We have hemmed and hawed about the Tigers poor defense for a whole season and now we get to do the same for at least a big chunk of the offseason. We all predicted – correctly – that the Detroit Tigers would have one of the worst defenses, statistically speaking, in baseball prior to 2012. As John Verburg noted, the Tigers were among the worst in the league in “defensive efficiency” (the ability to turn balls in play into outs) though they achieved some measure of success in spite of it. Tiger pitchers allowed a BABIP of .307 – 27th out of 30 teams in baseball. Much of the blame for that has to lie with defenders, right? By “defensive runs saved” the 2012 Tigers came in at 32 runs below average (or about 3 wins below an average defense) – 25th in the MLB. I’m aware that all of these stats are related and that they’re all affected by pure luck, but I think we can still agree that the Tigers defense wasn’t any good, right?
Now the question becomes – who made it so bad and what can we do to fix it? Prior to the season we would have assumed that the defense would be bad because they were using Ryan Raburn at second base, Miguel Cabrera at third and Prince Fielder at first (and Delmon Young in left). We were also concerned that Jhonny Peralta couldn’t possibly be as much of an all-around decent shortstop as he had appeared to be in 2011. Generally, we would have agreed that the Tigers infield specifically looked to be atrocious. We probably would also have agreed that if Jim Leyland could somehow have been convinced to make Delmon Young a full-time DH the outfield would be above average (average in the corners, very good in center) though not enough to balance out the bad infield.
I’m not sure that is how it played out… It is terrifically difficult to find team-level aggregate splits on balls in play – but BR has this information at our fingertips for individual batters and individual hitters. That is to say – we can get year-by-year splits for ground ball outcomes, or pull-to-left outcomes, etc… What I’m interested in is what happened to the Tigers’ ability to turn ground balls into outs in 2012 relative to 2013, or turn fly balls into outs, etc… For simplicity’s sake (since there are a lot of relievers and whatnot to look at) I just focused on the four starters that got a bunch of starts for the Tigers in both seasons: Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Doug Fister. That’s a smaller sample, but they did account for around half of total innings pitched in both seasons. There’s a little bit of a contamination effect, unfortunately, since half of Fister’s 2011 was with Seattle (and I’m unable to separate those halves in the splits).
If we add those four guys together we get a total of 2523 balls hit into the field of play or over the fences in 2011 and 2240 in 2012 – not counting sacrifices and the like. Those balls led to a batting average of .311 in 2011 and .336 in 2012 along with slugging percentages of .583 and .517. That isn’t exactly the same thing as BABIP, of course, since home runs haven’t been stripped out, but home runs were not the cause of the Tigers woes on “balls hit” in 2012 – HR/FB edged up a hair in 2012 for these four but since they didn’t allow as large a percentage of fly balls in 2012 their HR/PA barely budged. BABIP for those four was .304 in 2012 (not good but still better than for the rest of the team) compared to .278 in 2011 – the same size gap as in “batting average on hit balls”.
Where it gets weird is when we break it down into trajectory categories. Those four starters allowed a .240 batting average on ground balls in 2011 with a 45.7% ground ball rate. They allowed a .237 batting average on ground balls in 2012 with a 46.2% ground ball rate. That’s a positive change – not a negative one. If lack of range at all four infield positions was our primary weakness, this should be showing up in more ground ball hits but it isn’t. Now they did get bunted on a little more often and with a little more success, but that happens so rarely that it shouldn’t significantly impact the result.
Gotta be obvious where I’m going with this, right? The Tigers didn’t struggle, in terms of BABIP, due to ground ball base hits, so they must have struggled on balls to the outfield. And struggle they did. Part of this can be attributed to a higher line drive rate, which increased from 18.4% to 20%, but far from all of it. Big-4 BABIP allowed on line drives went up from .689 in 2011 to .721 in 2012. On fly balls? From .108 to .137. The Tigers in 2012 – it would appear – just were not getting to balls in the outfield, at least not to the extent that they did in 2011.
That the Tigers outfield would be to blame for their poor defensive efficiency seems a little strange – especially if you had predicted that prior to the season – because the cast of characters didn’t change that much from 2011 to 2012 and the changes that were made weren’t necessarily for the worse. Austin Jackson still in center. Brennan Boesch still in right. Don Kelly still on the bench. Some combination of Andy Dirks and Delmon Young likely to see time in left – as in 2011. We were worried that Young would see more PT in left and do more defensive damage than he did in the 2 months he was a 2011 Tiger, but Leyland wizened up and he didn’t. Magglio Ordonez – who was a real butcher with the glove in 2011 – was gone.
So who did it? The biggest culprit if we look at individual DRS was Austin Jackson… he was still pretty good in 2012 but nothing like as good as he was in 2011. In fact, he was 24 runs worse than 2011 while remaining the Tigers best defensive outfielder. The other primary culprits were Brennan Boesch, who went from +4 in 2011 to -8 in 2012 and Quintin Berry who put up a -5 DRS in 2012. The total decline in Tiger outfield DRS from 2011 to 2012 was 43 runs (from +30 to -13) and Jackson, Boesch and Berry (as compared to some “average” replacement) accounted for 41 runs of that decline. [Tiger non-outfielders went from -16 in 2011 to -19 in 2012, a difference entirely explained by Gerald Laird's difficulty in throwing guys out] The fact is, in 2011 Austin Jackson was sooo good that he offset a below-average team. In 2012 Jackson wasn’t good enough to offset the infield by himself, especially coupled with the fact that non-Jackson outfielders went from average to being just as bad as the infield.
How do we fix this problem? Well… we could hope for some mean regression and improvement through attrition. Delmon Young will be gone, Don Kelly and Quintin Berry aren’t likely to see much time on defense. Boesch isn’t likely to play full time barring injury and Andy Dirks is. If he does play, Boesch probably won’t be that bad and Jackson might split the difference with his 2011. The Tigers don’t necessarily need to “do” anything to improve on this count – but doing nothing will probably leave them with an outfield defense a hair above average (between +1 and +5 by DRS) which is not enough to offset the bad infield like it was in 2011.
One issue in both 2011 and 2012 is that the Tigers had other guys who could play center field but they didn’t have other guys who could play center field particularly well.
Kelly, Berry and Dirks have combined for a -11 DRS over a little less than 400 innings in center over the past 2 years. All 3 are at least decent corner outfielders, but not in CF. Finding a 4th or 5th outfielder who actually could give the team average defense in center field should Jackson get dinged up would go a long way. Might I suggest (if they’re looking for a 4th outfielder) Nyjer Morgan?
It would also help to replace Brennan Boesch with a guy who could be expected to provide +10 D instead of simply hoping for something close to average from Boesch – then Jackson wouldn’t need to be the only guy carrying the outfield.
Signing Torii Hunter would be a great way to do that – but he’s far from the only potential good fit (and he’s old and coming off a season with a preposterous BABIP, etc…). Really, signing anybody who could play center to play right or left would give you a plus-ten corner outfielder.
They could also try to fix the infield so that they didn’t need the outfield to compensate – but other than the clear positive of replacing Raburn with Infante I don’t see anything happening on that front (and Infante is no better or worse than Ramon Santiagoat that position).
I have been making the case for as long as this ballpark has been in existence that what the Detroit Tigers need to prioritize (more than any other team) because of the place that they play is outfield defensive range. [And that the Tigers can get away with employing more fly ball pitchers...] It’s time for Dave Dombrowski to finally start to put a team together that has it’s priorities straight.