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'Not for the weak': Tigers' Niko Goodrum keeps head up as batting slump deepens

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Kansas City, Mo. – Niko Goodrum is in quicksand.

Not literally, of course. But he has dug himself such a rut at the plate that the harder he tries to spin out of it, the deeper he seems to sink – as if he was in quicksand.

“When you go through one of these things, you want to hit so bad, you really want to have success,” Goodrum said before the game Thursday. “And at times that leads you away from swinging at strikes. You are just trying to make something happen. You are so eager to make something happen and get yourself going, you get outside the strike zone and you don’t swing at good pitches.”

Niko Goodrum

The margin for error and recovery in a 60-game schedule is already small. And when you miss two weeks with an oblique injury on top of that, the anxiety and the urgency to break out of it intensifies even more.

“That’s the difference now,” he said. “I got like 120 (143) at-bats. If you look at a whole year, guys get 500-600 at-bats. Every person is going to go through a little funk, or they’ll struggle not seeing the ball – I’m going through that right now.”

Man, is he ever. The statistical breakdown is gruesome.

  • 65 strikeouts in 162 plate appearances.
  • 4 for 30 with 15 strikeouts in the eight games since coming back from the injury.
  • 40 percent strikeout rate, bottom one percentile in baseball.
  • 39.5 percent swing-and-miss rate, bottom third percentile in baseball.
  • Minus-8.8 offensive WAR.

“A lot of players find themselves in this position,” interim manager Lloyd McClendon said. “It’s a 60-game schedule. You don’t have 162 games to slowly get yourself back to where you want to be. He’s just got to take it one at-bat at a time. It is what it is at this point.

“We know Niko is a better player than what he’s shown to this point. He just needs to continue to grind and finish strong.”

Goodrum never mentioned the oblique injury when talking about his struggles, but McClendon believes it played a part.

“When you have that type of injury, you don’t know how it’s going to affect you,” he said. “Bat speed, hand position, timing and all of those things come into play. It’s been a tough go for Niko and unfortunately he doesn’t have enough time to get back to where he wants to be.”

Lloyd McClendon

Hitting coach Joe Vavra talked a couple of weeks ago about wanting to make some adjustments to Goodrum’s swing mechanics. Pitchers this year and last have had success attacking him up in the zone with fastballs  – he hasn’t been able to hit them or leave them alone. And as he compensates to get to the fastball, pitchers start flipping breaking balls and off-speed pitches off the plate and he’s been chasing.

But there isn’t enough time in this season to make major swing alterations. Those will have to wait for the offseason.

“You have to analyze stuff and at the end of the year have a plan on how to get better,” Goodrum said. “That’s definitely going to happen. That’s what I have to do after what I’ve been going through. Changes have to be made.

“I’m trying to make that a positive. Like I needed to go through this to make the changes that are going to help my career in the future.”

McClendon has had a couple of long talks with Goodrum over the last couple of weeks, before and after he took over for Ron Gardenhire. One thing that’s remained the same, he said, is Goodrum’s mental toughness.

“He moved from shortstop to second base and that’s a change from a physical standpoint,” McClendon said. “But from a mental standpoint, he’s still getting his at-bats and he’s still playing every day. I don’t think that affected him.

“From a mental standpoint, he’s strong and ready to go.”

Goodrum thanks his faith – both in God and in himself – for keeping him in a positive frame of mind.

“My faith in God and knowing that I struggled before and came out of it – that’s what I lean on,” Goodrum said. “This is not for the weak. This is a game of failure and mentally you’ve got to be there every day, regardless of the ups and downs.

“You have to stay locked in mentally and try to find a way to help your team win if you are struggling with the bat. There are different things I can do, on the bases, defensively, to help the team win.”

Royals left fielder Alex Gordon, left, talks with Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera during the fifth inning.

Worthy foe 

Royals outfielder Alex Gordon has inflicted a good deal of pain on the Tigers over his 14 big-league seasons. His 25 home runs and 91 RBIs are the most against any opponent except the Minnesota Twins (29, 115).

They will face him only four more times. Gordon announced Thursday that he will retire at the end of the season.

“One heck of a player,” McClendon said. “He’s accomplished a lot here in Kansas City – seven Gold Gloves. He’s a young man who came to the big leagues under a lot of pressure. He was the quote-unquote next George Brett. That’s a lot of pressure.

“But he was able to move the outfield and become an All-Star. Just a phenomenal player.”

Bad matchup 

The Royals are fourth in the American League with 43 stolen bases. The Tigers are near the bottom, throwing out just seven of 41 base stealers.

“That’s another thing with our young pitchers,” McClendon said. “That’s a challenge for them. We try to control the running game – slide step, step off, hold and step off. But there has to be a balance because we also have a young pitcher on the mound who needs to concentrate on getting that hitter out, too.

“That just comes with more experience, more reps.”

Something right vs. lefties 

They haven’t faced enough of them, but the Tigers have done significant damage against left-handed pitching this season. Their .318 batting average and .374 on-base percentage against lefties lead the Major Leagues. They are third in slugging (.531). Jeimer Candelario (.421), Miguel Cabrera (.375) and Victor Reyes (.343) are doing most of the damage. McClendon started nine right-handed batters Thursday night against Royals lefty Kris Bubic.

Tigers at Royals

First pitch: Friday, 8:05 p.m.

TV/radio: FSD / 97.1 FM

SCOUTING REPORT 

RHP Spencer Turnbull (4-3, 3.83), Tigers: Regardless how it ends, it’s been an encouraging season for Turnbull, especially coming off all the struggles and inconsistency of 2019. He has a five-pitch mix, but two fierce weapons – four-seam fastball (opponents hitting .183 with a 28 percent whiff rate) and slider (.146, 44.6 percent whiff).

RHP Brad Keller (4-3, 2.77), Royals: He doesn’t miss a ton of bats, nor does he give up much hard contact, as evidenced by the 89.4 mph average exit velocity on balls put in play against him. Opponents are hitting under .200 against his bread-and-butter pitches – four-seam and slider.

Twitter @cmccosky