Much has been made – already – of the Tigers need to improve team defense for 2014 and a lot of us have been under the impression that significant moves in that direction have already been made. I’m here to rain on that parade.
YES, Tigers team defense was awful last year. YES, that awful team defense played a major role in keeping the AL Central competitive – and made it so that the Tigers needed every unlikely contribution they got to hold off the Cleveland Indians. YES, if it doesn’t get better there is cause to worry for 2014. Everyone knows that the two worst defenders last season were Miguel Cabrera and third and Prince Fielder at first – Fielder gone and Cabrera at first would seem to go a long way.
Does it? Does it really? By Defensive Runs Saved, Fielder was 13 runs below average as a first baseman last season but by Ultimate Zone Rating he was only 5.2 runs below average. The stats agree that he was bad – but what we’re talking about is the degree of badness. Fielder’s career numbers are fairly similar vis a vis UZR and DRS to what he produced last year – approximately twice as “bad” using DRS. Back when he was the Tigers first baseman, Miguel Cabrera was consistently rated below average defensively as well – with UZR/150 scores hovering around -5 and DRS numbers that matched (unlike for Fielder). For a guy that likes to go by stats, it’s obviously frustrating when the stats don’t agree, but what we see is that Cabrera is not and was not a great first baseman (it’s a position where his strongest defensive tool, a strong and accurate arm, is irrelevant) and that IF we trust the Ultimate Zone Rating not all that different from Fielder. Cabrera was atrocious at third by any metric last year, but a lot of that was injury-related. If he’s fully recovered next year we’d expect him to still be bad, but only “half as bad” as in 2013 at maybe 9 runs below average – like he had been prior.
We presume that Cabrera’s heir at third will be Nick Castellanos. He hasn’t really played 3B since the middle of 2011, but in slightly more than one full major-league seasons worth of games at third he was an aggregate 11 runs below average (according to claydavenport.com). He might have better raw tools for the position than Cabrera (though remember that Cabrera’s arm is a real plus, even if he isn’t all that mobile), but there is good reason to expect that he could be no better or worse a defender than Cabrera would have been in 2014. All in all, I expect the result of the 1B-3B shift on team defense to be only a pretty modest improvement.
Of the non-Cabrera, non-Fielder components of the Tigers D the team had a bunch of guys that were average or above average but not so amazingly good that they could compensate for terrible defense from other quarters. Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks were above average as were Jhonny Peralta, Jose Iglesias, Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante (though not according to DRS). Peralta is being replaced by more Iglesias – and if you go by the numbers over the past couple of seasons this isn’t guaranteed to be much of an improvement. Iglesias is going to get to more balls but make more mistakes and Peralta’s steadiness has made a positive contribution. We’re replacing (presumably) Ramon Santiago with Hernan Perez – but though Perez is younger and more athletic it is Santiago that has been the better defensive performer. Infante is being replaced by new acquisition Ian Kinsler – if we go by DRS that looks like a significant upgrade but by UZR it’s a wash. In a nutshell, the Tigers have made attempts to fill these positions with plus defenders but the gloves the guys are replacing were already solid defenders.
The non-Fielder, non-Cabrera reasons why the Tigers defense was so bad can be summarized as follows: Pitchers, Catchers and Torii Hunter. My impression is that no real change will be made in any of these areas and that the Tigers will only improve to the extent that Pitchers, Catchers and Torii Hunter can up their games. Tiger inability to stop opposing basestealers cost the team approximately 16 runs (relative to an average P-C battery) by DRS split between pitchers and catchers. Awful fielding by pitchers cost the team another 16 runs and Torii Hunter chipped in for -10. Bear in mind that the rest of the team (other than Fielder, Cabrera, Hunter, Pitchers and Catchers) was somewhat above average. Brian Holaday is replacing Brayan Pena (we assume) but Pena wasn’t the only culprit and Holaday wasn’t particularly impressive in that part of the game when he got his cup of coffee.
I could be wrong, but it seems as though the Tigers’ staff’s approach to pitching (more strikeouts!) – or alternatively the type of pitcher with the types of moves that the Tigers have been stockpiling – is not suited to holding baserunners OR to reacting quickly to ground balls and line drives. We may hope that Brad Ausmus has some tips and tricks for fixing this – but we may also worry that fixing it would hurt the Tigers amazing strikeout rates. As for Hunter, his reaction time in right seemed a little slow to me last season and I worry that his poor defensive performance could simply be a sign of age.
In the end, the Tigers defense still looks bad – if every so slightly less bad than in 2013. The only (non-bullpen) moves that they might make – like signing a left fielder – are as likely to make the defense worse as better, since Andy Dirks fields the position well. Acquiring a really good defensive third baseman (Chase Headley?) would be a huge, huge improvement but the odds of that don’t look all that high. Other than that all hope really lies with Brad Ausmus and better luck.