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The Detroit Tigers have yet to prove themselves as a small ball team

Ron Gardenhire has a reputation for quiet victories, but are the Tigers fulfilling that legacy?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

John Hicks made an incredible play against the Rays in the bottom of the 12th inning on May 2: a walk-off bunt single. It is the type of play many Tiger fans were counting on when the team first hired Ron Gardenhire. With the Twins, Gardenhire was famous for his “small ball” play, scrapping by with bunts and steals as opposed to showier home runs. Now that we are a month into the season it seems like a good time to ask, “how different are the Tigers in the small ball categories?”

Stolen bases

Our own Peter Kwasniak wrote about how the Tigers are an overall better baserunning team this year. As far as number of steals, with 14 so far, they are ranked 18th in the league, below the league average of 16. However, their success rate is at 74 percent, better than the league average of 72 percent. Three Tigers share the team lead: Jose Iglesias, JaCoby Jones, and Niko Goodrum have four steals each.

The surprising factor here is leadoff hitter Leonys Martin, who only has one steal so far in three attempts. Martin stole 24 bases in 2016, the last time he was a full-time player. No one else has stolen more than 11 bases at the major league level. Both Dixon Machado and Jacoby Jones have stolen 20+ bases in the minors, though.

In 2017, the Tigers stole 65 bases in 99 attempts for a 66 percent success rate. With Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez still on the roster it’s unlikely they’ll do much better than that by the end of the season, but at the moment, 74 percent success rate is significant improvement.

Outs on base and extra bases taken

The Tigers have made 9 outs on base when trying to take an extra base — which does not include caught stealing or force plays — which is 17th most in baseball. Niko Goodrum and Nicholas Castellanos have made the most outs on base at three each. However, this stat could be misleading as the more often a player is on base, the more often he can be aggressive and be thrown out. Castellanos has the second highest OBP on the team after Miguel Cabrera.

The Tigers have taken 31 bases on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks, and defensive indifference, right at the league average. As far as taking an extra base after a hit — one extra base after a single and two after a double — the Tigers rank 20th at 40 percent, a little less than the league average of 41 percent (and a bit better than 2017 when they ranked 25th at 37 percent). Not surprising, the Tigers that are not known for their speed, Miguel Cabrera (31 percent), Nicholas Castellanos (30 percent), Victor Martinez (20 percent), and James McCann (13 percent) are all below average in this category.

Productive outs

Productive outs are straightforward, advancing a runner while making an out, either on a sacrifice or otherwise. The Tigers have done so 25 times so far this year in 108 attempts, for a success rate of only 23 percent, ranked 27th in all of baseball. This isn’t much different than their 25 percent success rate in 2017.

As far as sacrifice bunts are concerned, the Tigers have only attempted this five times and have been successful only once. Jose Iglesias is the only Tigers batter to have successfully laid down a sacrifice bunt, accomplishing this in the fifth inning on the same John Hicks’ walk off bunt game on May 2. In 2017, the Tigers only attempted 17 sacrifice bunts (last in the Majors), but were successful 11 times for a 65 percent success rate.

This stat is the most surprising revelation, as the Tigers have several hitters not known for power (Leonys Martin, Jose Iglesias, Dixon Machado) that probably should be attempting to bunt more often.


The Tigers have had 75 runners on third base with less than two outs and have been able to score 38 times, a 51 percent success rate. Again, this is right at the league average of 49 percent (and slightly better than their 48 percent success rate in 2017). Castellanos has driven in seven of those runs for a success rate of 64 percent, and McCann has driven in six of those runs for a success rate of 67 percent to lead the Tigers.

With no outs and a runner of second base, the Tigers have been able to advance the runner 28 times in 56 opportunities, a 50 percent success rate, slightly lower than the 53 percent league average. In 2017, the Tigers were successful 51 percent of the time, so virtually no change. Jose Iglesias leads the Tigers in this category, being successful all five times.

Aside from one moment in time, the Tigers have not really been a small ball team. They have been merely around average in most small ball categories, making slight improvements from 2017. The one category they are worse is sacrifice bunting; a mere 20 percent success rate is mind boggling. However, as long as Cabrera, Martinez, Castellanos, and McCann on the team, it is hard to imagine the Tigers being any better than league average in most of these categories.