Most obvious takeaway from Detroit Tigers’ opening series win over Cleveland: Better at-bats

Tigers draw 13 walks in 3-game series

Detroit Tigers' Akil Baddoo (60) is greeted by Jeimer Candelario after hitting a solo home run during the third inning of a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians, Sunday, April 4, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers won their opening series against the Cleveland Indians over the weekend, and while it’s too early to overreact, there were some encouraging signs for the future.

Offensively, the series wasn’t exactly a clinic. The Tigers scored just 11 runs and went long stretches without threatening against Cleveland’s strong starting staff. But if you look past the results and dig a little deeper into the process, the quality of at-bats offers some hope for the future.

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A.J. Hinch and his staff inherited a team that simply didn’t put much pressure on opposing pitchers last season. The Tigers ranked last in the majors with a 7.1% walk rate in 2020, and second-to-last with a 6.5% walk rate in 2019.

If you watched spring training this season, plate discipline was an obvious point of emphasis, as the Tigers drew 104 walks in 29 games -- 10th in the league. Sure, it was spring training, but that’s true for all 30 teams, and the Tigers ranked in the top third.

Even though it’s only been three games, it was encouraging to see the Tigers carry that mindset over into the regular season. Sometimes that patience is easy to scrap as soon as the games matter, but the Tigers were more disciplined during the first series than they’ve been in seasons past.

Robbie Grossman has obviously skewed the numbers a bit. He’s drawn eight of the team’s 13 walks and leads MLB in that category. But walks aren’t the only way to measure the quality of a team’s at-bats.

Take Willi Castro’s first at-bat Saturday as an example. He fell behind in the count against Zach Plesac. He fell behind 1-2 before fouling off a tough curveball and working himself back into a full count. Plesac made a mistake on 3-2 with a change-up in the zone, and Castro blasted it to left-center for an RBI triple.

Drawing walks is obviously valuable because it means getting on base, but the ability to take bad pitches is worth much more than that.

The Tigers coaching staff wants its young hitters to learn to wait for pitches they can do damage with, and the best way to get those opportunities is to force pitchers into counts in which they have to throw strikes.

Players like Victor Reyes and Harold Castro make the game much harder for themselves because they can’t draw a walk. Pitchers know they can get them to swing at a curveball out of the zone or a fastball at the letters. They don’t need to risk throwing hittable pitches to guys with bad plate discipline.

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Detroit is trying to build a lineup of players who are much better suited to working counts, such as Grossman, Jeimer Candelario and Willi Castro. Miguel Cabrera and Nomar Mazara can work counts, as can Akil Baddoo.

Even if increased discipline doesn’t translate to runs early in a game, it can wear down pitchers and have a positive effect in the middle or late stages of a game. That’s been a signature of the New York Yankees for decades, and a pillar of great offenses every year.

Hinch wants the Tigers to swing at good pitches, not bad ones. It’s such a simple concept, but much, much harder to execute. Throughout this rebuild, the Tigers have had abysmal plate discipline -- now it finally appears to be a priority.

Drawing 13 walks in one series doesn’t mean the Tigers will have better at-bats all season, but it’s a good start.

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