Running wild: Tigers make strategic change
Club's mindset has shifted from power-first mentality to aggressiveness on bases
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Under former manager Jim Leyland, the Detroit Tigers were all but stationary.
Detroit's stolen-base total sat in the bottom seven of all Major League Baseball clubs for all but one of Leyland's eight seasons at the helm, ranking dead last in stolen bases over the last three seasons.
In 2014, with Leyland a special assistant to general manager Dave Dombrowski, and Brad Ausmus in his vacated manager's office, the Tigers' offensive approach -- power first -- has changed.
Center fielder Austin Jackson said the first-year manager's style allows Detroit to use its speed to create offense.
"It allows us to be a lot more aggressive and take a little bit more chances on the basepaths," he said. "Whenever you're out of the box, you have that mindset of maybe stretching it into a double and getting that extra 90 feet, that puts a lot of pressure on the defense. They always have to stay on their toes."
In the early days of his tenure, Ausmus repeatedly spoke of the value of baserunning aggressiveness and said he would emphasize running, a vow the numbers show has been kept. Through 21 games of Spring Training, Detroit has swiped 30 bases, a league-leading figure just five shy of its 162-game regular-season total in 2013.
The transformation has been driven by a trio of offseason acquisitions with a combined 449 career stolen bases. The Tigers traded for second basemen Ian Kinsler and Steve Lombardozzi and signed free-agent outfielder Rajai Davis to execute Ausmus' aggressive philosophy. They have returned immediate results on the basepaths, stealing 13 bases while batting a combined .309.
Kinsler will serve as the Tigers' everyday second baseman, with Davis expected to platoon in left field and Lombardozzi playing a utility role.
Davis said he will look to utilize his biggest asset -- speed -- to maximize his manager's run-heavy approach.
"I just kind of play my game," he said. "That's getting on base and trying to score as many runs as I can."
He echoed Jackson's statement of advancing one base at a time.
"Part of that is stealing bases, getting 90 feet closer," he said. "If I can get 90 feet closer, that's easier for us to score more runs."
The Tigers' newfound emphasis on running has come at the expense of the club's power numbers. After clubbing 176 home runs in 2013 -- tied with Texas for seventh-most in MLB -- Detroit has hit 15 in Spring Training, tied for 14th in the Majors.
The Kinsler deal, with its departure of slugging first baseman Prince Fielder and his 285 career home runs -- 55 of them in a Tigers uniform -- has contributed to the decline in power. Ausmus said the trend does not concern him.
"Honestly, I don't care how many home runs we hit in Spring Training," he said. "I don't think it really matters. Water is going to find its level. Part of me thinks that if you hit fewer home runs in Spring Training, maybe you'll hit more in the season. I'm not concerned about it."
While it is yet to be seen how Ausmus' offensive alterations will play out in the regular season, several of Detroit's spring numbers have improved from 2013. This year's squad scores an average of 5.9 runs per game, up from 5.0 per game in last year's Spring Training.
While run production is up by just under a run, the Tigers have made massive improvements in reaching base. After batting .259 as a team in Spring Training last season, the Tigers are hitting at a .298 clip, and the team's on-base percentage has improved from .332 to .365.
"We don't know how it's going to go during the regular season," Davis said, but he and the rest of the Tigers will become comfortable with however often Ausmus wants them to run.
"I'm comfortable with winning," Davis said. "If that's what it takes to win. I'm comfortable with winning."