Aggression on the bases, bullpen heat highlight Tigers' spring win
Lakeland, Fla. — When Tigers manager AJ Hinch talks about a “culture of pressure,” which he has quite a bit early in spring, this is what it can look like:
On Tuesday, Spencer Torkelson scored from first on a double by JaCoby Jones. High- risk play, but he scored without a slide because his aggressiveness forced a bad throw. Derek Hill stole a base Thursday, even though he spun his wheels a bit on his take-off. It was the fourth straight successful steal the Tigers have pulled off this spring.
Rule 5 rookie Akil Baddoo has been the embodiment of that culture so far.
In the Tigers' 8-2 spring win over the Blue Jays Thursday, Baddoo scored from second base on a single to shallow right field. The ball wasn’t 30 feet beyond the infield dirt when the right fielder picked it up. And yet Baddoo never hesitated and scored standing up. The play wasn’t even close.
Later in that inning, non-roster invitee Daniel Pinero, by no means a speed merchant, aggressively stormed home from third base on a ball that bounced only a few feet to the left of the catcher. By rights, he should have been out, but the Blue Jays hurried and botched the throw.
All this derring-do isn’t by accident.
“I am more impressed by their game awareness on the bases,” Hinch said. “It’s one thing to give them the green light or to put on a sign, but these guys want to get better from the work they’re doing in the mornings.
“They show no fear. If you show no fear on the bases, you are going to open up opportunities that maybe you passed on in the past.”
You get where this is coming from. The Tigers have been among the least productive offensive teams in baseball over the last three years. And while they’ve potentially added more punch with the acquisitions of veteran hitters like Robbie Grossman, Nomar Mazara, Wilson Ramos and Renato Nunez, they still aren’t a team that’s going to bully opponents consistently.
Thus, the emphasis on being aggressive and scrappy and forcing teams to make mistakes.
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“We’re trying to make sure our players understand, we have to find multiple ways to win,” Hinch said. “And everything you do to advance 90 feet helps us win.”
That seems to suit Baddoo perfectly. In five games, 12 plate appearances, he’s got two hits, six walks and scored seven runs.
“Our scouts told me he was fast,” Hinch said. “His baseball maturity is pretty good coming out of A-ball and after a year off. You can see there is a very smart baseball player in there. He runs the bases very aggressively, but also smartly. I like the instincts he’s shown so far.”
The Tigers drew seven more walks Thursday. They’ve now walked 33 times in five games — none of which have gone beyond seven innings. Advance 90 feet, any way you can.
“We are going to be a pressure-oriented team,” Hinch said. “The personnel has to impact that on the bases, but we want to put pressure on teams. We need to form that identity by our habits and our habits can’t just be turned on April 1.
“They have to be instilled, practiced and encouraged. You have to potentially even fail at it a few times to set the culture of pressure that we need as a team.”
Tigers right-hander Spencer Turnbull didn’t exactly ease into his first spring start. He was pumping 95 and 96 mph right out of the gate, punching out three in two innings. He did get nicked for a couple of runs and four hits — but only two balls were hit hard.
That was a topic of discussion with Hinch and Turnbull after his outing. Turnbull hates getting nicked, even a little. Hinch, as counterintuitive as it sounds on the surface, would like him to worry less about avoiding contact.
“For him, the mentality is going to have to be over the plate and not worry about giving up a single here or there,” Hinch said. “Attack the strike zone. His strikeouts are going to be a by-product of his being a dominant strike-thrower and getting into leveraged counts.”
It took Turnbull 39 pitches to get six outs, which, for as good as his stuff was and typically is, that’s inefficient and not conducive to working deep into games. Hinch wants less nibbling and more attacking of the strike zone.
“He doesn’t have to pitch around contact with the kind of stuff I saw today,” Hinch said. “Obviously you don’t want to just feed pitches right down the middle to guys. But he needs to have a strike mentality, rather than avoid hit mentality.”
These are advanced-level issues, of course. The reality is, Turnbull’s first outing was, overall, strong.
“I was really pleased with the stuff, but not so pleased with the execution all the way around,” Turnbull said. “I know I’m going to give up hits. I can’t be too frustrated with the results, especially this early. But the way my stuff was and the way my body feels, I’m happy.”
Five different relievers — Joe Jimenez, Derek Holland, Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto and Alex Lange — combined to pitch five scoreless, one-hit innings with six strikeouts and two walks.
Not too shabby.
All five of those pitchers featured fastballs from 94 mph or faster. Cisnero and Lange were 96-97 and Soto, who struck out the side in 15 pitches, was sitting at 98.
“We just have to make sure they don’t throw too many innings,” Hinch said. “The last year or two, the starters haven’t logged a lot of innings. If we can keep them fresh and utilize their stuff like this, we have a very effective bullpen.”
Cabrera at first
Miguel Cabrera played first base Thursday, the first time he’s been on the field since June 18, 2019.
He handled the two ground balls hit to him and showed nice footwork on one throw across the bag. He even made a diving try on the first ball hit to him.
“Miggy is a good first baseman,” Hinch said. “People have gotten comfortable with him not having a glove on his hand. But he was pretty active. It was a good busy day for him.”
Hinch, who said he hopes to use Cabrera at first again next week, said he wasn’t worried about the dive.
“He’s a baseball player,” he said. “We want to keep him healthy but we love it when he plays baseball.”
Around the horn
Outfielder Nomar Mazara, whom the Tigers signed for a year at $1.75 million, has joined the camp at last. He went through batting practice, live batting practice and outfield drills on the back fields Thursday. “The goal is to get him in the game on Sunday,” Hinch said. “He’s in great shape.”
…Tigers shortstop Zack Short took a 93-mph fastball off his helmet Thursday. He appeared dazed and left the game. But Hinch said he cleared the concussion protocol. “We escaped anything major,” Hinch said. “Other than him being annoyed he got hit in the head. But it was scary and it was loud.”
…Blue Jays center fielder Jonathan Davis made a sensational catch on a bases-loaded slicing line drive by Isaac Paredes. He caught the ball with a full-out dive running toward the warning track in right-center field.