The 2015 Detroit Tigers won just 74 games, and that doesn’t happen to a team without significant flaws. A lot of things went wrong for them, from the prolonged absence of Miguel Cabrera to the catastrophic collapse of Victor Martinez, to yet another impossibly implosive bullpen.
If one thing most stood out about the Tigers, though, it was how old they played, especially offensively. It was back in 2013, when the team was running out (too generous a phrase, perhaps) Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter, Cabrera, and Martinez, that everyone worried the Tigers’ offense would sputter to a stop because of its key cogs’ old, heavy legs. In 2015, though, with Hunter and Fielder gone, it actually happened. Detroit basestealers succeeded at a clip of just 62 percent. They grounded into the most double plays of any team in baseball. They racked up -21.9 baserunning runs (BRR), according to our calculus the second-worst in the league. They batted .270/.328/.420, raw figures that ranked first, second, and fifth in the AL, respectively. They were second in team OPS+ and seventh in TAv in the AL, but they finished 10th in runs scored. Baseball Info Solutions estimated that the team created 736 runs, but they only scored 689. Some of that, to be sure, is just bad sequencing—bad luck. Surely, though, some of it also must be chalked up to their miserable baserunning.
They must have seen it that way, too, because this winter, they took some serious and drastic steps to remedy that problem. Their two most notable positional additions this winter were Justin Upton and Cameron Maybin. Between them, those two players were worth 7.3 runs on the bases in 2015. Even Maybin, the lesser of the two, was a full run more valuable with his legs than was the Tigers’ best baserunner (Anthony Gose). Admittedly, swapping Gose out for Maybin doesn’t allow for maximal gains in baserunning value, but remember: Any injury to J.D. or Victor Martinez, or to Cabrera, would likely lead to Gose sliding right back into the everyday lineup. In that sense, Gose steps into the void left by the departing Rajai Davis—whose value used to reside almost entirely in his legs, but who was only a marginal help in that regard last season.
These changes might well fail to bring Detroit even back to zero, in terms of team baserunning for 2016. They haven’t effected a complete overhaul, after all: They’re still trying to win a World Series with the core they’ve had for the last several years. That seems unlikely, right now; I have them in the middle third of the AL, along with the Rangers, Rays, Mariners, and Indians. If you’re looking for some reason to believe that the team will reverse its underachievement from last year and stride back to the head of the pack, though, here’s one: They shored up a glaring weakness, one that the usual numbers we use to gauge team strength don’t always articulate well.
Interestingly, though, the other four teams I named above also make for interesting case studies in the influence of baserunning. Take the Rangers, who were (by a wide margin) baseball’s best team on the bases in 2015. They’ll return their most vital contributors in that area this year, in Delino DeShields, Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor, Adrian Beltre, and Shin-Soo Choo. The question is whether those players can provide the same kind of value with their legs and instincts. Choo, Andrus, and Beltre all have been around for a while. Choo and Beltre even have the birth certificates to prove it. If they get old this year, the Texas offense is going to quickly become reliant upon help from their bumper crop of young hitters. That might work just as well as their 2015 formula did, but it’s a much higher-variance mode.
The Rays, by contrast, were another of baseball’s worst baserunning clubs last season—and they don’t care. By being willing to forsake that consideration, Tampa Bay was able to add Brad Miller, Steve Pearce, Corey Dickerson, and others to their lineup depth. They’re going to hit in 2016, in a way no Rays team has hit in several years. They’ll be the worst Rays running team in at least a decade, though, so they must hope they won’t fall into the Tigers’ trap. The Indians at least gestured in the direction of their baserunning shortfalls over the winter, signing Rajai Davis to play center field, but they never had enough solid baserunners around to really solve that problem, and so they generally kept their focus elsewhere.
That leaves the Mariners, and as always seems to be the case when Jerry Dipoto is in charge, the hallmark of their approach to baserunning this winter seems to have been balance. Seattle got younger and faster at shortstop by shipping off Miller and assuring Ketel Marte full-time duty there, but took the ability to reach base over the ability to add bases and runs once there when they signed Nori Aoki and traded for Adam Lind. Seattle’s offense will be better in 2016, but they might not be better on the bases.
This has been a bizarre exercise; I acknowledge that. Baserunning is a hard thing to talk about at a macro level, and at a micro level, it’s better at helping tell a story than at aiding analysis of a player or team. Still, it’s an interesting area of uncertain projection for the teams who make up the AL’s middle, and maybe the big takeaway is this: this year’s AL could be decided by any of a huge number of small, marginal differences between teams. For those who sit at either end of a spectrum like this, the gap is more than enough to make the difference between reaching the playoffs and going home.
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