The Tigers want to be more aggressive and smarter on the basepaths. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. This rally cry has been repeated by ad nauseum in past years, while the results have simply been more of the same. Former Tigers manager, Brad Ausmus, tried many times to correct this and emphasize this particular part of the game over and over in spring camp but in the end no improvements came of it and he eventually seemed to give up.
Ron Gardnehire has seemingly fixed what Brad Ausmus never could. What’s more impressive is that he did it with only a modest increase in team speed. FanGraphs measures baserunning value in what they call Baserunning Runs (BsR). This statistic measures stolen bases, caught stealing, taking extra bases, and being thrown out on the bases. It then takes these actions and outcomes and compares them to weighted league averages and uses that to arrive at a theoretical number of runs created or lost on the basepaths. Historically the Tigers have ranked quite poorly in this statistic. In 2015 through 2017 they ranked 30th, 27th, and 30th among all major league teams.
This year, as of May 2nd, they ranked 2nd. It’s only one month into the season, but this is a stunning turnaround from being perennial basement dwellers when it comes to running the bases.
How have they done this exactly? One might first point to an increase in the number of younger and faster guys in the regular lineup. JaCoby Jones, Dixon Machado, Jeimer Candelario, Nikko Goodrum have all logged significant playing time and have above average speed. But as it turns out, the overall collection of speed on the roster is not that far off from the past three years.
One of the many new features of Statcast is the ability to measure speed of players on the field, whether they are running bases or moving in the field. Statcast has been tracking “sprint speed” on players back to 2015. In a nutshell, they record the speeds of runners on bases during what they deem “competitive plays” which filters out players jogging around the diamond on plays like flyouts, easy groundouts, or a home runs. They track only plays when it would make sense the player is sprinting at full throttle on the bases, then average them out and come up with that player’s sprint speed. In terms of scale, the average sprint speed in the major leagues is about 27 feet per second. A spring speed of 30 feet per second is considered elite, and 23 or lower is for the slowest players out there (yes Victor Martinez is one of them, but curiously not always the SLOWEST each year, he battles for that “honor” with one Albert Pujols).
I looked at the Tigers collective averages from 2015-2018, filtering it to players in 2015-1017 with at least 100 competitive plays, and in 2018 those with 10 competitive plays, that way the list filtered to the top 9-10 players who appeared most often on the bases to get an accurate sense of the actual “speed” of the team.
In 2015, the Tigers average team speed was 26.78 ft/sec. 2016 was more or less the same at 26.72 ft/sec. It improved a bit in 2017 to 26.86 ft/sec, but this year its only up a smidge to 26.92 ft/sec. The fastest player on the team this year is JaCoby Jones who checks in at 28.6 ft/sec. But the Tigers have employed much faster runners in past years. Rajai Davis led the 2015 squad at 29.2 ft/sec, while Cameron Maybin paced the 2016 Tigers at 28.9 ft/sec. The combination of Miguel Cabrera (around 24.6 ft/sec each year) and Victor Martinez (22.8 ft/sec) has consistently been there each year along with many of the same role players. You can see for yourself the collection of runners by the years below.
The Tigers have added speed over the past two years but they haven’t exactly replaced some of their departing regulars with track stars. Yet the overall quality of baserunning has dramatically improved this year by the tracking metric BsR.
So why are they better? The BsR stat it is composed of three main factors. Taking extra bases and avoiding being thrown out of the bases, Ultimate baserunning (UBR), avoiding grounding into double plays (weighted GDP), and successfully stealing bases (weighted stolen bases). I looked at the past four years breakdown and the results are telling. They have improved in all three aspects but the biggest improvement by far is what they are doing on the bases when the ball is put in play.
Now, caution is needed since there is only one month of data and even FanGraphs cautions against evaluating players in UBR based on only a few dozen games, so small sample sizes apply. However, I was curious to see what the past March and April stats looked like in those years. Even based on a handful of games, the Tigers stats were very similar across 2015-2017 but 2018 is off to a completely different start, and for the better.
This will be interesting to watch over the course of the season but, for now Ron Gardenhire has found a way to fix one of the Tigers biggest weaknesses for so many years. More impressively, he seems to have done it without a significant change in the tools available. Maybe he’s just getting through to the players more, or maybe they are buying into his philosophy more than they did with Ausmus. Whatever it is, he’s made them better and is laying the foundation to correct a flaw that has haunted the Tigers for years.