The Tigers hoped for robust improvement in defense has yet to materialize. In fairness, much of that improvement depended on Jose Iglesias, who was expected to give the Tigers an entire season of sterling defense at the most important position. Some of it of was also due to the jettisoning of the comically bad first baseman Prince Fielder and the move across the diamond of Miguel Cabrera. And the stout defense of the platoon in left and continued defensive prowess of Austin Jackson, Alex Avila and the newcomer Ian Kinsler.
Just more than two weeks into the season (about seven percent of the schedule) and, with the usual “it’s early” caveats, the defense appears only marginally better. It’s way, way too early to start looking at individual defensive efficiency numbers (DefEff is the number of balls put into play that are turned into outs) and UZR (zone rating). But taking a peek at team DefEff rankings, even with only a small percent of the schedule played, can start to yield a few, albeit fluid, truths.
Last year the Tigers ranked 26 in the MLB in DefEff. For anyone who watched the 2013 Tigers closely the only surprise here is that the ranking wasn’t worse. Subpar defense at first, third, short (for 2/3 of the season) and right were obvious. What wasn’t so obvious was the below average defense played in center by Austin Jackson.
Jackson had received much positive press for his defense in his first three seasons in the major leagues. And advanced defensive metrics supported the perception. One overlooked fact, however, is that Jackson’s UZR has been on a steady decline since his rookie year. But he was still a plus defender in his first three seasons. Last year though his UZR took a dive (-13). The numbers reinforced the impression of fans and observers, who noticed Jackson’s increased difficulty going back on some balls and other strange mishaps. Open discussions about Jackson’s slipping defense have been mostly absent in the mainstream press. That’s probably fair, because defense, as offense, can go into slumps and vary a bit from year to year. What’s alarming is that his defense this year, at least early, appears to be a continuation of last year.
As for team defense, the Tigers through the first two-and-a-half weeks rank 26nd in the MLB in DefEff, exactly where they finished last year. At minimum the Tigers were hoping to move up into the middle of the pack. An improved defense is essential, because the Tigers’ offense is expected to be less potent (the Tigers are in the middle of AL in runs per game in 2014). Moreover, it’s likely Detroit’s pitching staff will record fewer strikeouts this year, which would result in more balls in play (Justin Verlander’s K% is down from last year and way down from 2-3 years ago, for instance). But so far the defense is only negligibly better, at best. And that probably won’t cut it.
No one expected Iglesias to miss the entire season. And no one expected a rusty 37-year old (Alex Gonzalez) to be getting most of the starts at shortstop. Other problems, beside Jackson: Hunter’s defense in right field continues to deteriorate, by advanced metrics and in the estimation of scouts and fans. Left field, without the surprisingly good Andy Dirks manning the dominant side of the platoon (he had a 9.4 UZR in leftfield last year), seems to have taken a step back. Minor League scouts have never been impressed by Tyler Collins’ defense and Rajai Davis has posted a negative UZR in each of past five seasons. On the plus side, Nick Castellanos has looked capable, Cabrera is a much better first baseman than third baseman, Kinsler has lived up to his reputation as a solid second baseman and slight improvement over Omar Infante, and Avila, even though his offense is MIA, continues as a strong defender.
Add it all up and it’s clear that if the Tigers are going to see drastic improvement in their defense it will have to come from shortstop and centerfield. Jackson is young and healthy enough that he could revert to his earlier form, when he was one of the best centerfielders in baseball. And I suspect the Tigers will not tolerate mundane defense at shortstop all year long. They will either dip into their farm system for Eugenio Suarez, whose defense is considered strong although not spectacular, or bring someone else into the organization, such as Stephen Drew, assuming he’s available after June 1 (the Tigers would not have to surrender a first-round draft choice). Either way, shortstop defense will improve. And the defense in left field should elevate when Dirks returns.
So there is still a good chance that the Tigers defense will improve as dramatically as everyone hoped. There is also a good chance that the Tigers’ current ranking, which includes five games featuring strange NL-rules induced lineups, is all sample-size noise and in a month or so the Tigers defense will move up in the rankings.