Well, it’s a brand new baseball season and the 2014 Detroit Tigers are off and running.
Following the retirement of Jim Leyland last fall, Brad Ausmus was named the team’s 37th field manager and in short order laid out his vision for the team.
In keeping with the grand auto manufacturing tradition of the Motor City, it involved getting places in a hurry.
Like around the bases.
True to his word, the team hit the ground running in spring training and hasn’t stopped since.
In Florida, virtually every player was given carte blanche to steal bases and to otherwise take the extra base under every realistic circumstance. Though a lot of runners were thrown out in the process, Ausmus’s message was clear–prepare your mind and body to relentlessly press the defense. Be opportunistic and intelligent. Good things will happen.
Though Ausmus naturally bridled his base runners to some degree as the regular season began, his “take the extra base” mentality is alive and well and on display on a daily basis.
For example, last year’s Tigers stole a miserly 35 bases, by far the lowest total of the 30 major league teams. They were caught stealing 20 times.
By contrast, this year’s team has already stolen 17 sacks in 25 attempts, virtually half of last year’s total, and it’s still April. Despite having played three or four fewer games than the major league leaders, they are tied for sixth place in steals.
Beyond the stolen base totals, though, it’s obvious the team has taken Ausmus’s directive to heart. This was best exemplified by a sequence of events in a game last Sunday against the Los Angeles Angels.
Attempting to steal second while Miguel Cabrera was batting, Ian Kinsler easily advanced to third when the catcher threw wildly into center field. After taking a couple stutter steps while aggressively rounding the bag, Kinsler dashed for home when Mike Trout‘s casual throw from the outfield landed untouched between second base and the pitcher’s mound.
Though the pitcher eventually cut the ball off at the mound and had time to get Kinsler at home, he hurriedly whistled the throw past the catcher as Kinsler slid head first across home plate.
A big run for the Tigers and three errors for the Angels, who were left visibly demoralized on the field.
And rightly so, as a single instance of heads-up base running had reduced them from proud major leaguers to a collection of lark-in-the-park tee-ballers.
The point of this vignette is last year’s Tigers would have settled for third base, had they even gotten that far.
The ever-alert Kinsler, who has distinguished himself on every level since arriving in Detroit, took a calculated risk.
He could have been thrown out–but he wasn’t.
Oh yeah, the Tigers won the game, 2-1. With a total of five hits, all singles.
Its considerable merits aside, though, aggressive base running is not a mantra to be followed blindly by the uninitiated.
It must not be forgotten there’s a place just to the right of “Aggressive” on the risk meter that says “Stupid!” Instinctive base runners get that. Others, such as impressive new third baseman Nick Castellanos, must learn on the fly.
Despite having no meaningful managerial experience on his resume, new skipper Ausmus possesses one attribute few others in his profession can claim–18 years of experience as a major league catcher.
Far more than any other position, the catcher is witness to the endless nuances of the game of baseball. By virtue of his intimate bond with the pitcher and a panoramic view of the field of play, the cerebral backstop gradually develops a heightened sense of what does and doesn’t work on a ball field.
Ausmus is of that cut.
Accordingly, he has experienced firsthand the pressures brought to bear on defenses by calculating, aggressive base runners. Properly applied, their maneuvers not only force defenders to physically execute plays, but simultaneously tax their mental abilities to process fluid situations.
It is this territory Brad Ausmus is sagely attempting to exploit to his team’s advantage.
The new look Detroit Tigers–running hard.
And playing Brad Ball.