Tigers flash leather with improved D

DETROIT, Mich.--The Detroit Tigers might not have cracked ESPN Insider Scott Spratt’s preseason list for most improved defenses this springInsider, but that’s probably because they weren’t the only team looking to accrue some new benefits on the defensive side of the ledger.

Last year’s Tigers team finished 29th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, converting just 67.3 percent of balls in play into outs, and finishing 28th in Defensive Runs Saved at minus-64 runs. That doesn’t look likely to be repeated, either as a matter of personnel or what one day’s payoff might preach after the Tigers’ 4-0 win on Opening Day. The Tigers’ defense flashed a lot of leather, and you might be suitably optimistic about the benefits their pitching staff will be getting on balls in play.

The signature moment in the opener was Yoenis Cespedes’ perfect catch at the fence in the third inning, robbing Kurt Suzuki of a homer and keeping the Twins off the board, but that was just the crisply-executed highlight in a ballgame spackled with well-done defensive feats. Jose Iglesias was predictably excellent going to the hole as well as starting the double play, while second baseman Ian Kinsler kept Price’s early-game no-hit bid alive in the fourth with a leaping grab of a liner off the bat Danny Santana.

“To win the way we did today, with solid defense, that’s a team win,” an appreciative Price said. “Defense sets the tone. First out of the game -- a screamer to [third baseman] Nick [Castellanos], he catches it. Cespedes, robbing the homer, that’s huge. The first hit that I gave up, to Vargas, that’s a ball that bounces off the left-field wall and [Cespedes] gets over there and holds him to a single. That’s huge.”

But for Tigers fans, Cespedes’ stolen homer should be something they’re going to have fun getting used to in the months to come, especially if they missed seeing him play in Lakeland this spring.

“I saw him track it all the way to the wall and make that catch,” Price said, “but he made a catch like that in my last start at Lakeland in spring training.”

“I thought it was a home run. I don’t watch the ball as much as I watch the outfielder,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “I could tell that Cespedes had a bead on it, but I still thought it was going to go over the fence.”

From his perch in center field, Rajai Davis was similarly thrilled and surprised by Cespedes’ play. “Just to watch it develop, I didn’t think [Suzuki] hit it that good, but the ball just kept carrying, and I watched him go back, find the wall, find the ball, perfectly execute the jump, the timing. It all worked out perfectly,” Davis said. “I’m excited, just to be able to watch.”

The benefits of the Tigers’ new-look defense seem obvious in the outfield, with J.D. Martinez moving over to right field while Cespedes takes over in left. But there’s also the benefit of finally getting Iglesias into the lineup regularly. The highly-touted Cuban shortstop missed all of 2014 recovering from stress fractures in his shins, but with his return he’s expected to be a key complement to Kinsler’s regular wizardry around the keystone. Last year was the second season Kinsler led all second basemen in Defensive Runs Saved, producing 20-plus runs on D in 2009 and 2014. What Kinsler lacked was a steady partner on the double play, but with Iglesias in place the Tigers might make a killing racking up the pitcher’s best friend.

“He wants every ball hit to him, and to have guys like that? I hope they hit it to him,” Price said, happy to have Iglesias behind him.

But Price’s enthusiasm is for getting to pitch in front of all of these guys all year. “It’s awesome, it really is. Cespedes’ reputation with his arm, you get a hit out to left with a runner on second base, there’s not too many guys who are going to test him. To have that, that’s huge. Iglesias, Kinsler out there every day, it’s big.”

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.