Silver linings exist despite Tigers' defensive funk

April 18th, 2024

DETROIT -- The Tigers' defense was earning praise and analytical acclaim when it began this homestand a week ago. It only feels longer.

To be fair, Detroit still entered Thursday’s 9-7 loss to the Rangers tied for second in MLB in Outs Above Average according to Statcast, and Defensive Runs Saved according to Sports Info Solutions. The Tigers’ 13 DRS trailed only the upstart Royals, who will open the next homestand next Friday afternoon. The Tigers still ranked in positive territory at every position but first and third base. Their seven Outs Above Average trailed only the Rangers, a fitting standing the way this week has unfolded.

As the Tigers packed up for their trip to Minnesota, they couldn’t help but lament a missed opportunity to salvage a split of their four-game series against Texas and their eight-game homestand overall. On a day when Detroit topped seven runs for just the third time this season, the Rangers’ last three runs were unearned: A bobbled ball by rookie second baseman Colt Keith, a misplayed gapper by center fielder Matt Vierling that set up an Evan Carter sacrifice fly and, most glaring, a botched rundown leading to Gio Urshela’s missed tag between second and third to set up an insurance run in the eighth inning.

Said shortstop , whose throw to second started the rundown: “I think we took a little too much time passing the ball. He just went straight to the ground.”

In many ways, the defense is a microcosm of Detroit’s season to date -- better than it has been, still some improvement to go. The Tigers' last road trip ended with a game arguably won on defense, stealing a win in Pittsburgh with help from three outstanding outfield catches. Thursday’s loss, Detroit’s second consecutive three-error performance, showed how such plays can turn a game the other way when they’re not made.

“It’s not the unknown; you’ve got to handle the ball,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Everybody does it, across the league. When you mishandle the ball and give the other side extra outs or extra 90 [feet] or whatever, it puts you in a really, really tough spot. … The better teams you play, the more dangerous and painful the unclean play is. That’s not rocket science. That’s baseball.”

Said Báez: “It’s going to happen. We’re going to lose games, but we just have to play cleaner all the time, better than past years. I think we have for now.”

Three other things we learned about the Tigers on their 3-5 homestand:

1) Javy still packs a punch at the plate
Báez entered the homestand batting 5-for-33 (.152) but matched that hit total over his past five games. Maybe more impressive, he struck out just once during the whole homestand. His home run Sunday sparked a four-run eighth inning against the Twins, and his two doubles Thursday made the Rangers pay for challenging him with fastballs. Most teams will attack him with sliders, but keeping up that discipline puts him in better situations.

“If I do my timing and my swing and my plan and I trust it, I just have to see the ball in the zone,” Báez said.

2) Can’t wait for May-eda
pitched well against the Twins on Saturday, but he fell back into his previous struggles Thursday, including three home runs across just 17 batters. He allowed an average exit velocity of 99.9 miles per hour on his splitter, including Adolis García's third-inning solo homer.

Maeda’s career struggles in April have been well-chronicled, but he acknowledged Thursday he has work to do to get back to form, calling his pitches Thursday non-competitive.

“Just starting with the mechanics, I think the velocity and command, just overall pitching in general seems off,” Maeda said through interpreter Dai Sekizaki. “I think there are a lot of things for me to improve."

3) Greene shoots at leadoff
Hinch moved atop Detroit’s batting order to begin the homestand, a role Greene hadn’t filled since his rookie season in 2022. He said he wouldn’t change his approach, but he still seemed out of form, putting just two balls in play over the first three games of this series with five walks and six strikeouts. Then came Thursday, when he led the attack against Rangers rookie Jack Leiter’s fastball with a second-inning triple off the right-field wall and a third-inning double to the opposite field, both leading to runs.

“If [Greene] can do the timing like he did today, he becomes a more difficult hitter to pitch to,” Hinch said. “People gameplan around him. The more hitters we can get to be difficult to navigate, the better. Riley’s getting the walks to go with it. …

“I want him up to bat as often as possible.”