“Speedier” Tigers are playing “Bradball” with success so far

New Tigers' speedster Rajai Davis is skilled at stealing second or third base.

New Tigers’ speedster Rajai Davis is skilled at stealing second or third base.

If you compare the Detroit Tigers of 2013 to this year’s club, you can find many similarities: a very strong starting rotation, a potent lineup with power, and an occasionally shaky bullpen. However, there is at least one very stark difference: Detroit has gone from last to first in the league in stolen bases.

As a team last year, Detroit collectively stole 35 bases and was caught stealing 20 times. That’s terrible. The league average was 95 steals per team. The 2013 Tiger base runners contributed nothing of value to the team’s offense; in fact, their 64% success rate probably cost the Tigers some runs — the folks who’ve analyzed this extensively say you need at least a 70% success rate to make stealing bases a net offensive positive.

Through May 18 of this season, the Tigers were, rather astoundingly, leading the league in stolen bases. Through their first 39 games, they had 37 steals, surpassing their team total for all of 2013. That was more steals than any other team had despite the fact the Tigers had played at least three fewer games than every team. The Tigers are stealing one base per game this year — compared to an average of about one base every five games last year. They’ve essentially quintupled their steals.

The acquisition of Rajai Davis figures heavily in this transformation, of course. He had 14 steals in his first 16 attempts, providing a huge spark in his unexpected role as the club’s full-time left fielder (thanks to the Andy Dirks injury, not just the platoon player and pinch-runner he was expected to be).

But the explosion in the Tigers’ running game is due to more than just Rajai. From the beginning of spring training, new manager Brad Ausmus has urged the whole team to be much more aggressive on the base paths. It’s not just the new personnel at the top of the order. Ian Kinsler, after all, was only 5-for-8 in steals to date — meaning his steal attempts were probably hurting the team more than helping it.

No, the new speed game is a team-wide phenomenon. The Tigers as a whole were 37-for-51 in steals, a 73% rate. Nine different players had steals — most astonishingly, even Victor Martinez swiped two bases, the first season he’s ever done that (prior to 2013, he’d had five stolen bases in his entire career!).

The infectiously aggressive base running might be reaping its greatest reward in that Austin Jackson is finally learning to steal bases again. In his rookie year, he stole 27 bases and was caught just six times. Both his number of stolen bases and his steal rate declined over the next three seasons, and in 2013 he was only 8-for-12 in steal attempts as a leadoff batter. This year he’s started out 6-for-7, including a steal of third base.

All this is due to Ausmus. During his own 18-year career as a catcher, Ausmus stole 102 bases (and was caught 53 times). He embodies the belief that, with proper technique and a good read on the pitcher in the right situation, even players without blazing speed can swipe bases, as he did.

Last year, the Tigers were a station-to-station club that filled up the bases and waited for a big blow from Miggy or Prince. They were the MLB equivalent of a slow-pitch softball team. This year, they’re even executing squeeze bunts. The Tigers still have the power game, of course, but they’ve added a whole new dimension to the offense, thanks to Ausmus, something some are calling “Bradball.” It doesn’t always produce extra runs: stealing bases is risky, and sometimes it kills rallies. But it does give the opposing pitchers more to think about, even if the actual value of that disruption is difficult to quantify.

Ausmus’s selective employment of small ball is perfectly timed, as offense is continuing to markedly decline throughout MLB. Pitchers haven’t been this dominant since the 1968 season. At bat, the Tigers are no longer waiting for thunder: they’re striking out less and walking less than the league average. They’re swinging the bat aggressively and running the bases smartly. It’s a whole new approach — and so far, it’s paying off.

Two notes of caution about the team’s new sparkplugs: while Kinsler was batting .300, look at his splits. All his numbers — batting average, on-base, and slugging — are 100 points higher against left-handed pitchers. That’s in line with his career splits, so you can expect that to continue: against right-handers, Kinsler is really just an average hitter.

Also, the Tigers’ mostly right-handed lineup was benefiting at season’s start from something that isn’t likely to continue: Rajai Davis’s hot start, especially against right-handed pitchers. Dependably a much better hitter against southpaws throughout his career, so far in 2014 Davis has a weird “backwards” split — his batting average and on-base percentage are 100 points higher against righties!

More disturbing is this fact — and it’s the reason Davis has rarely been a full-time player — his career on-base percentage is only .317. And his hot start has already cooled mightily. His on-base percentage was a sizzling .410 in April but a putrid .227 this month (through games of May 18).

Even the brainy Tigers skipper hasn’t yet figured out how to steal first base.