Mensching: Improving Tigers’ fielding, running won’t be easy

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News
Ian Kinsler is an aggressive baserunner, which is both a blessing and a curse.

How many years ago did we start thinking of the Detroit Tigers as a beer league softball team?

They were plodding on the basepaths, waiting for the home run to rescue the offense, and not particularly adept in the field.

This was the complaint under former manager Jim Leyland, and it’s the complaint about current manager Brad Ausmus’ team.

While it was convenient to blame the guy in charge of the team’s on-field play, the true issue lies in the roster itself. And it’s hard to see that changing much in 2017 without a major alteration to the roster.

You have to go back to 2010 -- that’s before the Tigers won four straight division titles -- to find the last time Detroit didn’t find itself among the worst five baserunning teams in the MLB, per Fangraphs’ baserunning statistic.

In that same year, the Tigers had the eighth-best defense in baseball, again per Fangraphs’ statistic. In all but one year (2015) since, Detroit’s defense came in below average.

Meanwhile the Indians, with above-average baserunning and defense this season, embarrassed the Tigers repeatedly throughout the year and ultimately led to them missing the playoffs.

So it’s easy to see why general manager Al Avila and manager Brad Ausmus agreed last week that the two biggest issues the Tigers face are defense and baserunning.

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It should be noted they might be best by admitting the real problem is the loss of pitching. The last year the Tigers had strong baserunning and defense, they still went home without a playoff appearance. It was starting pitching that carried Detroit 2011-14, and the loss of starting pitching that cost them in 2015 and half of 2016. And yes, the Indians destroyed them in that category, too.

Still, you want better defense and baserunning, so how do you do it? You can try to coach the team out of it, but that’s what they’ve been trying to do for three years now. Ausmus knew the Tigers’ weaknesses when he took the job every bit as anyone who spent time watching them play. Baserunning improvement was one of his key focuses that spring training.

It worked for a year. From 2013 to 2014, the Tigers went from taking an extra base 33 percent of the time to taking it 40 percent of the time. They were actually league average in the stat, per Baseball Reference. They stole 106 bases in 2014, too.

Was it something Ausmus and his staff did, or is the explanation a little easier?

For the most part, you can find the answer on the roster moves. In 2014, Detroit added Rajai Davis and Ezequiel Carrera, who took the extra base 65 and 67 percent of the time and stole a combined 42 bases, due mainly to the fact they can run really, really fast. Detroit also replaced Omar Infante at second base with Ian Kinsler. Infante took an extra base 46 percent of the time; Kinsler took it 63 percent.

Other than Miguel Cabrera, whose extra-base jump went from 28 percent to 41 percent of the time, most players on the roster stayed about the same.

And while stolen bases and SB percentage both grew as well from 2013 to 2014, so did pickoffs and times runners were thrown out on the bases (excluding stolen base attempts), from 63 in 2013, to 65 in 2014, to 71 in 2015. It actually fell to 69 in 2016.

The leader in that negative stat each year? Kinsler, the double-edged sword.

Like that tradeoff, to improve in baserunning and / or defense will require Avila and Ausmus to make sacrifices elsewhere.

In the infield, Cabrera isn’t going anywhere, and Kinsler shouldn’t. That leaves the pair with shortstop Jose Iglesias and third baseman Nick Castellanos to work with on the infield. Iglesias is a slightly above-average fielder and baserunner, and Castellanos, while below average, is showing improvement.

Meanwhile, Justin Upton will continue on in left field, and center fielder Cameron Maybin, when healthy, was one of the few Tigers who were strong on the basepaths. So, Martinez, an exceedingly popular but one-dimensional player, looks like the best candidate of all for an upgrade. And Martinez just came off the best offensive season of his career.

To get better in one area, the Tigers are almost certainly going to get worse in another. It’s a fine pickle the Tigers find themselves in.

They might be best served by making a few tweaks to the bench and bullpen, and relying on stronger starting pitching in 2017 to again carry their playoff hopes.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.