There’s an old saying that goes, “Don’t miss the forest for the trees.” When it comes to baseball it can be useful advice.
It seems to me that for several years Tigers fans have made that mistake with one of their own: Ryan Raburn. Raburn has a valuable set of skills that make up a pretty damn thick and healthy forest, but too often the focus has been on what the trees look like. They may not be perfectly straight and plush, but they reach high enough to get the sunshine.
Ok, enough analogy, let me get to my point. Ryan Raburn can hit a baseball. He can rake, as they say. He also has a lethal weapon attached to his right shoulder, a throwing arm that in 2009 kept the Tigers playoff hopes alive with an amazing assist to home plate to complete a double play in Game #163. But most importantly, as I previously stated, Raburn can hit. He’s proving it once again this spring as he leads the team and the universe in hitting. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise really, Raburn has always been a dangerous offensive force. Even though he had a subpar, by his standards, 2011, Raburn has a career OPS of .779, and he reaches the seats enough to hit 15-20 dingers every year despite playing two out of every three days. With his batting display this spring and his resume as a major league hitter, Raburn deserves the second base job.
With Brandon Inge having thrown himself into the mix, second base has become a three-headed monster this spring in Lakeland, with Ramon Santiago serving as the third noggin.
Despite his power with the stick, Raburn’s critics have focused on his defense and strikeouts. In fact, no one not named Inge gets as much grief for his strikeouts as does Raburn. But given his power and productivity when given a chance to play, the K’s are acceptable. No, he’s not as gifted as Miguel Cabrera and he’s not as disciplined Alex Avila, but his career offensive numbers are better than those of Brennan Boesch, a young hitter who rightfully gets praise.
Not since Gary Ward have the Tigers had an outfielder who frustrates with an occasional misstep or misjudgment. Sometimes it almost seems as if Raburn is thinking about his next at-bat when he’s playing the outfield. But he does have a great arm and even with his untimely errors his defensive stats are not terrible. His offense more than makes up for it. Which is why Leyland runs him out there a few times a week. Since he arrived in Detroit as a rookie in 2004, Raburn has been moved around defensively, from his natural infield position (he was a third baseman in high school and college) to all three outfield spots, to first base, and he was even asked to try his hand at catching one spring.
How much would Raburn’s defense cost the Tigers if he was their second baseman every day? Not as much as fans think. Defense is important, but unless a player absolutely stinks, he can’t make that much of a negative impact. Last season the Tigers made 103 errors, a total that placed them seventh out of 14 teams. Their defensive efficiency, that is their ability to turn a batted ball into an out, was in the middle of the pack. Yet they won 95 games and ran away with the division. Sometimes what we think is very important, isn’t as much. The forest, remember?
Consider this: Santiago has the best defensive range factor of the three vying for the second base job (Inge hasn’t played second base regularly, but we’ll assume he’s no better than Santiago). So, how much of a difference is it? Santiago’s range means that he gets to about one more ball every three games. That’s one more groundball or popup that Santiago wouldn’t get. Over the course of a season that’s 54 more balls. Using the most advanced defensive measurements available, according to the geeks who developed them, that translates into about five runs that Santiago would save. But, using runs created (an offensive measuring stick), Raburn has a 10-run advantage over Santiago for a full season. That gap widens if Raburn improves defensively by playing every day or if he has a breakout season at the plate.
Raburn is more than capable of producing more runs with his bat than he will cost Detroit with his glove. The other options – Inge and Santiago – cannot. Neither of them can drive in the runs, get on base, extend rallies, like Raburn can. Even though Santiago is a much better defender than Raburn, his career slugging percentage and OPS+ are more than 100 points lower. That stuff adds up over the course of a season.
At the age of 30, Raburn is an established big league hitter who doesn’t have a set position, but he should. His performance this spring has earned him that.