Tigers' Goodrum, with a tip from the late Hank Aaron, ready to reheat his offense
Detroit – What is the saying: If you don’t fail, you don’t learn?
Well, if that is true, Niko Goodrum learned a ton last season.
Even though his 38.6 percent strikeout rate in 179 plate appearances probably should be viewed more as a slump than a binding indictment of his offensive talent, it was enough to cost him first real chance at being the Tigers’ everyday shortstop – despite the fact that he ended up a Gold Glove finalist at the position.
“I don’t call the shots,” Goodrum said in a Zoom call Tuesday night when asked about moving back to a utility role in 2021. “All I can do is go out there and play, try to play amazing defense, but the biggest thing is hitting. That’s what it is. You’ve got to hit. It doesn’t matter about defense.
“I played Gold Glove defense this past season, but what you find out is, the guys who hit, it doesn’t matter if they can’t play defense, they’re going to be in the lineup. So that's it. The biggest thing is hitting; you’ve got to hit the baseball.”
Goodrum wasn’t trying to make anything personal, but facts are facts. Goodrum was a plus-3 in defensive runs saved at shortstop last season but ultimately lost the job to rookie Willi Castro, who struggled defensively (minus-7).
But, Castro hit. A lot. He slashed .349/.381/.550 with a 150 OPS-plus. Managers will always find a way to get their most productive hitters into the lineup, especially a lineup that ranked near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories.
“Who I am, I’m going to play good defense, that’s not a worry,” Goodrum said. “But my focus is hitting. Everybody in the league will tell you that – hit, hit, hit. I’m going to get in that box, buckle in and hit the baseball – wherever I’m playing.”
In 2018 and 2019, Goodrum hit .248 and .245, and produced 28 home runs, 98 RBIs, 116 runs scored and 24 stolen bases. A switch-hitter whose natural side is right-handed, he hit for more power left-handed and for a far higher average right-handed.
Last year, he hit hardly at all left-handed (144 average, .240 slugging) and only had 37 plate appearances from the right side. By the end of the season he was buried in an avalanche of bad at-bats. He got just eight hits with 25 strikeouts in his last 61 plate appearances.
“It gave me enough time to see the adjustments I needed to make,” he said. “Regardless if it was a 60-game season or a full season, it goes to expose. It was just a tough season because everyone is going to judge you on however many games you play.”
Once he cleared his head, he began trying adjust his overall approach – specifically from the left side. He started reflecting on a piece of advice one of his neighbors gave him back a few years ago.
“Attack the fastball,” Goodrum said. “Don’t let a fastball go by you.”
That neighbor’s name was Henry Aaron, the Hall-of-Famer who passed away last Friday.
“We used to go to his house and talk to him,” Goodrum said. “He was more of a family friend, so his death hit me different. When you are talking about someone you looked up to, someone who paved the way for you, it’s tough.”
Goodrum recalled going to Aaron’s house with his father, armed with a hundred different questions he wanted to ask, only to get awestruck and shy and forget what he wanted to ask.
“But the thing about him, it’s almost like he made you feel y’all been knowing each other forever,” Goodrum said. “The person he was, was greater than the baseball player he was.”
Once Goodrum broke into the big leagues, he was astonished to learn Aaron was watching his games and making critiques. He’d pass his tips on to Goodrum through his brother, Larry Aaron.
“When you have someone that’s way, way up there telling you certain things, and that he’s actually watching you play – that’s just an honor,” Goodrum said.
Of course, attacking fastballs won’t solve all of Goodrum’s issues. He knows he has to change his approach and his swing mechanics from the left side.
“If my approach is that I’m trying to get the bat head out in front, regardless of what the pitch is, strike or not, it’s going to be tough,” Goodrum said, understanding that he’d become too pull happy from the left side. “If they throw a change-up and I’m trying to pull it, it’s a swing and miss, right?
“But if I’m staying on my approach of hitting to center, left-center, working on a way to keep the bat path in the zone for a longer time, then you have a chance of hitting the change-ups and curveballs.”
New manager AJ Hinch values players who can play multiple positions. He values athletes who can impact a game with their legs, their glove and their bat. Goodrum fits that bill. Given his druthers, though, Goodrum wants to be an everyday shortstop.
More than that, though, he just wants to be in the lineup every day.
“It’s whatever the team needs,” he said. “I don’t write the checks. That’s the decision the manager and the front office has to make. But if I hit the baseball, I’m sure I’ll be in there somewhere.”