Seattle — If the Tigers hit and scored runs on a more consistent basis, their margin for error would be bigger and issues like this might not come up at all.
But the Tigers are one of the worst-hitting teams in baseball. They average a little more than three runs per game. That’s the cushion Tigers pitchers work with on most nights. So if they are to be competitive and continue to climb back toward the .500 mark, games like Sunday’s 5-1 loss to the Cubs can’t happen.
It’s not the fielding errors. Humans make errors, even highly-skilled, professional baseball humans are imperfect. You don’t love it, but it’s part of the game.
What’s untenable are the mental and situational gaffes, like errant or irresponsible cut-off throws, like being out of position, like whiffing on tags, like the second baseman breaking too soon to cover second base on a ball that’s hit to the right side of the infield.
Like not executing double-play balls.
This last one has been a killer all season. The Tigers are converting less than 50% of their double-play chances on the infield.
According to data collected by Mark Simon at Baseball Info Solutions, Willi Castro at second base has converted 10 of 22 potential double-play chances. Simon explained that as situations where he’s fielded a ball or been the pivot man.
Castro is 3 of 11 at converting double-play ground balls that he’s fielded.
The major-league average conversion rate at second base is 61%. Castro ranks 34th out of 36 players that had the most opportunities.
Niko Goodrum at shortstop has converted 12 of 24 and Castro at short has converted 8 of 17. They rank 30th and 31st out of the 35 players with the most opportunities.
The MLB average is roughly 60%.
In summation, it’s a problem and it is changing the course of games. Like on Sunday, when the Cubs’ ability and the Tigers’ inability to convert a double-play helped change the tenor of the game.
Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks came in on shaky ground, having scuffled most of the season, and the Tigers got two quick singles off him right out of the gate. But the Cubs executed a crisp 5-4-3 double play against Nomar Mazara, and Hendricks settled in for eight scoreless innings.
In the top of the third, game still scoreless, Tigers starter Matthew Boyd, with runners at first and second and one out, got Kris Bryant to hit into what looked to be a routine double-play ball. No such thing with the Tigers so far this season.
Castro fielded it and flipped to Goodrum coming across the bag. Watching the replay, Goodrum delayed his throwing motion until he’d come across the bag. And then, trying to put extra zip on it, he threw it high to first.
Ian Happ ended up scoring all the way from second.
Instead of an inning-ending play, the Cubs were up 1-0 and the Tigers were fighting uphill again.
Hinch has addressed this issue throughout the season. It’s one of the reasons he re-inserted Goodrum at shortstop and moved Castro to second base. But the problem isn’t going away, and the solution could be playing first base.
Jonathan Schoop was a Gold Glove finalist at second base last year. The Tigers did not have a problem turning double-plays last year, especially when Goodrum, also a Gold Glove finalist, was playing shortstop.
How hard would it be to reunite Goodrum and Schoop up the middle?
It would send Castro to the bench, or quite possibly to Triple-A Toledo for a bit. He went 3 for 8 in the Cubs series, which was a positive sign offensively, but he’s still hitting .205 and striking out about every third plate appearance.
And defensively, he could use a reset.
He’s playing far more tentatively than he did in his rookie year last year and it might not be the worst thing for him to go down, clear his mind and just compete and maybe even dominate for stretch.
The Tigers may have foreshadowed this late Sunday when they announced that reliever Alex Lange was sent back to Toledo. Presumably, this opens a spot for catcher Wilson Ramos to return. And with Hinch saying Eric Haase was going to start in left field Monday in Seattle, the Tigers are carrying three catchers to start this road trip.
Perhaps the plan is to use Ramos more at designated hitter and put Schoop back into the mix at second base. Haase and Harold Castro can both alternate with Miguel Cabrera at first base.
Harold Castro could be an option at second base, too, if Hinch prefers to keep Schoop at first.
All speculation, for sure, but the problem that it attempts to address is real.
The Tigers are minus-20 collectively in defensive runs saved. Only the Angels are worse in the majors. The infield collectively is a minus-7. Willi Castro, who has played short and second, is minus-6. They are only a plus-3 while deployed in a shift, the worst of any team AJ Hinch has managed.
Keeping the status quo defensively seems like the worst option right now. As Hinch has said several times on various topics — doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.