Detroit Tigers Offense: Cool When It Counts?


The Detroit Tigers offense has struggled this year—they’re factually performing below pre-season expectations, below their career averages, and above the tolerable frustration level. Many observers have pinpointed a singular area where the Tigers’ batters have struggled most—with runners in scoring position. Detroit has made little use of the base-runners they’ve gotten, they say, failing to move them around and eventually knock them in.

But, outside of the recent three-game sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, that’s simply not true. Their on-base plus slugging percentage with runners in scoring position is .741, sixth-best in the American League and above the league average of .734. Before Thursday, when they went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, it was all the way up at .759, ahead of the Minnesota Twins and the Indians, both of whom have since passed them. Even after their slothful series at Progressive Field, the Tigers, at .266, remain fourth in the AL in batting average with runners in scoring position.

Baseball-Reference (where every statistic used in this article comes from) has some other splits that provide means for evaluation of offensive performance when it counts. One is called ‘Late & Close,’ which uses plate appearances from the seventh inning on when the batting team is tied, ahead by a run, or has the tying run at least on deck. Detroit’s clutch OPS by this definition of ‘when it matters’ is .702, behind only the New York Yankees (.797) and Baltimore Orioles (.739) in the AL. Their batting average under this split is .264, second only to the Yankees, who have benefitted from a .336 batting average on balls in play.

Next we have numbers from high leverage situations, defined for Baseball-Reference by Tom Tango’s Leverage Index. “LI looks at the possible changes in win probability in a given situation,” according to Baseball-Reference, and normalizes the statistic so that a value of 1.00 indicates average leverage and anything higher is more tense. High leverage plays include anything over 1.5 on the LI scale, which they say is about 20% of all plays. Under this split, the Tigers have an .814 OPS, the best in the AL and well above that of the second-place Boston Red Sox, who possess a .791. Yesterday (again, before Cleveland finished off their sweep), Detroit’s was .841. That’s a testament to how quickly numbers can change this early but also to how good the Tigers were in high leverage before playing the Indians.

What makes the Detroit offense so abhorrent to watch, then, besides that they’re vastly underperforming? I like to look at five situational hitting numbers to help determine whether a lineup is effective at bringing runners around.

First, ‘Productive Outs Percentage,’ a number, concocted by the folks at the Elias Sports Bureau and ESPN, which rewards pitcher sacrifices, any runner advancement that comes with no outs, and scoring a runner with the second out of an inning (like a one-out sacrifice fly with a man on third). The Tigers have had 161 opportunities to make a productive out (as this metric defines one) and they have been successful in 52 instances, or 32.3% of the time. Only four AL offenses have been more efficient by this measure.

Another solid measure of run-scoring productivity uses the total number of base-runners with a batter at the plate (if a batter gets on to lead off an inning, he counts three times if he’s there for the next three batters). If we divide base-runners who scored into that, Detroit comes in at 13.6%—that’s seventh in the AL, just below the league average of 14%.

The Tigers have also been good moving runners from second to third with no outs. In 73 plate appearances with a runner on second and nobody out, Detroit has advanced said runner 46 times, or 63% of the time. That rate leads the AL along with that of the Texas Rangers, who have precisely the same numbers.

One problem has been scoring those runners from third after they have been moved there. In 82 plate appearances with a runner on third and less than two outs, Tiger hitters have pushed said runner across only 37 times, or 45.1% of the time, the third-worst rate in the league. (The Rangers also lead in this category.) There’s really no excuse for this number to be so low—Detroit has a wealth of hitters who should be capable of sending a fly ball deep enough to score a run on cue. They need to stop trying to do too much.

Another area they have struggled in is staying out of double plays, having grounded into 41 ‘twin killings’ in 325 opportunities (runner on first with less than two outs). That’s 12.6% of the time, tied with two clubs for the fourth-highest double play rate in the AL. This is to be expected considering it’s often Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder running out of the batter’s box, but it could be remedied in part by putting their few players who can run—namely Austin Jackson (when he’s healthy) and Andy Dirks—in motion more often. The Tigers have attempted only 21 steals, least in the AL, despite having an above average success rate of 76.2%.

Here’s a fun  formula: [(PrdOut%*1.05554) + (BRS%*2.28398) + (<2,3BScr%*0.6263) + (0,2BAdv%*0.6069) –  (DP%*2.69907)]/5

By combining and weighting the five previous statistics as I have above, we see that Detroit, with a 19.54%, has been the fourth-best team in the AL at moving runners along. Texas, Boston, and the Kansas City Royals are the only other clubs better according to my new situational hitting metric.

I guess what I’m saying is the Tigers—again, other than the past three games—aren’t terrible with runners on base or, more specifically, in scoring position. With a team .320 on-base percentage, above the league average of .318, they haven’t been terrible getting runners on base either. They just haven’t been great—yet. Once the power comes (a .397 slugging percentage is evidence it has been absent), and it will, this offense will click.

The perfect remedy for a power outage, as John Verburg asserted this morning, is a trip to Minnesota to face the Twins—their pitching has surrendered 1.55 home runs per nine innings, by far the highest rate in the major leagues.