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What to make of the Tigers baserunning?

Much has been made of the Detroit Tigers emphasis on stealing bases. Already this year they've swiped more bags than last season. How much of an impact does the increased focus on baserunning have?

Jim Rogash

If you watched the ESPN broadcast of the Sunday Night Baseball matchup between the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox, you likely saw that the Tigers have already stolen more bases this year than they did all of last year. At 27-12 after the Sunday win, Detroit had the best record in baseball, and enjoyed a seven game lead in the AL Central. The Cool Standings page on FanGraphs gave them a 96.9 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 94.8 percent chance of winning the division, easily the best odds in baseball. The Tigers are good, no question. But, just how much of their success can be attributed to the emphasis on baserunning?

Last season, the Tigers finished dead last in the major leagues in baserunning runs at 19.4 runs below average, broken down between -6.5 runs via basestealing and -12.9 runs by other baserunning plays. The Mets led the major leagues in baserunning runs at 21.4 runs above average. That right there should be a cue that the impact of baserunning pales in comparison to pitching, hitting, and defense.

In the offseason, the Tigers dealt Prince Fielder, routinely one of the worst baserunners in the game, in exchange for Ian Kinsler, a savvy man on the basepaths. Later on, they signed Rajai Davis, who finished second in the American League in stolen bases, to a two-year deal. The slow-footed Jhonny Peralta departed in free agency, as did Brayan Pena. Ponderous sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez were still around, but it was clear that the Tigers had more speed going into the 2014 season.

While the Tigers have already nabbed more bags than they did in all of 2013, they have just 0.6 stolen base runs, 11th in the major leagues. If they maintain this pace, they will be all of nine runs ahead of last year, or about one win. With regards to overall baserunning, the Tigers have -0.3 runs, which places them 18th in baseball. On this pace, they would be 18 runs ahead of where they finished last year, or a difference of about two wins.

Sure the Tigers have stepped up their game on the basepaths, but that's only a very small factor in their overall success. Their starting rotation has the lowest ERA and FIP in the major leagues, and their hitters have the 6th best wRC+ in the major despite Cabrera suffering through an injury-plagued first month of the season. Finally, their defense has gone from awful to slightly below average.

Having good baserunners is nice, but it can only move the needle so much. Here's a comparison of the run differentials between the best and worst teams in terms of batting, pitching, defense and baserunning through the first quarter of the 2014 season.

Batting Pitching Defense Baserunning
74 runs 65 runs 69 runs 17 runs

If baserunning is limited to basestealing, the spread narrows to six runs. Even over the course of a full season, the spread in basestealing runs is usually right around 20 runs, or two wins. Meanwhile, in the 2013 season, the spread in batting runs was 300 runs, the spread in pitching runs was 250 runs and the spread in fielding runs was 170 runs.

While this might surprise some Tigers fans or baseball fans in general, it's old knowledge. The aforementioned Davis leads the major league in stolen base runs since 2010, but he's played only one full season in that time span, due to his weaknesses at the plate and in the field. Eric Young ranks 5th, but thanks to a .254/.325/.336 line, he's played 100 games only once in that span. Terry Collins might like him, but with his 78 wRC+, he can't be long for the Mets starting lineup. Billy Hamilton has earth-shattering speed, but unless his offense improves dramatically, his ceiling is a +2 WAR season.

Bringing this back to the Tigers, it's not Kinsler's baserunning that has helped this team to a 27-12 start. It's his bat and glove. The baserunning storyline will likely pop up throughout the season, but in terms of contributing to the team's success, it falls pretty far down the line.

. . .

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs

Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves