Much has been made about the Tigers and their inability to defend. Many have cried foul over the move of Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera to 3rd base, to make room for an equally questionable defensive 1B Prince Fielder. The news of that decision prompted a lot of us to look for ways to get our best defenders on the field, especially when Rick Porcello and Doug Fister were pitching. Guys who generate a lot of ground balls. Well, Fister isn’t pitching right now and Porcello is flourishing this season so far, and the concerns about Miguel Cabrera are more with his bat than his glove.
Strange how things can start sometimes.
One of the prevailing things going around the internet regarding the Tigers, at least from a fans perspective, is that the Tigers defense has been quite good so far this season. But is that really the case? From a fielding percentage perspective it is. The Tigers in fact are 3rd in the American League with a .990 fielding percentage. Let’s face it though, that number has to do with the Tigers having a low amount of errors, and we all know that number could be larger if it wasn’t for a few favorable scoring decisions for Tigers defenders. In this day and age of baseball advanced statistics, nobody really uses fielding percentage as a measuring stick for quality defense any longer. Sure, not making errors is a positive, and making the plays they get to is extremely important, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
The biggest concern with the Tigers defense isn’t making errors. It’s getting to baseballs that most normal fielders would get to. While it might ruffle the feathers of fans out there who are of the belief the Tigers defense has been pretty good this season, the numbers don’t necessarily support that idea when comparing the Tigers to the rest of the American League.
A quick check over at Fangraphs shows that the Tigers UZR/150 to be the 11th best in the American League at this point, with a -9.0/150. Only the Indians, White Sox, and Yankees are worse, and none of those teams are considered good defending teams by any stretch. The Tigers just don’t score well in range factors, helping lead to the poor team defensive rating.
What is interesting when going through some of the individual statistics is that the guy fans were most concerned about, Cabrera, has been a positive defender from the 3B position this season so far. So has the defense of Ryan Raburn at 2nd base (the outfield is another story). So far, the biggest culprits of the Tigers poor defense have been the corner outfielders, Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch. Young, who has been particularly bad, is the Tigers worst rated defender thus far at -45 UZR/150.
I didn’t want Fangraphs to be the only defensive variable I looked at to see if the Tigers defense has really been good or not, so I headed over to MLB.com as well. There, when looking at the rankings, you can see the Tigers rated 3rd, again, because it is listed by fielding percentage. DER (defensive efficiency rating) is another story. Basically DER is the efficiency in which balls that are put into play are turned into outs. That is a rather simplistic look at things, and no defensive statistics are perfect, but this does give a person an idea of how well teams get to the baseball defensively. The Tigers are 2nd to last (Yankees) in the American League according to DER.
What does this all mean so far? In terms of the fans perception, it means that they are probably wrong. The Tigers have been indeed a poor defensive team thus far, and if Cabrera starts regressing towards the bad defender many of us predicted him to be, it could get even uglier.
The bottom line is the Tigers are 9-4, and I think they would take that record to start the season even if MLB decided to start the season over. I can’t think of one game, besides maybe the Delmon Young dancing bear routine in Chicago, that was effected terribly by the Tigers poor defense. The pitching, particularly the starters, has overcome the defense’s range deficiencies, and the offense has done just enough for the most part to win games.
There is the old adage that “defense win championships”. And while defense is important, the Tigers can certainly win an American League Central Division championship without it. It doesn’t look like it is slowing them down thus far.