Will The Tigers Be The 2005 Yankees?


Basically, this is going to be a post about the Yankees – not the Tigers – and I must say that this is a deliberate rarity here at MCB. It’s not because I’m a fan of the Yanks, it’s not because they set a high bar for excellence, it’s because over the past decade they have put some of the worst defensive teams out on the field. Those 2005 Yankees were – according to pretty much any advanced defensive metrics – the worst defensive team of the past decade. The worst Tigers team (defensively) of that time period was the universally inept 2003 squad, which came in a mere 4 wins below average.

According to UZR (ultimate zone rating), those Yankees were 138 runs below average defensively. That’s almost 14 wins that the team cost itself by not having an average defense. According to DRS (defensive runs saved) they look a little better, only 128 runs below average. No other team of the past ten years – though there have been plenty of other stinkers – came close to that potent ineptitude. We hear a lot about the serious defensive shortcomings of the 2012 Tigers so it’s worth thinking about just how bad they could possibly be. Could they be as bad as those 2005 Yankees?

So lets start with a question: What made the 2005 Yankees soooo bad with the glove? To answer that, they had 5 regulars (Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Gary Sheffield, Bernie Williams and number one sub Tony Womack) who were absolute butchers on defense. Those regulars who weren’t bad on D were merely average (Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada and the first base combo of Jason Giambi and Tino Martinez). Their backups and pitchers weren’t good defensively, they were almost universally bad. The bad regulars cost them 102 runs by DRS and 101.5 by UZR – the metrics are in agreement. The “good” regulars cost them 2 runs by DRS and 21.2 runs by UZR – the metrics are not in agreement – while the pitchers and reserves made up the difference.

How does this compare to the 2012 Tigers? Cabrera is generally expected to stink at third – the question of how badly is one that will only be answered in October, but it’s not at all unfair to expect him to match Robinson Cano’s -21 by TRS and -21.5 by UZR. Delmon Young is expected to stink in left, but he’ll likely be closer to Sheffield’s -14. Assuming he sees a lot of time at second base, Ryan Raburn is expected to stink as well. While he might make some strides in adjusting to the position, by TRS and UZR Raburn comes to about a -24 if you scale his career numbers at second for a full season. That’s close to, but not quite, as bad as Derek Jeter (who has won multiple gold gloves???) or Bernie Williams in 2005. Prince Fielder, over his career, has averaged a -10 as a first baseman each season according to DRS or -6 according to UZR. Worst case would put him as equivalent to Womack, but he’ll probably be a little better than that.

That’s about the limit of the similarity, though. There’s really no fifth stinker to fill Bernie Williams shoes. We hear more negatives than positives about Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, Brennan Boesch as far as defense is concerned. But these guys are much closer to the Yankees “good” gloves than the Yankees butchers. Avila was a -1 by TSR and a -0.7 by UZR. Boesch was a -1 and a -1.7. Last year Peralta was a plus shortstop but over his career he has been about a -3 on an annualized basis by both metrics. The last regular for the 2012 Tigers – Austin Jackson – isn’t just about average defensively. According to DRS he was the best defensive player in the big leagues at +29 – that is the kind of resource that the 2005 Yankees did not have and goes a long way toward balancing out the terrible gloves at some other positions.

Tigers pitchers didn’t help things, combining for a -5 by DRS last year – worse than the 2005 Yankees’ -3. But… as far as bench players go the teams look like complete opposites. In addition to the defensive ineptitude of butcher/sub Tony Womack and the bat half of the first base tandem (Giambi), the other Yankees bench players (Bubba Crosby, Melky Cabrera, Ruben Sierra, Matt Lawton, Rey Sanchez, etc…) combined to do a lot of defensive damage – 23 runs according to DRS. The Tigers bench will likely consist of 5 glove-first players: Don Kelly, Brandon Inge, Ramon Santiago, Gerald Laird and either Clete Thomas or Andy Dirks. These guys are much more likely to give the Tigers a +20 on D as a unit than a -20.

Defense is one of the hardest things to predict – even with a perfect measure that attempts to control for a lot of the randomness involved (like DRS does) – in particular because nagging injuries are more likely to have a big impact on a players defense than their production at the plate. Nonetheless – if we’re forecasting the team D for Detroit 2012 – it looks like they’ll be quite a bit below average, but nowhere near as bad as the 2005 Yankees. The four butchers might cost the team 70 runs, but the rest of the team will likely put 40 back in the pot. Losing three wins to your gloves isn’t a good thing, but compared to losing 13 or 14? It’s a drop in the bucket. And lets not forget: Steinbrenner accepted that bad defense for much the same reason that Illitch will in 2012 – because those guys can mash. The 2005 Yanks scored 886 runs and won 95 games.