Tigers staying patient as Parker Meadows works through early struggles

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Tigers staying patient as Parker Meadows works through early struggles

DETROIT — On Friday, Detroit Tigers rookie center fielder Parker Meadows went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. They call it the golden sombrero, but it is a hat nobody wants to don.

After Meadows swung and missed for the final time, he retreated to the dugout and began rewatching his failed at-bat on an iPad. Manager A.J. Hinch was standing right next to him.

“Don’t look at those,” Hinch told him. “You don’t want to watch those at-bats.”

Meadows laughed and obliged. He put the iPad away.

“We’ll erase those before tomorrow’s game,” Hinch said.

Eighteen games into this season, that is how the Tigers have handled Meadows’ struggles. The lanky and rangy center fielder is a central piece to their plans. His presence on the roster changes the configuration of the entire team. Meadows allows Riley Greene to play the outfield corners and hopefully remain healthy. He allows Matt Vierling to play a super-utility role and contribute in a variety of ways. Meadows profiles as a plus defender in center field. He already has a string of highlight catches and three defensive runs saved to prove it.

The question has always been whether Meadows will hit. Despite minor-league struggles in his history, it was easy to feel good about Meadows entering this season. He hit .232 with a .331 on-base percentage in his first taste of the majors last season. He crushed the ball in spring training and finished with a 1.072 OPS in the Grapefruit League.

Before Wednesday’s 5-4 loss to the Texas Rangers, though, the numbers were ghastly: Only two hits in 36 at-bats, one of them an infield single. Meadows was not simply making bad swing decisions. He looked out of sync and at times overmatched — he was getting pounded with fastballs, targeted on the outer third of the plate and whiffing on nearly 40 percent of swings. He attributed his struggles to issues with timing. Efforts to identify offspeed pitches led him to be late on fastballs.

The day after his four strikeouts, he made a proclamation.

“I’m gonna be on the fastball today and hammer a heater,” he said.

It took a few more days, but it was refreshing for everyone when Meadows got a middle-middle fastball from Texas reliever Austin Pruitt on Wednesday and did not miss. Meadows’ missile cut through a headwind and carried far over the right field wall. The ball had an exit velocity of 108.7 mph, a reminder of what Meadows can do when he connects.

“Felt great,” Meadows said “Felt like it’s been too long.”

Said Hinch: “It’s just nice to see him contribute. He needed that for his own confidence.”

Although Meadows’ struggles have been concerning, do not expect the Tigers to send him back to the minors in the near future. General manager Scott Harris has talked at length about giving young players “runway.” Hinch gave Meadows a day off to start the series, in part to give Meadows a mental break and in part because reverse-split right-hander Michael Lorenzen was on the mound.

“I know he thinks he belongs here,” Hinch said. “I know he thinks he’s a big-leaguer, and he should, because he is.”

The Tigers value Meadows’ defense and base running abilities deeply. Those traits are what make him valuable to the roster. Even league-average offense would be a tremendous plus.

Difficult as this stretch has been, perhaps signs of progress are beginning to show. In addition to the homer, Meadows worked an eighth-inning walk, an at-bat Hinch particularly liked.

“It’s one of the reasons you ride these downswings when things aren’t going perfect,” Hinch said, “because he can quickly come out of it.”

Meadows must adapt at the plate in order to merit his role. But the Tigers are not going to give up on him soon.

Just look at what he did Wednesday.

(Parker Meadows high fives third base coach Joey Cora after a home run: Brian Bradshaw Sevald / USA Today)