “You’re afraid to take a pitch because now you’re behind in the count. Everyone who’s played this game has been through it.
“And when you’re not playing every day, it’s harder. There’s really nowhere to hide. You have to carry it with you for a few days before you get another chance.”
It’s messy, for sure. Hicks has a 30-percent strikeout rate and a low 29.6-percent hard-hit rate. Per Statcast, he’s hitting .149 and swinging and missing 27 percent of the time on fastballs. He’s hitting .175 and swinging and missing 41 percent of the time on breaking balls (curves and sliders).
“It doesn’t get much worse, I guess,” Hicks said. “You just have to keep working. Keep trying to figure it out.”
He’s changed his stance. Until last weekend, he had a wide, squatting stance. He’s trying to stand more upright in the box.
“I’m making a few changes,” he said. “I started it (Saturday) and it felt like I saw the ball better. I’m just trying to make some adjustments and find something that will click. It’s frustrating. Obviously, I’m a better hitter than what I’ve been doing.”
Hicks hit two balls to the warning track on Saturday that were caught. He also struck out twice.
“You just have to do something to try and get out of it,” he said. “But it seems like when you are struggling, you swing at bad pitches. And then when you put together a good at-bat and hit a couple of balls well, they’re fly outs to the track.
“Just keep working. That’s all you can do.”
Stumpf in the dumps
As for Stumpf, he’s been an enigma since he came to the Tigers as a Rule 5 pick in 2017. He’s had stretches where he’s been as reliable as any pitcher in the bullpen, especially valuable against left-handed hitters.
He’s also had stretches where he’s lost his command and been hit. But he’s not been hit quite as hard and as often as he has this season.
►The average exit velocity on balls put in play against him is 90.9 percent, which is in the bottom 4 percent among Major League pitchers.
►The average hard-hit rate against him is 47.6 percent, which is in the bottom 2 percent of pitchers.
►Opponents are hitting better than .300 against all three of his pitches – fastball (.308, with a .590 slugging percentage) slider (.357) and change-up (.333).
►Hitters are swinging and missing on just 10 percent of his fastballs and change-ups, only 16 percent on his slider.
►He’s still getting lefties out (.219) but right-handers are hitting a career-high .404 against him.
“He’s been misfiring,” Gardenhire said. “He’s been getting pitches up. He can’t get the ball down where he lives with his slider and fastball. Everything is up and over the plate.”
Stumpf was part of the eighth-inning collapse in Cleveland Saturday. He came in with the go-ahead run on third and one out. He gave up a sacrifice fly to left-handed hitting Jake Bauers, a single to left-handed hitting Tyler Naquin and a single to switch-hitting Francisco Lindor.
“I know Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson) has been working with his mechanics,” Gardenhire said. “But it’s like with a lot of guys, he throws in the bullpen and he’s lights-out, throwing it right where he wants to. Then he gets in the game and he misfires up, up, up.
“Stumpf can’t live up.”
The Naquin at-bat was a case-in-point. Stumpf made a good pitch, a slider on the outside part of the plate. If it was down in the zone, it misses the barrel. But it was up just enough to where Naquin to poke it into left field.
“I feel like it’s been like that all across the board, for all of us,” Stumpf said. “We need to do a better job, especially with inherited runners. That’s something I’ve always tried to be good at (he’s allowed six out of 24 to score). Nobody wants to come in and give up somebody else’s run.
“We’re all out there grinding and we’re pulling for each other. We just have to lock-in better.”
Stumpf doesn’t want to make excuses. But he has dealt with shoulder soreness since early in spring training. The average velocity on his fastball is down from 94-95 in 2017, to 91-92 now. That he can’t consistently locate the ball down in the zone could also be related to the shoulder.
“I feel good,” he said. “I mean, the shoulder slowed some things down for me as far trying to get stronger. But I am working with Andy on trying to get the ball down in the zone. Some of the balls I’ve been hurt on weren’t bad pitches, they’re just up a little bit.
“When it’s not going good, a bunch of things go into it. But you just keep grinding, keep staying positive.”
Whether they stink or they're slumping, the one advantage of being on a rebuilding team for Hicks and Stumpf -- nobody is beating down the door to replace them. You expect they will have time to work through it.
On deck: Rangers
Series: Three-game series at Comerica Park
First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday -- 7:10 p.m.; Thursday – 1:10 p.m.
TV/radio: Tuesday-Thursday – FSD/97.1 FM
Probables: Tuesday – RHP Jesse Chavez (2-2, 3.18) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-4, 6.03); Wednesday – LHP Mike Minor (7-4, 2.52) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (5-5, 3.61); Thursday – RHP Ariel Jurado (4-3, 4.44) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (3-7, 3.29).
Chavez, Rangers: He’s going to used as an opener in this one, but the 12-year vet doesn’t have many found memories at Comerica Park. In eight appearances in Detroit, the Tigers have hit him at a .385 clip, with a .577 slugging percentage and a 1.026 OPS.
Zimmermann, Tigers: This will be Zimmermann’s second start after missing two months with an elbow injury. He threw 75 pitches in four innings at Pittsburgh, allowing three runs and five hits. He’s pitched well against Texas, beating them most recently last July, striking out 11 in eight innings.