Detroit Tigers Doing Something Unexpectedly Well
By Chris Hannum
And that thing is putting the ball in play… The Tigers are and have been a team built around line drives up the gap and the statistic “BABIP” (Batting Average on Balls In Play), and their team BABIP of .338 is quite good. But, at least in the past, the Tigers have tended to wind up with a fair number of strikeouts on those big cuts to generate the shots to the gaps. Not so this year – at least in that tiny sample of 11 games.
April 11, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson (14) hits an RBI single in the second inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Witt 447 trips to the plate in those games, the Tigers strikeout rate of 14.1% is the lowest in both leagues. For comparison’s sake, the moribund Houston Astros have a league-worst 27.6% strikeout rate. We expect that when the Tigers put the ball in play, good things tend to happen – and that low, low strikeout rate has given the Tigers (as a team) a batting average over .300. IF (and I know this is exceedingly unlikely) the Tigers could keep that up, they would finish with the 3rd best team batting average in team history – behind only the 1921 and 1922 clubs that featured Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann.
So… who should we give the credit to? For one (though he’s far from the leader here) Prince Fielder (14%) and Miguel Cabrera (11.5%) are continuing their 2012 improvements vis a vis the K. Omar Infante – who hasn’t been a big whiffer anyway – has struck out only twice so far, roughly halving his normal strikeout rate. Victor Martinez hasn’t gotten great results so far, but he IS putting the ball in play (9.1% strikeout rate) and we more or less expect that to continue as he IS a contact hitter rather than a swing-and-miss bopper type of DH. The guy we have to give the most credit to, in my opinion, is a guy who has tended to drag the Tigers K rates up over the past three years but now is driving them down (and driving balls into the gaps and driving in runs) and that would be Austin Jackson. Jackson’s tiny 8.9% strikeout rate is a big reason for his .353 batting average and .411 on-base percentage in that leadoff spot. Remember that Jackson struck out ONLY 21.7% of the time in 2012 and we were all pleased with the big improvement. Can Jackson maintain anything like this new-found ability to connect ball and bat? If he can, he will most definitely have become not only a valuable player but a prototypical leadoff hitter.
It’s not all roses for the Tigers, of course. We haven’t been seeing as much power as we’d like and we’ve been seeing far too many walks out of the ‘pen, put lets leave that for later.