ALDS: Is Athletics' offense more efficient than Tigers'?

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers are a very slow team, but they can hit. How does this impact their production when compared to the Oakland A’s?

The image of the Detroit Tiger offense is that of a slugging, star studded team, with solid hitters almost from top to bottom in the lineup, but prone to power outages. A team that is dreadfully slow on the bases and squander runs because they don't run the bases very well, and don't execute when given the opportunity. Is this accurate?

Recent hitting woes aside, the Detroit Tigers led the American league in hits, and in batting average during the 2013 season, but they were dead last in stolen bases. They ranked second in the league in on base percentage, and second in runs scored. By contrast, the Oakland A’s ranked eighth in hits, ninth in batting average, sixth in on base percentage, and third in runs scored.

What does this say about the teams' offensive efficiency once they get runners on base? First, we need to look at the kind of hits that the teams are getting, because not all hits are created equal. Oakland ranked second in the league in home runs with 186 dingers. That’s ten more than Detroit. The A’s also had more doubles and triples. Despite this, the Tigers still had a higher slugging percentage, also second in the league, while the A’s move up to fourth.

Detroit tallied a total of 179 more total bases than Oakland, all singles or walks, and they translated this into 29 additional runs over the course of the regular season. Let's break down the available data with respect to what the two teams have done once they get runners on base, and how this has impacted the bottom line- scoring runs. For comparison, we'll look at the Oakland A's.

Looking at stolen bases, the A’s aren’t a particularly speedy club. Their 74 steals ranks eleventh in the league, 21 bases behind the league average of 95, but well ahead of the Tigers, who swiped only 35 bases all season. When you subtract the times caught stealing, they add only 15 bases, and Oakland adds a net 46 bases stealing. All added up, Oakland gained an additional 31 bases via theft.

The Tigers indeed led the league with 1250 runners left on base. That’s a lot of LOBsters. But that’s mainly due to the fact that the Tigers put a lot more runners on base than other teams, so it stands to reason that they would strand more runners.

Baseball reference provides some valuable percentages for situational hitting and scoring. Teams will score from 12% to 15% of all base runners. The A’s scored .1494 percent of their base runners and the Tigers scored .1422% of theirs. That’s a difference of 0.72 runs per 100 base runners. The relatively small difference can surely be attributed to the Tigers' higher percentage of singles.

Tiger fans become frustrated when they strand "runners in scoring position", especially at third base, and especially at third base with fewer than two outs. In that department, the Tigers are league average, scoring the runner from third with less than two outs 51% of the time. Oakland is a bit more efficient, at 53%. If Detroit matched Oakland’s percentage, they’d have scored an extra 7.2 runs during the season. On average, that’s worth less than one win.

What about RISP? The Tigers led the league in batting average with runners in scoring position, hitting .282, some 24 points above the league average. They also led the league in on base pct, slugging pct, and OPS with RISP. The A’s batted .254 with RISP. In terms of scoring runs, the Tigers were second in the league with 607 runs scored after they had a runner in scoring position.

As a percentage, they scored the runner .4140 pct of the time. Oakland was less efficient, scoring just 534 times for a .4030 percentage. League average was .3865. (I used R/ AB w RISP for this percentage, since there can be a few AB with the same RISP). Having a lot of base hits will do that for you. Maybe the Tigers aren’t the squanderers they’re cracked up to be?

Now let’s look at moving runners up via sacrifice. Of course, this is not as good as moving a runner up with a stolen base, or better yet by getting a base hit. In any case, the Tigers had 32 sacrifice hits (bunts) this season, one more than the league average. Oakland had just 21. Detroit had 47 sacrifice flies- scoring a run, while the league average was 45. The A’s had 49 sac flies.

Baseball reference also keeps statistics for what they call "productive outs". They define a productive out as follows:
- Advancing any runner with no outs, or with one out if the pitcher is batting
- Driving in a base runner with one out (such as a sac fly or fielder’s choice, etc)
If the batter records an out without advancing a runner, that counts against the percentage.

Once again, the Tigers rank second in the league behind Boston in opportunities. They rank third in the league with a 32% "success" rate in advancing a runner in the manner described. Oakland ranks eleventh at 30%. How many runs is that worth? My guess is very few, if any, since you have to subtract the value of the batter making an out, and the marginal value of moving a runner from first to second does not increase the win expectancy, in most cases.

How about hitting into double plays? The slow footed Tigers must be terrible in this department, right? Indeed the Tigers grounded into 146 double plays this season, second only to the Angels. But as we’ve noted, the Tigers also were second in the league in getting runners on base. As a percentage, the Tigers hit into a double play 11% of the time when they had a runner on first, less than two outs. That's equal to the league average. Oakland’s percentage was just 9%.

If the Tigers could reduce the GIDP’s from 11% to 9%, they’d have avoided the DP 26 more times. Some of those 26 base runners will be out on a force, some safe on a fielder’s choice. Of course, not all of those 26 runners still on base would make it to "scoring position" let alone cross the plate, but there are a few more runs in that group of runners, plus more runs in those that score ahead of or behind that runner as a result of an out being avoided.

Now, what about all those strikeouts? The Tigers are an all or nothing bunch of hitters, right? Wrong. The Tigers have the lowest percentage of strikeouts in the league, striking out just 16.8% of the time. They also rank second in the league in BB/K%, tied with Oakland at 0.49%, meaning that they walk about half as often as they strike out.

Looking at base running sabermetrically, Fangraphs shows the team rankings for weighted stolen bases (wSB), where Detroit ranks second last with a negative 6.5 runs for the season due to stealing bases. Oakland ranks ninth, with 1.1 runs below the league average. Measuring overall base running, UBR shows the Tigers at negative 12.9 runs attributable to base running, while the A’s are plus 5.2 runs.

Does that make up for the Tigers’ hitting advantage? No. The Tiger offense, when all is said and done, scored 29 more runs. Oakland’s base running helps to narrow the gap. But the best way to avoid a double play, or move a runner up, or score a runner from third, or second, is with a base hit. The Tigers get more base hits than any other team.

As for moving runners, the numbers above show that the Tigers don't steal bases often, but they're league average in hitting into double plays despite the lack of speed. The Tigers are above average in scoring a runner from third with less than two outs, they lead the league in batting with RISP and score above average when they get a runner to second, and they score the runner from third with less than two outs at a league average pace. More importantly, they put more runners in scoring position and on third base than other teams do.

If a team can "manufacture" a run at just the right time in the right situation, that run could prove to be the difference in a playoff series. More likely, a timely base hit would have the same result. As Ernie Harwell would say, "that’s baseball".

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