03 May 2012
On the face it seems like an odd substitiution. Because (1) can Laird really be a better running option than Avila, and (2) even if that was the case, wouldn't there still have been a better option? The answers to those questions are (1) yes and (2) no.
It's true that Laird isn't known as a speed demon himself (a caller on ESPN 96.1 in Grand Rapids Wednesday dropped the never clever "Gerald LARD" nickname), his career speed score of 4.2 rates right between 'below average' and 'average', but Avila has been even worse with a 'poor' 3.3 speed rating.
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But base running isn't all about speed. Runners need to have awareness of each fielder's positioning, be able to read the ball off the bat, and know when it's possible to take the extra base. But there is a base running metric that captures these aspects as well. According to this metric, Laird's baserunning abilities has added 6.0 runs above what an average player would produce (that's about one run per every hundred of his games). The same metric says Avila has been 2.3 runs below average as a base runner (minus one run for every hundred games or so).
So the advance metrics both agree that Laird was a better choice than Avila to run in that instance. But wouldn't there be a better option on the bench?
No. Not really. Ramon Santiago had been used as a pinch hitter for Danny Worth to face a right handed reliever in the seventh inning. So there was one bench player gone. That left Andy Dirks, Don Kelly, and Laird left. The top priority was to get the best hitter up to the plate (the runner doesn't matter if the batter can't hit it). Brad Eldred was due up to face the right-handed Jonathan Broxton, but Leyland elected to go with the left-handed hitting Dirks (who wasn't an option to run anyway due to a sore hamstring). That left only Laird and Kelly as pinch-running options.
Kelly is obviously the faster choice, but I'm guessing Leyland wanted to save him in case he needed a second pinch runner for Dirks (who was battling the hamstring). This seems backward, to save the better run for the less-critical situation, but it makes sense when considering each player's position. Avila was the catcher and Dirks (previously Eldred, who's an equally bad runner as Avila and a worse hitter than Dirks) was the DH. If Kelly was used for Avila, and Laird was used as the secondary pinch-runner (for the DH spot), then the team would be stuck with Don Kelly as the catcher if the game went into extra innings (with Laird stuck as the DH). That wouldn't be a good situation.
So Leyland elected to go with the minor upgrade in lifting Avila for Laird instead of risking the possibility of extra innings with Kelly behind the plate. I can't really blame him for that.
*All stats from FanGraphs
Matt Snyder is the editor of The Tigers Den. He can be reached on Twitter @snyder_matthew.