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How much has the Tigers’ base running improved in 2014?

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The 2014 Tigers have been a more aggressive base-running team than they were a year ago. Has it paid off?

Hannah Foslien

There is no question that the 2014 version of the Detroit Tigers is a more aggressive team on the basepaths. This is very much by design, as the club set out to improve on what was the slowest team in the league in 2013. But are the 2014 Tigers a better base-running team than last year’s model? Let’s dig into some numbers.

The first, and most obvious place to look for some base-running numbers is the team's stolen base totals. The 2013 Tigers were dead last in stolen bases, with just 35 for the season — for the entire team. The Kansas City Royals led the American League with 153 steals — the league average was 95 bases-per-team — almost three times as many as Detroit. 

The 2014 Tigers have stolen 104 bases, with four games remaining in the season. They have tripled their total and currently rank fourth in the league in steals. They have also been caught 40 times, as opposed to 20 times in 2013. Triple the steals, but only double the number of times caught stealing — seems like a pretty good trade-off.

It gets better. The Tigers’ 64 percent success rate in stealing bases in 2013 was second-lowest in the American League. This year, they’re up to 72 percent, which is eighth in the league and just below the league average of 74 percent. Rajai Davis has 35 steals, matching the total for the entire team one season ago. Ian Kinsler’s 15 steals are nearly double the number of steals by Austin Jackson, who led the team with just eight stolen bases in 2013.

Of course, there’s more to base-running than stealing bases. The 2013 Tigers were dead last in the American League in taking an extra-base on a base hit, getting an extra-base in just 33 percent of opportunities. Going from first-to-third, scoring from second base on a single, or scoring from first on a double, is what counts as an extra-base taken (XBT). In 2014, the Tigers have taken the extra-base 40 percent of the time, just above the league average.

Kinsler and Davis have taken an extra-base 65 percent of the time they've had the opportunity to do so. They are among the league-leaders in taking the extra-base. Torii Hunter and Andrew Romine take an extra-base more often than not, and even Miguel Cabrera is at the league average of 40 percent. Jackson took an extra-base 56 percent of the time while he was with Detroit.

Aggressiveness on the bases is not without risks. Davis also leads the American League in the dubious category of getting picked off, six times. Kinsler is tied for third with four pick-offs. Being picked-off while attempting to steal doesn’t count in this category. There are pick-offs due to aggressiveness and pick-offs due to absent mindedness. The latter, we can do without.

The same would hold true for attempting to take the extra-base. There is putting pressure on the defense to make the play, and there is the frustrating TOOTBLAN, running when there’s little chance to make it. Baseball Reference keeps track of OOB’s, or "outs on the bases." This is when a runner is out advancing on a fly ball, attempting to take an extra-base on a base hit, being doubled off on a line drive, or trying to advance on a wild pitch or a passed ball. Kinsler is second in the league with 11 OOB’s. Nick Castellanos has seven, Alex Avila and Miguel Cabrera have six, and they really don’t bring much upside to balance those numbers. In fairness to Miggy, he is on-base so often that he’s bound to get doubled off at times. He is a very smart base runner, even if he's not the fleetest of feet.

The Tigers rank fourth in the league with 118 runners scored from second base on a single. They rank sixth with 93 runners going from first-to-third on a single. This is not all base-running, however. This year’s Tigers have surpassed last year’s team in both categories, although not by a lot. The Tigers get more base hits and put more base-runners on-base than any other team in the league, so they are bound to have higher raw totals in these areas than other teams do.

The bottom line is scoring runs and hitting contribute to a much larger factor in scoring than base-running alone. The 2013 Tigers scored 4.91 runs-per-game, which ranked second in the American League, behind the Boston Red Sox. The 2014 Tigers also rank second, scoring 4.69 runs-per-game. Yet, the 2014 Tigers have scored 32 percent of their base-runners, while the 2013 team scored only 30 percent of theirs.

These percentages still have more to do with batting than with base-running, although both are factors, and the difference in run totals can be attributed to the fact that the Tigers put more runners on-base in 2013. An increase in the percentage of base-runners scored, despite a drop in batting average from .283 to .277, — albeit still leading the league — is a sure sign that the Tigers are a more efficient team on the bases than they were a year ago.

The pick-offs, runners caught stealing, and TOOTBLANs can be frustrating, but that goes with the plan of more aggressive base-running. There is no question that the Tigers have lost some run production with the departures of Jhonny Peralta and Prince Fielder, but the base-running of Kinsler and Davis does at least partially compensate for the loss in offense. Their aggressiveness on the basepaths makes for a more productive and exciting brand of baseball — once they get on-base — rather than the station-to-station drudgery of Tigers past.