How much improvement did Tigers make on basepaths?
Drive down Florida Avenue or US 98 in Lakeland, the major north-south thoroughfare in this city, and you’ll realize the value of green lights. It can be agonizingly time-consuming to get across town without using side routes, because there are so many major intersections. You might hit a few stoplights at the right time, but you can’t possibly hit them all right. And some of them can be pretty long.
All of this is an equally agonizing segue to looking back at the hot topic from last Spring Training: Just how much of a difference did the green lights Brad Ausmus issued last spring — the ones meant to foster an awareness of baserunning and extra-base opportunities — make on the Tigers’ season stats?
“I think it’s the frame of mind that we have to change before it becomes a real factor,” Ausmus said last February, “the frame of mind of wanting to go the extra 90, the extra 180 feet, forcing the defense to make the play on you.”
He mentioned it again this week, as reinforcement for those who returned, as an introduction for others who are new.
“The philosophy is the same,” Ausmus said. “We want to kind of force the issue on the defense, going first to third, second to home, force them to have to make the play. Be aggressive, but let’s not be idiotic. Know the outs, know the score, know who’s coming up next. Yes, I still believe in always looking to get to the next base.”
Detroit led the Majors with 34 stolen bases in Grapefruit League play last spring, one off their total for the entire 2013 season and twice as many as they stole in 2013 Spring Training. Fourteen different Tigers stole bases, including Victor Martinez, Bryan Holaday, Don Kelly (two), Nick Castellanos (also two), and Steve Lombardozzi (six in 14 games before he was traded to Baltimore for Alex Gonzalez).
That pace didn’t keep up in the regular season, of course, but with 106 stolen bases, the Tigers took a major step up the standings — seventh in the Majors, fourth in the American League. The only AL Central team with more was, of course, the Royals, who led the Majors with 153 stolen bases.
Again, 14 different Tigers recorded at least one stolen base. Miguel Cabrera, Holaday and James McCann stole one each. Castellanos stole two. V-Mart swiped three. Kelly stole six. In terms of percentages, there was less balance than the spring, as Rajai Davis’ 36 stolen bases accounted for more than a third of Detroit’s total.
In terms of overall baserunning, the metrics weren’t as kind, but still showed a modest improvement, and would have shown greater if not for one overwhelming factor. The end-of-season edition of the Bill James Handbook — which accounts for stolen bases, extra bases taken, scoring from second on a single and first on a double, and double plays — placed Detroit 25th in the Majors with a Net Gain of minus-21 (plus-24 in stolen bases, minus-45 in running the bases). That’s still better than their standing in recent years. The minus-45, while worst in the American League, was largely due to Alex Avila, who authors say took Detroit from positive to negative territory singlehandedly by going from first in third just twice in 23 chances and didn’t score from first on a double six times. That last tidbit, by the way, is interesting to note if Avila bats second this season in front of Miguel Cabrera, who led the AL with 52 doubles last year.
Avila’s speed isn’t likely to change. Davis’ speed may or may not, but his numbers could fall through playing time. What has changed, Ausmus pointed out Saturday, is the return of Jose Iglesias (assuming his legs are healthy) and the addition of Anthony Gose and Yoenis Cespedes. Gose had a Net Gain of plus-12 in 94 games last year, two off of Austin Jackson’s rating in 154 games. Cespedes was a plus-12 despite just seven stolen bases (oddly enough, six of those were steals of third). Torii Hunter, Cespedes’ predecessor in Detroit’s lineup, posted a plus-2 last year.
“You can add Iglesias to the mix this year, you can add Gose to the mix this year,” Ausmus said Saturday morning. “And after watching Cespedes run the bases, he’s not slow. I think we’re probably a faster team than we were a year ago.”
It’ll be interesting to see how that translates.
As far as managerial ratings, the Bill James Handbook totals stolen base attempts and runners moving on a pitch. On the former, Ausmus’ 2014 team had more steal attempts (147) than any of Jim Leyland’s Detroit teams, and more than his 2012 and 2013 teams combined (137). In fairness, though, Leyland didn’t have anyone like Davis to utilize the last couple years, in part because Jackson became a less frequent basestealer with each season. Interestingly, in the latter category, Ausmus actually put fewer runners in motion (144) than Leyland did in 2013 (180).