Motor City Trend—Shifting Gears?


Aug 21, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees shortstop Eduardo Nunez (26) bobbles the ball at second base as Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Rajai Davis (11) steals the base during the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

The Motor City is renowned for building powerful, agile machines that run fast. The Detroit Tigers hope that using the same blueprint will put them back on the road to the World Series in 2014.

As we pull back the curtain on this hectic offseason, the Tigers’ brand new 2014 model is coming into view. Notice the reduced curb weight (minus Prince Fielder) and lower profile (no Doug Fister). You will also note both sides of the infield have been completely recast (Castellanos, Iglesias, Kinsler, Cabrera), resulting in a sleeker look with extended range. Peering under the hood, one also spots a combination of new and re-cycled parts that should fit together nicely (Lombardozzi, Krol, Nathan).

But most visibly, this updated model sports expensive new wheels that run really fast (Ian Kinsler, and especially Rajai Davis)- the likes of which Motown hasn’t seen in years.

Rest assured, your favorite baseball team is not transforming itself into a collection of banjo-hitting jackrabbits. Money Ball Central this ain’t. “Built for power” guys Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez will still be taking their whacks in the middle of the lineup, and a rather slow-footed Alex Avila will still be a fixture somewhere farther down.

However, there is a creeping realization the team will be better served, especially in the postseason, if it is not choked by the sclerotic baserunning that was on display for much of the past year. To wit–in 2013 the Tigers stole 35 bases, the fewest in baseball. Newly acquired Rajai Davis typically steals nearly that many by the All-Star break. As a part-time player.

The problems of having a slow team, though, extend beyond mere stolen base totals. Going forward, team defense should significantly improve as faster and more athletic defenders track down more balls. Offensively, base running should become less of a liability and more of an asset, as runners take the extra base more aggressively.

There is also a more subtle positive aspect of team speed that is difficult to quantify, but nonetheless real. Let’s call it the “threat of advancement”. It takes many forms and presents relentless challenges to defenses.

The mere threat of a bunt, for instance, alters the defensive alignment. Also, faster hitters are far more likely to reach base on poor contact, creating more “leg” hits than their more stationary teammates. In addition, speedy hitters compel defenders to execute cleanly to record an assist, a fact not lost upon the psyche of major league infielders.

Once on base, the mere threat of a steal by a speedy base runner alters the equilibrium of the game, and may affect pitch selection, sequence, and location. Moreover, it divides the pitcher’s attention, often resulting in a lower quality pitch to the wrong location.

Speed kills. It also thrills. Who hasn’t felt the visceral excitement of watching Austin Jackson sprint around the Comerica Park bases for a sliding triple? With the addition of Jose Iglesias on a regular basis, and Ian Kinsler and Rajai Davis, there will soon be more of those exhilarating moments.

The advantages of greater team speed are also magnified in the postseason, as the air cools and collars tighten. This is largely because the pitching is invariably better in October, when July’s room service fastballs become an endangered species.

In this expectant atmosphere, the manufactured run attains a nobler status. Any run becomes a good run, no matter its parentage.

Make no mistake, the Tiger brass is not about to declare war on the three-run home run. They are also aware you cannot steal first base.

But by gathering more athletic players who run well, they have bolstered their defense while adding to their offensive versatility. No doubt new manager Brad Ausmus was central to this decision, to his credit.

Will there be fewer Tiger three-run homers in July? Yes. It’s understood the offense will score fewer runs in 2014 than in 2013, and Tiger fans should make their peace now with that new reality.

But for this franchise, at this moment, it’s the October runs that matter. Score enough of those and they throw you a parade. With any luck that procession will be held in Detroit in early November.

The Detroit Tigers, model year 2014-designed to be a smooth-running combination of style and speed.

Destined to become a Motor City classic?