Speedy Jones, Martin give Tigers true defensive edge

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — He couldn’t have said this with a straight face last year. Maybe not in any of the four previous years he’s been in charge of the Tigers outfielders.

“I had a meeting with them (on Saturday),” Tigers coach Dave Clark said. “And I said, ‘I will put the outfielders we have up against anybody’s in the league and I think we’ll be right there with them, as far as covering ground.’ ”

Tigers Right fielder Nicholas Castellanos (right) celebrates with left fielder JaCoby Jones and center fielder Leonys Martin after a 12-4 victory Saturday over the Kansas City Royals.

Funny thing about defense, especially outfield defense — it only draws attention if it’s spectacular or bad. The Tigers outfield has been neither thus far in 2018 — but it’s been so much better, so much more dynamic and athletic.

And, best believe, it’s played a role in the improvement of the pitching staff (from last in the American League last season to fourth thus far this season).

“Leonys Martin (in center field) makes a big difference out there,” Clark said. “And you’ve got Jonesy (JaCoby Jones) playing left field who is a center fielder who can cover as much ground as Martin.”

The speed of those two outfielders not only covers the vast spaces of Comerica Park, but it also takes some of the pressure off Nick Castellanos, who is still a novice in right field.

“I’m loving every minute of it,” Clark said of his new, speedy outfield. “I really am. We’re always talking about the defensive metrics. But the thing is, if you’ve got fast outfielders, you can do a lot of things out there.”

Jones has only been in the starting lineup for eight games (seven games in left, one in center), since Mikie Mahtook was sent back to Triple-A Toledo. But he’s made an immediate impact.

“We don’t have to play as deep and we don’t have to be as close to one another out there,” said Clark, explaining some of the subtle advantages the Tigers have with Jones and Martin together. “We can spread out.”

Jones and Martin move extremely well to their left, to their glove side. That allows Clark to shade them whichever way he wants — either to protect Castellanos, who moves better toward the right field line or to protect the gaps.

“That left-center gap — if you notice, Martin wasn’t as far over, because his glove side is in that gap, so he doesn’t have to be as far over to the right,” Clark said. “He is going to go well in that gap and Nick is going to go well toward the line, so we can give up the right field line a little bit, too.

“If we’re going to pinch in a gap, we’re going to pinch in right center (the deepest area of the field).”

The recently completed series against the Royals showcased the defensive advantage the Tigers have now with Martin and Jones playing together.

More: Tigers call up Mike Gerber, demote Drew VerHagen

The Royals outfielders played extremely deep the entire series. While they were able to chase down a couple of long fly balls into the cavernous gap in right center, they also gave up a groundball double to Jones in a pivotal two-run fifth inning Friday.

Jeimer Candelario and Martin also were able to take extra bases because the Royals were playing so deep.

“Their outfielders were painted to the wall,” manager Ron Gardenhire said.

Said Martin: “That is what I don’t want. I would never do that in my life.”

The Tigers, especially Martin, play more shallow. Even in a tie game in the eighth and ninth innings on Thursday and again Friday, Martin and Jones weren’t playing typical no-doubles depth.

JaCoby Jones (pictured) has teamed with center fielder Leonys Martin to form a fleet-footed combination in the outfield for the Tigers.

“You’ve got to be in a position where you can cover it all,” Martin said. “That’s just the adjustment you’ve got to make. It’s deep everywhere you go here. Everywhere you look, it’s deep. But you don’t want to go too far.

“If a guy is going to beat you over your head, then it’s a homer.”

Clark said he will at times have his outfielders play deeper, in regular no-doubles depth. But that’s usually reserved for the big boppers like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.

“You’ve got to understand, this is a really big field,” Gardenhire said. “So it may not look like you are playing no-doubles, but really you are out there. It’s different. Sometimes you just take your choice.

“You look at the hitter and see where guys might try to do something and you trust your outfielders. With Jonesy and Martin, you’ve got two really good outfielders who can cover a lot of ground. They can do stuff a little bit different.”

Gardenhire agrees with Martin on this point, too: If a hitter is able to hit it over the outfielder in center or right-center at Comerica Park — the problem is with the pitch not the positioning of the fielder.

“If you are saying you want to stop that ball off the center-field fence, that’s a horse (expletive) pitch, in my opinion,” Gardenhire said. “You probably should give up a double on that. If you want to catch balls hit toward the gaps and you back up a little, that’s all good and fine. But you can’t cover the whole field.

“You saw it with some of our guys. You play deep like that and you drop a ball in front of them – it’s a double that way, too. You get so deep like the Royals were, we hit a ground ball through the infield and our guy walks to second base. You are playing no-doubles but a single can turn into a double.”

Again, it’s too early in a season for the metrics to mean a whole lot. And Jones has only been part of the full-time equation for eight games. But it’s trending in a good way.

According to FanGraphs, the Tigers outfield in 2016 was a disastrous minus-50 in defensive runs saved. Last season, it improved to a still subpar minus-10.

In terms of range, the Tigers had a minus-24 zone rating in 2016, which improved to minus-7.5 last season.

This year so far, the Tigers a minus-four in defensive runs saved and have a 0.6 zone rating.

Outfield range and positioning isn’t a sexy topic. It doesn’t move the needle for fantasy players and casual baseball fans — probably not for website clicks, either — but it’s one of the those subtle attributes that helps win games.

Which, after all, is the mission.

On deck: Pirates

Series: Three-game series at PNC Park, Pittsburgh

First pitch:Tuesday-Wednesday — 7:05 p.m.; Thursday — 12:35 p.m.

TV/radio: Tuesday-Thursday — FSD, 97.1.; Thursday — also on MLBN

Probables: Tuesday — RHP Chad Kuhl (2-1, 4.57) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-0, 7.71); Wednesday — RHP Jameson Taillon (2-1, 2.86) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (0-1, 1.40); Thursday — RHP Ivan Nova (2-1, 4.20) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (1-2, 3.47).

Kuhl, Pirates: He beat the Tigers on April 1, but Miguel Cabrera got him for a double and home run. Nick Castellanos singled and tripled. He throws his hard sinker (95 mph) 60 percent of the time, mixing in a hard slider (88 mph) and a slower curveball (82).

Zimmermann, Tigers: The home run ball bit him in his last start (three of them, two by Manny Machado) — opponents are hitting .412 off his four-seam fastball — but the encouraging aspect was that his slider was biting again. He threw 37 of them in 5.1 innings, and the Orioles only got a couple of hits off it (.182). He’s 1-2 with a 3.32 ERA at PNC Park.