The Right Side of the Tigers’ Infield is a Defensive Adventure


I think we all agree that the Tigers’ defense to date has been less than desirable. In fact, fielding percentage tells us that our Tigers are the worst fielding team in the American League. I’d like to explore if that is indeed the case, and who the culprits are.

When studying defense, I like to combine a couple of metrics in order to gain an understanding of what’s going on: Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS, based on the plus/minus system). Since sample size issues are bound to affect the data, especially this early in a season, what we’ll be looking at is measured performance, not true talent level.

Both metrics are rather complicated and probably impossible for an average fan to calculate, but they’re very useful. Both UZR and Plus/Minus split the field of play into smaller “zones” and then determine how many balls in each zone are turned into outs by the fielder. The percentage of outs converted is turned into run values with respect to the average player at each position. This is a gross oversimplification of the process, and the two differ in methodology, but hopefully you get some sort of (small) idea of what’s looked at.

Getting back to the point, UZR has the Tigers as tied for sixth in the American League at 6.5 runs above average, but DRS has the Tigers as the twelfth ranked team in the AL at five runs above average. Why the difference? I’m not quite sure. It could be the small sample size issues, but it could also be that UZR does not include the defensive abilities of the pitchers or catchers while DRS does. It ranks Tiger pitchers as the worst fielders among American League pitchers (six runs below average) and catchers as league average so far this season.

So, according to these metrics, they haven’t been definitively the worst team in the AL, but they probably do rest somewhere in the lower half. But no one’s satisfied with being in the lower half, so who’s to blame? UZR and DRS rank the Detroit SS, 3B, and OF safely in the top half of the league, so that leaves 2B and 1B (we’ve already discussed pitchers and catchers). Miguel Cabrera (-4 DRS, -1.7 UZR) ranks in the bottom three among qualified AL first baseman using either metric, and similarly, Scott Sizemore (-3 DRS, -1.0 UZR) has performed in the bottom three among second basemen.

But Cabby and Sizemore haven’t been the only problems for the Tigers in the field. Ryan Raburn (-5 DRS, -3.3 UZR) has been responsible for the worst fielding performance (if you add up his results from all his positions), and the fact that he’s been so bad in so few innings hurts him (and the team) even more. So it probably wasn’t just the struggles at the plate that got Raburn and Sizemore optioned to Triple-A, it was the total package.

The only other Tiger that has definitively performed below average in the field with respect to both metrics is Carlos Guillen (-2 DRS, -1.5 UZR), and he’s about to get a position change. Second base has already been the most poorly fielded position, so putting Guillen there may not degrade the defense all that much after all. It will still be an adventure, but at least we can count on his bat to make up the difference. is a great resource for MLB statistics