Where the Tigers Have Been Just an Absolute Mess

Earlier today, ESPN published the latest Sam Miller article. The article was in part about the nature of modern-day statistical records, but it was also in large part about Victor Martinez. Specifically, it was in large part about how Victor Martinez has been a dreadful baserunner. Excellent hitter! Dreadful baserunner. Pick your metric, and it’ll agree. Martinez has supplied his teams runs by getting on base, but once he’s gotten that far, he’s been an easy net negative.

Miller is right about all the variables that go into baserunning stats. Stats can’t know all the conditions under which a baserunning event takes place, so sometimes the numbers are misleading. If you’re a runner who stops at third on a double, maybe the outfielder just has a cannon for an arm. If, instead, you score, maybe the outfielder is Khris Davis. No two plays are exactly alike, so, as with any stat, you prefer a sample as big as you can get.

Let’s talk about a big sample, then. A six-year sample, covering not an individual player, but an entire team. This is certainly related to Victor Martinez. When it’s come to baserunning, the Tigers have been a disaster.

I’m sure you’ve played around with our baserunning metric, BsR, before. The best version of BsR — the version including the most data — exists going back to 2002. Since that point, covering 15 years, here’s how the Tigers have done on the bases, where BsR measures runs above or below average.

Peaks, valleys, like you’d expect. The Tigers haven’t always been good, nor have they always been bad. But something looks like it changed in 2011. Through 2010, overall, the Tigers were about average — +3.3 runs, good for 13th place. Then the Tigers acquired Victor Martinez. They have not been about average. This story is best told by a look at the league landscape.

Way to go, Padres! This isn’t about the Padres. I didn’t elect to highlight the Tigers data here, like I usually would, because it sort of highlights itself. The Tigers bring up the rear, at -108.9 runs. The closest team is the White Sox, at -63.7 runs. For a sense of the spread, the White Sox are 1.8 standard deviations below the mean. The Tigers are at 3.1. Over the last six years of baseball, the Tigers have been the worst baserunners, and it’s not even all that close.

Perhaps you have a complaint. This is a form of nitpicking, is it not? Over the same six years, the Tigers lead all of baseball in wRC+, by a full four points. They rank in eighth place in position-player WAR. Absolutely, yes, this is nitpicking, ignoring the forest to call out one ugly tree. The Tigers don’t mind the way they’ve played, because by and large, the team’s been successful. It’s just been successful in its own way. It’s not often you have a team so significantly separating itself from the average.

I already pointed the finger at Martinez, but of course he couldn’t do this all by himself. Since 2011, exactly one Tigers player has been at least 10 runs better than average on the bases, and that player is Ian Kinsler. Meanwhile, six players have been at least 10 runs worse than average on the bases, and those players have been Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Avila, Prince Fielder, Nick Castellanos, and Jhonny Peralta. Martinez and Cabrera, together, have done most of the damage, rating as the third- and fifth-worst baserunners in baseball over the window. Again, no real complaints. Miguel Cabrera will go to the Hall of Fame. His plaque won’t say anything about his footspeed.

For further detail, I decided to put some numbers together from Baseball-Reference. On this plot, the x-axis reads XBT%. That measures how often baserunners have taken extra bases on hits. The y-axis reads OOB. That measures how often baserunners have made outs on the bases, not counting steals. The x-axis is a rate and the y-axis is a counting stat, but that shouldn’t matter too much. The Tigers’ data point is highlighted in red.

Unsurprisingly, for Detroit, it’s been a bad combo. The lousy baserunning value has to have come from somewhere. The Tigers show up with the second-lowest XBT% in baseball, and yet, at the same time, they’re tied for the third-most outs on the bases. Not included is the fact that the Tigers have attempted steals at the third-lowest rate in baseball, per opportunity. Also, their success rate on steal attempts is fourth-worst. It’s all been bad. They show up as 0-for-5 trying to steal home, somehow.

In a sense, this post looks back, and what’s done is done. Yet the Tigers still have Cabrera. The Tigers still have Martinez. This era of Tigers baseball isn’t complete, and right now, according to Steamer and our depth charts, those two project to be the two least-valuable baserunners around. So allow me to show you a plot that makes me laugh every time I look at it.

It can be tough to project baserunning value, and since the numbers get so strongly regressed to the mean, the values are mostly small. Because they’re small, they’re easy to ignore. Only three teams are projected to be more than five runs away from zero. The White Sox are at -5.4 runs. The Blue Jays, -6.5. And there are the Tigers, at a comical -14.3. To put that a different way, the Tigers’ baserunning is projected to be 3.4 standard deviations worse than the average team’s. As they’ve been, so they are. They’ll hit the crap out of the ball, and then they’ll take their time.

It’s better, naturally, to be good at hitting and bad at baserunning than bad at hitting and good at baserunning. So the Tigers have gotten that part right. It’s the bats that’ll have to keep them near the fringes of the race. The running is still likely going to suck.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

On the scatterplot, who are the far bottom left team who never runs or gets thrown out and the far top right team who takes tons of bases and makes lots of outs? Two very extreme strategy differences it appears!

7 years ago
Reply to  AKA22

My best guess for bottom left would be Baltimore, especially in light of their recent 19 steal season.

7 years ago
Reply to  AKA22

I’ve eliminated the Braves, Diamondbacks, Oriels, Red Sox, Cubs, and Indians using BR data. I just look up three years worth of XBT% and if it’s close to averaging 45% I’ll check the other three years. Maybe there’s a better way to do this? It’s pretty slow since I follow one team very closely, sadly to the exclusion of many others, so I’m really shooting blind. Just got a bunch of crap dumped on my desk too, so will have to come back to this later.

Owen Poindextermember
7 years ago
Reply to  AKA22

For the aggressive team, I’ll guess the Royals, as that’s been their thing the last few years.

7 years ago
Reply to  AKA22

It’s the Angels. 428 total OOB and 44.8% XBT over that time. Sorry, took me a minute to get back here.