Last offseason the Detroit Tigers made a flurry of transactions that remade their lineup. The biggest was the exile of Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Ian Kinsler. But the Tigers also signed free agent outfielder Rajai Davis, one of basbeall’s best base stealers. With a new manager also coming on board in the form of man-hunk Brad Ausmus (just ask your wife), the team was making a statement that they would not be playing “station-to-station” baseball any more.
But has that really happened?
A look at the season thus far shows the Tigers are still using the power game to score runs, just like almost every team in Major League Baseball does.
There was an initial phase of “Go-Go Tigers” in April when Davis and Kinsler and even Don Kelly were swiping bags like Ty Cobb. well, maybe not like Ty Cobb, but at least like Gary Pettis or Brian Hunter. But almost 100 games into the 2014 season, the Tigers running attack, while much improved, hasn’t really amounted to that much in the way of run improvement. Through Monday’s game in Arizona, the team has stole 65 bases (24 from Davis alone). That’s almost double their output from last season (35 bags), but most of the increase has come from two players, Davis and Kinsler.
The most important thing you need to know about stealing bases is the risk involved. Every baserunner gives your team an increased chance of scoring a run. And every base gained improves that chance as well, but when you eliminate a runner from the bases, it hurts, it hurts real bad. Measurements show that for every caught stealing a team must steal two bases to break even and make up for the lost opportunity at scoring. So far the Tigers have been caught 31 times, a little less than half of the 65 successful bases they’ve pilfered. So that’s good, but it only really adds a few runs to the mix of the offense in the overall scheme of things.
When fans see a player steal a base or sacrifice a runner over or go from first to third on a single, they tend to romanticize the event. They see a player “making a play” that helps the team. But they forget the number of times a player is stranded on second after the stolen base, or how many times a player is caught stealing (eight Tigers’ regulars other than Davis and Kinsler are 20-for-36 in steals, which is a miserable and has cost Detroit several runs). Other parts of the offense are far more important than the speed game.
The Tigers rank third in the league in runs scored, so if base stealing isn’t that big a deal, what is? Getting on base and hitting the ball for power, that’s what. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…” The Tigers lead MLB in slugging with a .442 mark, they are second in on-base percentage (.331) and they have exactly 100 home runs (6th in the AL). If you want to score runs, nothing tops hitting the ball out of the playing field. Behind Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, and J.D. Martinez, the Tigers have four legitimate power threats in their lineup. But beyond hitting the longball, the Tigers excell at hitting the ball for power even when it stays in the ballpark. Detroit leads baseball with 208 doubles, a total that’s 26 more than any other team. Cabrera is on pace for 60 doubles, Kinsler for more than 40, and Nick Castellanos and Austin Jackson are on pace for more than 35. No other team has as many extra-base hits than the Tigers and Detroit ranks second in total hits. You have to get on base to score, and Detroit gets on base most of the time by hitting the ball hard.
Sure it helps to have a speed threat like Davis on the roster, and Kinsler’s all-around game has been a boon for the team. But this team is not a running, first-to-third team, make no mistake about it. The Tigers, even without Slow Prince, are still a slugging team built around the magnificent batting skills of Cabrera and VMart. Absent the power that has produced the league-best slugging of this team, the Tigers would be in 2nd place in the AL Central, chasing the Indians or Royals.
If this team gets to the postseason for a fourth straight year, that batting prowess will be critical, but there’s some good news for those of you who love “small ball” and have never seen a sacrifice bunt or hit-and-run you didn’t like: Speed can be a game changer in a short postseason series. Games are usually lower-scoring and pitching tends to dominate, which means teams have to capitalize on their scoring chances, especially in the late innings. Davis and his peed brethren on the Tigers could steal a base in the October spotlight that wins a series or maybe even a championship. But let’s not forget that it’s the meaty part of the bat that gets teams to the promised land.