Detroit – The Tigers outfield defense has been a weapon for most of this season. Entering play Saturday, per Sports Info Solutions, it was the best in baseball into turning fly balls into outs (63.7 %). It’s collective plus-5 defensive runs saved was second only to San Diego.
And that is precisely why it was a little jarring to see a couple of misplays Friday night.
Lefty Joey Wentz’s night might’ve gone differently had right fielder Matt Vierling took a better route on the two-out, line drive double that scored a run in the three-run first inning. Or, in the second, if Riley Greene had been quicker to White Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi’s slicing, two-out liner that ended up rolling to the track.
Both were tough plays, certainly. Vaughn’s liner had an expected batting average of .440 and Benintendi’s was .530. But both are plays Vierling (a plus-5 defender in right field) and Greene have made consistently this season.
The culprit might’ve been the early-evening sky at Comerica Park. With the 6:40 p.m. starts, shadows are a factor for both hitters and outfielders.
“It’s the shadows,” said left fielder Akil Baddoo, who later in the game made a sensational running catch in the left-center gap. “It’s really dark and hard to pick up the spin. It was like that for the first three innings. It’s really tough, I’m not going to lie. But it’s no excuse. We’ll come ready tomorrow.”
George Lombard, who was acting manager Friday, is the architect of the Tigers’ vastly improved outfield play. He, along with coach Gary Jones, has completely revamped how the club defends the spacious outfield at Comerica Park – from positioning to pre-pitch preparation to an acute focus on fundamental details.
Not much he can do about the shadows.
“We all love the 6:40 starts and getting home earlier,” he said. “But it makes for some tough shadows for hitting and for seeing the ball off the bat. Greeney’s ball kind of knuckled on him. It was a one-arm swing, out front.
“On Vierling’s play, it had like a 15% out probability. So that’s a tough play and he makes the play close so you expect him to make it.”
You can be assured that Lombard made a note to talk to Vierling about not backing up Greene on the Benintendi triple. Had he done like he usually does, he might’ve limited the hit to a double and possibly prevented the run from scoring.
“I went back and watched that play last night,” Greene said. “It was a little bit of the shadows. I was coming in and I had the glasses on and it went from light to dark. But then it was like, it’s right here and then you saw me kind of dive to the left at the last minute.
“It was like someone threw a banger slider with a bat. How did I miss that?”
Greene, though, echoed what Baddoo said — no excuses.
“I’m not going to make excuses,” he said. “Let’s just say it’s not good. But we’ve got to figure it out. We have a lot of games left with it. We can’t make it an excuse and come back to the dugout every time and say the shadows are bad. We know they are. We know it’s going to be like that. We’ve got to figure it out.”
Greene and Vierling also miscommunicated later in the game on a routine fly ball to right-center. They nearly collided. Fortunately Greene held on to the ball.
But Lombard had to smile about the play Baddoo made in the seventh. Nobody has put in more time in helping Baddoo develop into a solid big-league outfielder.
With two outs, Yasmani Grandal ripped a line drive into the gap. The ball left his bat at 100.6 mph and had an expected batting average of .580. Baddoo broke quickly and took a direct route to the ball, finally snaring it right before the ball with a backhand, across-his-body lunge.
“I remember asking Akil, ‘What do you want to do in this game,’” Lombard said. “We were in Minnesota and he’d misplayed a ball. We had a day game. I said, ‘What do you want to do in this game?’ And he said, ‘I want to be good. No, I want to be great.’
“I said, ‘Do you? Because you’ve got to put the work in.’ He took that to heart. Not just from me but all the work AJ (Hinch) has challenged him with. He’s really worked hard and we’re starting to see the results.”
Baddoo is a plus-2 defender in left field this season.
“I’m just sticking to my routine and my approach,” Baddoo said. “I’m just having fun, playing loose and letting my ability take over.”