Lets keep our fingers crossed and hope I didn’t just jinx them. Last year, the biggest issue (or pair of issues) that kept the regular-season Tigers from fulfilling the potential we figured that they had, and had them needing a late-season collapse by the White Sox just to make the playoffs, was hitting into way too many double plays and not turning enough of their own. Hit into double play after double play and it should be no great surprise when your team OBP or WAR numbers are way out of line with actual run scoring. Fail to turn them and you’ll find that runners aren’t getting stranded and (this was a particular problem for Detroit) the occasional error is more likely to lead to unearned runs.
So far this year, it’s a different story on the offensive end. The Tigers are not underachieving – they are 4th in the American League with 165 runs scored after 31 games. The Tigers have the highest batting average in baseball and the highest on-base percentage, but are 20th in GiDP with only 24. The Tigers still have all of those red flags that would lead you to expect a high number of double plays, in that the team hits a lot of hard ground balls and doesn’t run particularly well. But… GiDP totals are extremely variable and unpredictable, the impact of a team’s makeup shouldn’t be overstated. Consider that each extra double play means – on average – something like three-quarters of a run, and you can see the impact this would have if sustained. What’s particularly noteworthy, I suppose, is that Torii Hunter has hit into only one double play despite seeing a lot of Austin Jackson on the basepaths in front of him. Tigers reserves Brayan Pena, Don Kelly, Ramon Santiago and Matt Tuiasosopo have combined for exactly zero double plays in 149 plate appearances.
On the defensive end, not much has changed. The Tigers are tied for second-worst in baseball with only 20 double plays turned (the Astros are first with 41). I’m sure that part of this can be chalked up to a pitching staff that hasn’t allowed all that many baserunners (their 1.18 WHIP is best in the AL) and more importantly hasn’t allowed all that many balls in play. I don’t think that would explain it all, though. This is just one of many ways that the Tigers infield defense is hurting their (still very good) chances – but we knew it would be like that going in. At least last year’s embarrassing outfield D has been turned around – by Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone Rating the Tigers outfield defense is a fair bit above average so far in this young season. Too bad a great defensive play from Torii Hunter isn’t likely to double up the runner that poked a single through the hole between Peralta and Cabrera. Maybe that isn’t entirely fair… by the numbers Fielder and Cabrera have been pretty bad, and should be expected to continue to be pretty bad, but Peralta and Infante have combined for some approximately average glovework (from a statistical perspective). The biggest reasons for the Tigers bad grade overall on defense, from DRS at least, is the work put in by pitchers and catchers.