In order to do this, I calculated the number of hits the Tigers would have allowed with a league-average BABIP, broken down into singles, doubles, and triples based on the rates at which Tigers pitching allowed those XBH events, and converted them into runs:
Runs Lost by Tigers Defense
Over the last two years, an AL-average BABIP would have resulted in 106 fewer hits for Tigers opponents, including 21 fewer doubles and 2 fewer triples. The BABIP difference over those two seasons has cost the Tigers about 58 runs, which equated to six wins. That’s not insignificant.
Luckily, Tigers pitching has been quite good. This time, we’ll look at the Tigers’ K% against AL average to see how many extra hitters they struck out, and how many hits (and associated XBH) that took away from their opponents:
Runs Saved by Tigers Pitching
If homers are factored in, the Tigers’ strikeouts created more positive value than their defense lost. But since homers are not balls in play, the defense doesn’t have an opportunity to mess up, and those runs are essentially just saved by the pitchers. A better way to examine the relationship is with homers factored out.
In 2012, Tigers pitchers didn’t do enough with strikeouts to overcome the issues their defense caused. An extra 24 runs from the pitchers didn’t make up for the 36 runs they lost on defense. But last year, the strikeouts more than made up for the defensive issues, generating an additional 12 runs.
So on the whole Detroit did a good enough job of getting strikeouts in 2013 to make up for their defense. That’s good, but not quite the question we had in the beginning; it just means they were good enough in one area to cover deficiencies in another, and doesn’t have much to do with the connection between strikeouts and balls in play.
In order to find that, we’re going to need to compare the amount of hits the Tigers’ defense gave up to the amount of hits they would’ve given up with a league-average strikeout rate:
Impact of Strikeouts on Tigers Defense
Extra Hits (Def.)
Extra Non-HR Hits (Def.+K)
Non-HR Runs (Def+K)
That’s a pretty big difference. The Tigers’ pitching staff reduced their defense’s ability to screw up by just under 60% (58.9%) in 2013 and just under 40% (37.3%) in 2012. They saved about 20-25 runs for themselves by reducing the amount of home runs, but it’s still quite clear that the Tigers’ strikeout-heavy staff made a significant impact in mitigating the team’s defensive inadequacies, saving three wins in 2013 and two in 2012.
Considering they won the division by just one game in 2013 – and the Indians were knocked out by Tampa – it’s very possible that the Tigers’ strikeouts saved their season from their own defense.