Detroit — It’s going to seem like déjà vu for Justin Upton.
Just like when he broke into the big leagues with the Diamondbacks in 2007, he and the rest of the Tigers are going to be taking baserunning lessons from Kirk Gibson this spring.
Tigers general manager Al Avila said during the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association luncheon Wednesday that at the request of manager Brad Ausmus, Gibson will serve as a baserunning and base-stealing instructor during spring training.
“We have Omar Vizquel, who is a great instructor, and we have Gene Roof in the minor leagues teaching baserunning, and he’s really hands-on,” Avila said. “But Brad invited Kirk Gibson down for spring training and I think that might be a little bit of a help, too.”
They need more than a little help.
The Tigers, by just about every statistical measure, were the worst baserunning team in baseball last season. In the formula used by analytics guru Bill James, published in his 2016 Bill James Handbook, the Tigers were minus-107 in net runs gained by base running.
The next worst were the Dodgers at minus-71. The best baserunning teams, the Rangers and Diamondbacks were plus-142 and plus-110, respectively.
“There were a lot of different reasons for it,” Avila said, naming off injuries to Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, as well as the inexperience of Anthony Gose, Nick Castellanos and Jose Iglesias. “I think we were over-aggressive at times and not as aggressive at other times. Hopefully it will serve as a valuable learning experience for those guys, and with the health of our veteran players, hopefully we can narrow it down to more of a positive number than a negative.”
The Tigers made 60 outs on the bases last season including 25 at home. They were picked off 19 times. According to James, the Tigers’ differential between runs created and runs scored was an abysmal minus-76.
They went first to third just 73 times out of 321 chances, second to home 100 out of 183 chances and first to home 29 times in 75 chances. Only two teams (Dodgers and Orioles) took fewer bases than the Tigers (130).
“It’s one of those areas that’s really tough to get a handle on,” Avila said. “If anybody was to come out to spring training, especially early on, you saw us working on it quite a bit on a daily basis, all spring long, individually and as a group.”
Avila pointed out the additions of Upton and Cameron Maybin alone should help make the club better on the bases. Upton was a plus-19 on the bases last season (and plus-92 over his career), according to James, and Maybin was plus-11.
But Ausmus has vowed go back to basics this spring in terms of base running and base stealing instruction.
“There will be some things covered in spring training that we haven’t covered the last two springs,” he said toward the end of last season. “There are little things that I think we have taken for granted that the players knew — like how you take a secondary lead. Little things you assume, maybe wrongly so, that they knew.
“We’re going to cover it, even if it sounds like basics to them. If it sounds like basics to 75 percent of the players, there’s still 25 percent that need to know.”
Using James’ formula, the most ineffective base runners last season were James McCann (minus-28 bases gained), Castellanos (minus-25), Iglesias (minus-23), Cabrera (minus-22) and Victor Martinez (minus-22).
In addition, Ian Kinsler, who is plus-212 on the bases over his career, was inexplicably picked off eight times last season, plus thrown out on the bases six other times.
“It’s baffling that he got picked off as many times as he did,” Avila said.
All things considered, Gibson has his work cut out for him.