Drew sharp wrote a piece for the Detroit Free Press today about the Tigers unexpectedly lackluster offense. His proposed solution: add speed. As far as I’m concerned, that’s hogwash. Let me explain why…
To get one thing straight right off the bat, the Tigers are not a speedy team that runs rampant on the basepaths nor were they expected to be. The team was last in the AL in steals last year and they are last in the AL in steals so far this year. I don’t take issue with Sharp’s contention that the Tigers lack the speed tool. What I do take issue with is the idea that their lack of speed is to blame for their lack of production and that adding speed is a plausible way for the team to improve going forward.
The Tigers’ Achilles heels at the seasons start were perceived to be baserunning and defense. In terms of aggregate defense, while below average they currently sit at 8th in the AL with a net impact of -0.9 runs. In terms of aggregate baserunning (and both these figures come straight from Fangraphs) the Tigers are 7th in the AL – precisely average – despite the lack of steals, since stealing bases is only one part of the overall baserunning picture. Remember that part of the Tigers lack of steals is a lack of emphasis on it within the organization. They get green lights less often, which also means that they get picked off less often and caught stealing less often than they otherwise might.
No… as with defense the Tigers have, if anything, been better than expected on the basepaths – so we can’t exactly blame the Tigers slow start offensively (which has them on pace to score a meager 709 runs by seasons end) on what they’re doing with their legs. As far as whether better legs are the best way to score more runs – one needs to keep in mind exactly what it is that good baserunning is intended to accomplish. Legs are key where you have a team that does a decent job of putting people on base but not a very good job of plating them… as should be common sense, a runners speed is a key contributing factor in whether he will score after making his way to first. Speed and aggressiveness are doubly important for a team that gets a lot of singles (as opposed to one with a lot of walks and extra base hit) – if your steal of second is followed by a walk or a homer, it all seems like a waste of effort and pointless risk.
That isn’t the Tigers problem, though. They have two of them – the first is a BABIP well below expected and the second is an apparent lack of power. The team was projected to hit 200 home runs, they’re currently on pace to hit 172. That isn’t the biggest of gaps, but it does make a difference. The bigger issue would be the lack of baserunners to begin with – this is a team (like the 2008 team, I’m afraid) that was expected to thrive due to a large number of players with a strong BABIP tool. The BABIP tool is real – but it is fickle and unreliable. If the Tigers can’t pull their BABIP up from .280 to .310 or so where it belongs, the offense will struggle – and there won’t be much that running harder and taking more risks will be able to do.