Ausmus preaching aggressiveness on bases
Tigers in step with new manager's desired goal of run-first mentality
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Before Brad Ausmus embarked upon his Grapefruit League debut as Tigers manager on Wednesday, he was asked how he wanted people to view his team.
"If someone came up to me and said, 'We like the way the Tigers play baseball. They play baseball the right way,' that would be good," Ausmus said. "It's battling for your life with two strikes. It's finding a way on the mound without your best stuff to get guys out. You can see those things. It's not giving up on a fly ball in the gap, running it down, or keeping the runner from going an extra base."
It's also aggressiveness, and finding different ways to bring in a run. And while the rest sounds familiar -- something a lot of managers will mention -- the aggressiveness has been evidenced immediately.
The Tigers stole 35 bases for the entire 2013 regular season. They stole 17 bases last Spring Training. They stole four bases on Wednesday -- including a double steal that included Victor Martinez -- and watched Rajai Davis turn a popup in foul territory behind third base into a sacrifice fly without a play at the plate as he dashed home.
The Tigers ran their way into three of their six runs on Wednesday, and they set up their go-ahead rally with a walk and back-to-back bunts ahead of a two-run single. Then they manufactured their first run Thursday without a base hit, watching Jose Iglesias foul off a pair of two-strike pitches to stay alive for a leadoff walk before bringing him around on a wild pitch and two groundouts, the RBI coming from Miguel Cabrera.
The Tigers scored a half-dozen runs Wednesday without an extra-base hit. They've only done that once in a regular-season game since 2000, a 13-hit barrage against the White Sox in a meaningless late-season contest on Sept. 9, 2010. By contrast, not until Danny Worth's eighth-inning double on Thursday -- in the Tigers' 17th inning of the spring -- did Detroit have an extra-base hit.
It's early, it was far from a projected Opening Day lineup in either game and they have a lot of Grapefruit League play left for Cabrera and others to feast on pitching. Nonetheless, after two games, it's clear these Tigers aren't going to wait around for home runs to happen.
"We hope we can use some of our leg assets in terms of running the bases, and maybe defensively," Ausmus said Wednesday. "But I think it's the frame of mind that we have to change before it becomes a real factor, the frame of mind of wanting to go the extra 90, the extra 180 feet, forcing the defense to make the play on you."
Yes, Ausmus used the term "leg assets." And yes, they definitely wanted to go the extra feet.
For a veteran ballclub, that would seem like a difficult change to force, especially from a first-time manager. So far, however, the Tigers seem to be embracing it.
"I'm actually 100 percent on board," Torii Hunter said. "I've been playing a while, and this is the right way to do it."
Part of the change is the reality of the roster construction. When the Tigers had Prince Fielder and Cabrera, the goal was to bring them to bat with as many runners on base as possible. Where they stood on base was irrelevant.
"There was awareness," Hunter said, "but oftentimes you would catch yourself waiting for the big homer, because you actually had big hitters. You had Prince, you had Miguel, so obviously you didn't want to move too much and take the chance of getting thrown out."
Even so, the Tigers brought in a baserunning consultant last year to help draw an attacking mentality of Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks and other Tigers with the capability to run. They learned quite a bit from longtime coach Jeff Cox, but very little seemed to translate into games.
The Tigers led all of baseball with 419 chances to move from first to third base, according to the Bill James Handbook. They took advantage just 89 times. They had better numbers sending runners home from second, but still not a high rate, at 54 percent. They grounded into 147 double plays, second most in the American League, and made 29 outs advancing, fifth most in the league.
The Tigers finished with a net loss of 32 runs on the bases, according to the handbook, tied for worst in the Majors. No other AL team was worse than minus-16.
Detroit still finished second in the Majors in runs scored. Once they struggled to plate runs in the postseason, though, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski sought some diversity.
"We had dominant starting pitching in the Boston series," Dombrowski said last week, "and we got beat because we didn't score enough runs, and we gave up some big hits at the wrong times."
Once Jim Leyland retired, Ausmus' hire was a philosophical change. After the Tigers traded Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler, however, the roster he had took on a different look. The signing of the speedy Davis, who stole more bases by himself last year (45) than Detroit did as a team, made the change more pronounced.
"I think the previous rosters probably had a little more long ball capability," Ausmus said, "and often when you have that capability, you don't want to take the bat out of their hands by risking a stolen base or risking a hit-and-run. I think the team, the lineup/roster is different, and you have to adjust for that. If this lineup/roster is a little bit more balanced as opposed to being more power laden, then we have to go with that as a strength."
If Leyland had this type of roster, his philosophies might well have been different too. But Ausmus does take some different views. He understands the double downside to putting runners in motion ahead of Cabrera, both in losing a baserunner and in opening up a base. But there's also an upside to the threat if a pitcher throws Cabrera an extra fastball, hoping to give his catcher a chance to catch a would-be basestealer.
"It's a possibility," Ausmus said. "I think the veteran, smarter catchers will realize it's more important to go after Miguel Cabrera. I think the younger catchers who are more concerned about throwing a runner out, Miggy could see a few more fastballs. The flip side is that if you steal second, now you have a base open. So when is the right time to steal second with Miggy at the plate or Miggy on deck?
"There are times when you definitely want Miggy to be able to swing the bat and, in theory, get pitches to hit. That being said, statistically, the more runners you have on base, the better chance you have of scoring. And if Miggy ends up walking, I'm very comfortable with Victor Martinez having an opportunity to hit a double in the gap and score two, or even hit a single and score the runner from second."
That's a strategy question Ausmus will have to tackle sooner or later. For now, he's focused on the mindset. He wants players to think aggressively.
So far, it's taking.
"I call it being a hyena," Hunter said. "taking advantage of a weak link. If you drop a ball, I'm going 90 feet. If you're lazy getting to the ball in the outfield, I'm going 90 feet. That's being a hyena."