Aggressive baserunning part of Tigers' new style
After years of low stolen-base totals, Detroit is showcasing its speed in 2014
BALTIMORE -- The Tigers built the anticipation for a new style of play in Spring Training with the double steal. So maybe it was fitting that they hit a milestone with help from it Wednesday.
It was a fourth-inning opportunity against a struggling rookie starter with the bottom of Detroit's lineup up to bat. The Tigers could've waited out their at-bats against Kevin Gausman while he battled command problems, hoping to stretch out the rally for the top of the order to come back around, but they weren't inclined to wait.
With Austin Jackson on second base, Don Kelly on first and one out, they took off on a 1-2 pitch, with Jackson beating the throw to third. It created a sacrifice-fly opportunity for backup catcher Bryan Holaday, who instead lined a single into right-center field that scored Jackson easily and moved Kelly to third. From there, Danny Worth laid down a perfect squeeze bunt that turned into a run-scoring single.
"Jackson's on his own, unless we tell him he can't [steal]," first-year manager Brad Ausmus said. "He read the pitcher well and had a good jump."
By the time the inning was over, the Tigers had scored three runs with only one base hit that escaped the infield. And one of the key plays was a double steal that produced Detroit's 33rd and 34th stolen bases of the year.
Once Victor Martinez -- yes, the 35-year-old designated hitter two years removed from left knee surgery -- earned his career-high second stolen base of the year later in the game, the 2014 Tigers matched the team stolen-base total from all of last season.
The milestone came hours after Orioles rookie catcher Caleb Joseph threw out three Tigers trying to advance on the basepaths. He nearly had a fourth when AL steals leader Rajai Davis entered as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning of a one-run game and tested him again, but a replay review showed Davis got his hand into second base ahead of the tag, helping put together the Tigers' go-ahead rally.
When Ausmus talked in Spring Training about green lights and baserunning awareness, he wasn't kidding. More than anything else, this is his imprint. It doesn't always work, but the Tigers are not hesitating to try.
"They're not all going to work out," Ausmus said. "Doesn't mean we're going to change any philosophies."
Detroit will almost surely surpass last season's stolen-base total at some point during this weekend three-game series in Boston, a matchup that will bear a lot of reminders of last October's American League Championship Series that set in motion this team's offseason transition.
The pitching matchups should look awfully familiar. Max Scherzer, who will start Friday night's series opener, started Games 2 and 6 of the ALCS in Boston. Anibal Sanchez, who comes off the disabled list to start the nationally-televised Sunday night game, no-hit the Red Sox for six innings in the ALCS opener.
Miguel Cabrera is the main offensive threat once again, and he has an All-Star-caliber hitter behind him in Martinez trying to make teams pay for pitching around him. And yet, because of the offense, this is a different style team than the one whose season ended in Beantown last October, from the dugout to the basepaths.
The Tigers finished last or next to last in the AL in stolen bases five of the past six seasons, but they're on pace to go from worst to first. If they keep it up, they'll lead the league in steals for the first time since 1997 and just the second time in the last 80 years. The 1997 team included AL steals leader Brian Hunter, acquired from Houston the previous winter for then-Detroit catcher Ausmus.
"We also have different personnel," Ausmus said. "I mean, Rajai Davis wasn't here [last year], and he's probably a third of our stolen bases. [Ian] Kinsler wasn't here, and he might be a quarter of [the rest]. The change in personnel certainly has a huge deal to do with that."
Had Jim Leyland fielded this crew, he would've had a big uptick in steals, too. Still, that's just the start of the offensive transition. Jackson, moved out of the leadoff spot, has stolen six bases already, two shy of his team-high total in 2013, as he has shed his hesitation to run into outs that he had while batting in front of Cabrera. Kelly's two steals this year match his season totals from '13, '12 and '11. And then, of course, there's Martinez, owner of four career steals before this year.
"As a hitter, you want to hit with a guy on second or third instead of a guy on first," Martinez said. "Any way you can help the team get an RBI, get a win. If your teammates do it for you, why don't you do it for your teammates? If I have a chance to do it here or there, I'm always ready."
When the Tigers hired Ausmus, traded Prince Fielder for Kinsler, signed Davis and let Jhonny Peralta walk as a free agent, they made it clear this would be a different style of attack. It might not match the lofty numbers of the previous few seasons, but it would hopefully produce more consistency.
Detroit is 11th in the AL in extra-base hits (107), but it leads the league in sacrifice flies (19). The Tigers have gone from the second-most double plays in the AL in 2013 to the second fewest (23), and they own the fourth-lowest GDP percentage in the league. After finishing at the bottom of the AL last year and the bottom three for the two previous seasons in Baserunning Runs, an advanced metric to measure baserunning impact on offense, they're eighth this season, according to Fangraphs. Detroit is third in the AL with seven bunt hits, nearly halfway to its 2013 total of 16.
The situational stats show much the same. In terms of productive outs, according to baseball-reference.com, the Tigers have advanced baserunners on 40 percent of their opportunities this year, up from 32 last season. Only Texas has a higher percentage among AL clubs. With a runner on third and less than two outs, Detroit has scored on 57 percent of its chances, a slight uptick from the 51 percent rate last year.
The Tigers have had slighter improvement in situational baserunning. They've gone from first to third base on a single 19 times in 76 chances this year, exactly 25 percent, compared to 21 percent last year. They've scored from first on a double 11 times in 25 situations this year, compared with 37-of-95 last year.
Thirteen of Detroit's 176 runs this year have advanced around the bases without a base hit. Three of them reached base and scored without a hit involved.
The result, the overall offensive output, has ended up strikingly similar. The Tigers are averaging 4.89 runs per game so far this year, barely down from their 4.91 average last season. After being shut out a dozen times last year, Detroit has been blanked only once so far, and that was Andrew Cashner's complete-game one-hitter in San Diego on April 11. The Tigers have been held to one run four times so far, compared with 11 last year.
Ultimately, the impact will be judged on how well the Tigers produce (or manufacture) offense against tough pitchers, the kind of opposition teams find regularly in the postseason. So far, though, they're showing they're serious about the mentality.