Tigers’ Defense as Poor as Advertised

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The Detroit Tigers understood coming into the season, they they wouldn’t have an elite defense. When you field a lineup that features Magglio Ordonez, Jhonny Peralta, and Miguel Cabrera you know that none of them have great reputations as defenders. On Opening Day, the Tigers were counting on Brandon Inge to pick up much of the slack for Peralta with his range at third base, and for Will Rhymes to do the same for Cabrera on the right side.

Rhymes got off to a rough start and was demoted quickly, which lead to a still revolving door of defensively challenged second basemen including Ryan Raburn, Scott Sizemore, and Carlos Guillen. Inge has since been replaced by a combination of Don Kelly and Wilson Betemit, and Delmon Young has been brought in to the outfield to replace Ordonez.

It’s key to note here that none of the above changes were made due to defensive shortcomings and almost unilaterally, those changes have actually made the defense worse overall. In replacing Inge and Rhymes with inferior defenders, the Tigers have chosen to sacrifice defense for offense.

The Tigers, as expected, rank near the bottom of the American League in team defense with a .982 fielding percentage. Of course, fielding percentage doesn’t tell us a whole lot, but it should be noted that while the adage says you need good defense to win, Detroit ranks eleventh in the league, one spot behind Cleveland and two spots ahead of Texas. You can win with bad defenders, you just have to be able to outscore your mistakes.

There are a handful of useful defensive metrics and there are varying opinions on the validity of each. I like to use UZR as I find it the most accessible, thanks to fangraphs. According to UZR, the Tigers sit in a virtual tie with Cleveland for eleventh place in the 14-team AL. In other words, Detroit’s poor defensive reputation is backed up by the traditional and advanced stats; their reputation is well earned.

Even the best of the Tigers’ glovemen have rated below expectations this year, again, according to UZR. Austin Jackson makes a habit of running down balls in the gaps and taking away home runs, but rates a 1.9 runs below average in centerfield. For what it’s worth, former Tiger Curtis Granderson has the worst UZR (-9.8) among centerfielders in all of baseball this year, and the second-worst for any position in the AL.

Jackson is flanked now by Brennan Boesch in right and Young in left. Moving Boesch from left to right should make him more effective as a defender. While he’s still rated below average in right, he’s over two runs better there than he was in left. Young, meanwhile, has a career UZR/150 of -13.2 as a left fielder, though his rating this year is actually 3.6 runs above average. This shows us one of the problems with relying on single-season defensive data. If you look at only this year, you’d think that Young was a very good defensive outfielder, but history tells us that that this is probably not the case.

The same thing can be said of Peralta at shortstop. Coming into 2010, Peralta had seen his range diminish to the point that the Indians had moved him to third base. When he was acquired by the Tigers, they moved him back to short and decided they could live with a lack of range. He came into camp much lighter than in prior years and he’s shown himself to be a steady defender, at least on balls he can get to. Peralta had a pair of terrible years with the glove in 2006 and 2007, but he improved dramatically in the years since then (at least according to UZR). This season, Peralta has been one of the bright spots on an otherwise bad defensive unit, rating at 3.8 runs above average. It would be foolish to assume that Young and Peralta have somehow turned a corner and become good defenders, or that they will continue their elevated play into next season, however.

If the Tigers chose to put an emphasis on defense with their current group of regulars, it would look like this (using 2011 season numbers only):

  • LF- Raburn (UZR 4.5)
  • CF- Jackson (-1.9)
  • RF- Boesch (-1.6)
  • 1B- Cabrera (-5.3)
  • 2B- Ramon Santiago (-0.7)
  • SS- Peralta (3.8)
  • 3B- Kelly (1.1)

Of course, even with the best possible defensive unit, this team features only three of the seven guys with ratings above average. The collective total of the above unit is -0.1, so basically a league-average defense. More typically, however, the list of fielders look like this:

  • LF- Young (3.6)
  • CF- Jackson (-1.9)
  • RF- Boesch (-1.6)
  • 1B- Cabrera (-5.3)
  • 2B- Raburn (-5.0)
  • SS- Peralta (3.8)
  • 3B- Betemit (-5.1)

This unit maximizes the offense, but by using Raburn at second base instead of Santiago and Betemit in place of Kelly, the defense drops dramatically, even if we assume that Young is as capable a defender as his numbers this year suggest. The total for this unit is a whopping 11.5 runs below average. If we assume that Young is not as good as his UZR says he is (and he’s not), that number gets much worse. It’s sad to see that in the lineup that figures to be the most-often used going forward, the only two “plus” defenders are guys with a statistical history of being well below average.

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