Note to Detroit: Stacking sluggers in your lineup can backfire in the playoffs
Terrors at the plate, statues in the field
The Detroit Tigers are great at hitting baseballs. What they do outside that, though, is oftentimes ugly.
The Tigers management built a lineup around hulking sluggers with glacial speed, sacrificing defense and base-running in exchange for more firepower in the batter's box. That tradeoff has come back to bite Detroit in the American League Championship Series, costing the team several runs and, potentially, a couple of series-changing wins.
The Tigers scored more runs and got on base at a better clip this year than every team except the Red Sox. At the same time, though, the Tigers were the absolute worst base-running team in the league, per Fangraphs' BsR, a comprehensive measure of performance on the base paths. The Tigers were almost twice as terrible as the next worst base-running team, the Dodgers. And they stole only 35 bases all year; nine players stole at least that many by themselves.
Dragging the team down, Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, and Miguel Cabrera, were the second-, eighth-, and fifteenth-worst runners in baseball this season. While all three are fantastic with a bat, they're liabilities on the bases, barely faster than sedated koalas.
In Game 5 Thursday, Cabrera trundled into an out at the plate to end the first inning. Here's how far Cabrera was from home when Boston catcher David Ross received the ball:
Ross had enough time to read a newspaper, file his taxes, and groom his beard before Cabrera reached him.
The Tigers went on to lose by one run.
Cabrera is notoriously slow, even more so this postseason because he's plagued by a panoply of injuries. Though he can still swing the bat just fine, "watching Cabrera do anything other than hit right now is beyond painful," wrote Grantland's Jonah Keri.
Assembling such a high-powered offense also forced the Tigers to concede defensive aptitude. The Tigers pushed Cabrera to third base to accommodate lead-footed first baseman Prince Fielder, while locking up erstwhile catcher Victor Martinez at DH. In doing so, they opted to "reap the benefits of playing three designated hitters on offense," wrote Fangraphs' Dave Cameron, while having to "suffer the consequences of punting defense at the infield corners."
At no point was this failing more obvious than in Game 2 of the ALCS. With the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, the Tigers' defense imploded. In order: Cabrera hobbled after and missed a routine ground ball; an errant though playable throw whizzed past Fielder; Fielder flubbed a popup; and catcher Alex Avila let a pitch fly past him, allowing Jonny Gomes to advance to third. A single brought him home and ended the game.
Four miscues, one inning, ball game over.
Cabrera also missed a line drive over his head in Game 4 — he leapt approximately three inches off the ground as the ball tipped off his raised glove — and booted an easy grounder in Game 5 that allowed Boston to tack on two more runs in the second inning.
Cabrera isn't the only one to blame. On the year, the team converted only 69.4 percent of balls in play into outs, fourth-worst in baseball. Since 1921, no team has ever won the World Series with such an atrocious rate, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In the playoffs, pitching is paramount, and games are close-fought affairs. Of the five games played so far in the ALCS, all but one was decided by a single run. Giving away runs on the bases and in the field are a surefire ways to blow those close games.
Any team would love to have Miguel Cabrera in their lineup. Or Fielder, or Martinez, or any other plodding masher, for that matter. But jamming all those players onto the same team — and having to avert your eyes and cross your fingers when they waddle out into the field — comes with its downsides, as the Tigers have surely seen this postseason.