'Aggressive mistake' in infield costs Tigers

August 15th, 2021

DETROIT -- The Tigers didn’t have a whole lot of effective fastballs early on Sunday afternoon, which is how they ended up with an 11-0 loss to Cleveland at Comerica Park. Jonathan Schoop’s throw home might have been one of the best.

It was an 87 mph dart from behind second base, and it had Bradley Zimmer beaten for a badly needed out at the plate until catcher Grayson Greiner struggled to gather it for an error. It was a high-risk, high-reward play. It was also likely the wrong play, though it wasn’t one manager A.J. Hinch was going to quibble about in the moment.

“I see it as an aggressive mistake,” Hinch said.

There’s a difference between that and some of the other mistakes the Tigers have made in their infield recently, including a Schoop error in the third inning on Sunday. It certainly wasn’t the reason the Tigers fell behind big while Indians starter Triston McKenzie took a perfect-game bid into the eighth inning. But it’s an example of the balance Hinch is trying to strike with his infield.

“Maybe you think back, and maybe you want to take the double play, but I’m an aggressive player,” Schoop said. “If I feel something that can get us an out there, I’m not scared to do it. I feel like I’ve got a good chance to get him out at home, and maybe the next batter [hits into] a double play and we get out of the inning with zero runs. But it didn’t go our way.”

Detroit’s infield defense is better than in years past, but still not where it needs to be if the Tigers want to make the jump into contention. They entered Sunday ranked next to last in Defensive Runs Saved among Major League teams, according to Sports Info Solutions, and 27th out of 30 MLB teams in Outs Above Average, according to Statcast. Their infield’s Outs Above Average ranks 24th out of 30 teams.

Part of the Tigers’ struggles have involved a revolving door up the middle. Their Opening Day shortstop, Willi Castro, has started the last two games in left field after shifting from short to second quickly into the season. Schoop was a Gold Glove finalist last year based on metrics, and remains strong at second with two Outs Above Average this season. He has played more games at first base this season than second, his natural position, but has started more at the latter lately as Renato Núñez has been platooning with Miguel Cabrera at first.

Cabrera went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts on Sunday, and will remain at 499 home runs heading into Tuesday's series opener against the Angels at Comerica Park. He has hit 16 career home runs off Angels pitching, most recently on July 29, 2019, off Jaime Barria at Angel Stadium. Cabrera is 1-for-5 with an RBI single in his career against Tuesday's scheduled starter, Dylan Bundy.

The Tigers have tempered their infield struggles with shifts; their 21 Defensive Runs Saved via shifting ranked third-most in the Majors entering Sunday, according to Sports Info Solutions. But Hinch is trying to instill a philosophy about getting outs and giving away as few as possible.

Hinch aggressively plays his infield in with runners on third. But with runners at the corners and nobody out in the second inning, and with starter Drew Hutchison searching for outs in his first big league outing in three years, Hinch had his infielders playing back for a potential double play. That’s how Schoop ended up with such a long throw to begin with.

“We’re playing back to get the sure out -- and in that situation, a sure two outs, based on how hard [Owen Miller] hit it and Schoop’s ability to turn the double play by himself,” Hinch said. “I know what he was trying to do, which is to create the out at home. Grayson’s got to secure the ball. But Schoop, really, I think, should take the play at second and then try to turn the double play.”

Part of it is situational, not just with Zimmer at third and Miller hitting, but with who’s batting after Miller. Andrés Giménez entered Sunday batting just .172 (16-for-93) with 26 strikeouts, but he’s tough to double up with his speed down the line. An out at home keeps the game scoreless, but leaves runners at first and second with one out for Giménez. A double play would have brought Giménez up with a 1-0 Cleveland lead, but the bases empty and two outs.

As it was, Giménez walked to load the bases, one of three free passes Hutchison allowed, before No. 9 hitter Austin Hedges doubled home two runs for a 3-0 lead. Hutchison got a double play from Amed Rosario, but another run scored before José Ramírez’s ensuing two-run homer essentially put the game out of reach at 6-0.

“It’s frustrating, obviously,” said Hutchison, whose big league return came after spending this year in Triple-A Toledo following a Minor League contract in Spring Training and independent ball last year. “We had a chance to win the series, and I went out there and just put us behind the eight-ball right away. You make adjustments, try to wipe it and move on.”