Tigers' Ausmus on 'D' and baserunning: ‘We are who we are’

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Defense and baserunning. Suboptimal team traits that seem to be links in the Tigers’ DNA.

The club has been well below American League averages in both categories in recent years for the same basic reason: An overall lack of speed.

“We are built to slug,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “That’s just who we are.”

The topic came up again in Ausmus' office Friday morning, as it has the last two springs. The initial question was about how to improve defensively, particularly in the outfield.

“Let’s be honest,” Ausmus said. “Some guys are better defenders than others. It’s just the nature of the beast. Through hard work, you hope they improve and become more proficient at their positions.

“But we have who we have. In a park like ours, speed in the outfield helps. But sometimes you sacrifice defense for offense.”

Regardless of who plays center field this season — Mikie Mahtook, Tyler Collins, JaCoby Jones, Anthony Gose — there should be a speed upgrade, which Ausmus hopes translates into more balls being caught.

With Justin Upton in left and J.D. Martinez in right, you live with their limited range because of their offensive power and production.

“What you do is try to make them more consistent (on defense),” Ausmus said. “Consistency comes with concentration. Paying attention. Not letting your at-bats affect you when you on the field … Outfielders working on communication, which will be important because we will probably have a new center fielder out there.

“But to think you are going to turn a bad defender into a good defender in six weeks of spring training, it’s just not reasonable.”

It’s the same with the baserunning.

“Everyone wants to talk about, what are you going to do about the baserunning?” Ausmus said. “We are who we are with baserunning. We’re not a fast team. We’re a team that slugs. If somebody thinks they’re going to turn Victor Martinez into a base-stealing threat, they are off their rocker.

“You try to improve the little things in baserunning. You take what you have and try to make it as good as possible. We’re still not going to be a fast team. There’s just no way around it.”

For the third straight spring, Ausmus will put added emphasis on baserunning. Once again he’s bringing in Kirk Gibson to work with the players — collectively and individually — on baserunning techniques.

“We will try to squeeze as much juice out of the lemon as we can,” Ausmus said. “But we aren’t going to make the heart of our lineup into fast runners. Just not going to do it. It’s going to have to be base to base and we’re going to have to slug a little bit offensively.”

The Tigers had the lowest percentage of extra bases taken in baseball last season (per Bill James Abstract) and had 55 runners thrown out on the bases (17 at home).

“Think about this,” Ausmus said, hammering home his point about speed and the lack of it. “When you are a below average runner and you round a base and you go too far and they throw behind you, you get in a rundown and you make an out on the bases and it looks like bad baserunning — and it is,” Ausmus said. “But if you do the same thing and you are fast you might be able to get out of it. And guess what — you didn’t make an out and it’s no longer bad baserunning.

“You are aggressive and you took the extra base.”

So, again, the Tigers will endeavor to be smarter on the bases. They will work diligently to improve their baserunning technique. Defensively, they will use all the data that is available to better position their outfielders and possibly improve their collective defensive zone rating.

But barring an unforeseen infusion in team speed, improvements in those areas will likely be marginal.

Twitter @cmccosky