At The Quarter Pole: Team Defense


We figured the Tigers’ defense would stink. With the season one quarter over, we can look back to see just what kind of stink.

Through 40 games, there have been a lot of things about the Detroit Tigers that fans broadly expected to be strengths that haven’t been. We’ve covered those failings exhaustively over the past two months – and frankly I don’t see much of a need to rehash all of that simply because we have reached the 40 game mark. The 40 game mark is a fairly big deal in baseball, as it is as close as you get to a generally accepted point at which stats mean something (other than small sample noise) and players and teams can be accurately characterized. It’s the point at which struggling regulars lose their jobs and the point at which needs start to be identified.

One thing we haven’t covered much here is the one thing that the Tigers were expected to be truly bad at – at least back in March. Team Defense. During the offseason I went to far as to examine the question of whether the Tigers would simply be one of the worst in the league in the field or if they would be one of the worst in recent memory. We don’t really blame “The Defense” for the Tigers 19-21 record at the quarter pole: that mostly boils down to weak hitting and a suspect bullpen. But, with 40 games in the bank maybe it’s time to look at whether the Tigers defense is as bad as we thought.

Lets start with some standard team-level stats to see how we compare:
Errors: 27 (11th in the AL)
Fielding %: .982 (11th in the AL)
Double Plays: 59 (14th in the AL)
Assists: 362 (13th in the AL)

So far, not looking real good – but obviously hard to say whether the Tigers are bad or legendarily bad, or who is to blame or how much the gloves might be hurting the team. Before we get into the advanced metrics, here’s one old-fashioned stat to shine a little light on the last bit.
Unearned Runs: 16 (11th in the AL)
The best defensive teams in the league have allowed 8 unearned runs, so you could say on that measure that the Tigers below average defense should have cost the team in the neighborhood of one win on errors alone.

And now: the advanced metrics!
To a certain extent, these things are black boxes even to a stathead like me. The general idea is to include all aspects of defense, not only sloppy play, into a measure that is scaled in such a way (in terms of runs) that it is easy to compare to advanced metrics for pitching or hitting. I’ll use DRS (defensive runs saved), UZR (ultimate zone rating) and Fangraphs FLD for team-level aggregates and DRS and UZR/150 for individual breakdowns. Bear in mind that these stats use a zero baseline for an average player or team. Deviation from zero is a positive or negative impact on the runs the team allows.

FLD: -18.7 (worst in the AL)
UZR: -15.7 (worst in the AL)
DRS: -19.0 (13th in the AL)
DRS may be the most sophisticated and potentially the most accurate of the measures, since it includes things like the velocity of a ball hit to left to control for how difficult a catch would have been to make. But I wouldn’t spin the fact that the Tigers are only second-to-last in DRS as anything positive – all it says is that when everything is taken into account the New York Yankees are pretty darn terrible in the field too. The -19 we get in DRS, controlling for everything we can control for and reducing the random aspect, is worse than FLD or UZR would suggest and not better.

Remember that this is a quarter of a season, so simply multiplying those numbers by 4 gives you a fairly accurate projection of what this will do to the team over the course of the season. 74.8 runs below average by FLD. 62.8 runs below average by UZR. 76 runs below average by DRS. That would make the 2012 Tigers the seventh worst defensive team by DRS since 2003, the sixth worst by UZR and the fifth worst by FLD. That’s pretty darn bad. My preseason projection was for a team defense at -25 or -30 runs over the course of a season, so you could say that they have been at least “twice as bad” as I expected them to be. Since the standard line is that 10 runs just about equals one win, you could also say that the Tigers (on their current pace) will cost themselves about 7 wins relative to an average defense and 4 wins relative to the awful defense that I pegged them for.

So who’s to blame? Almost everyone, when you come right down to it.
Third baseman Miguel Cabrera was expected to be a butcher with the glove, and he has been. Metrics do disagree about exactly how bad he has been, though. UZR/150 has him at -11 (scaled to fit a whole season) while DRS has him at -4… projecting to -16 over the whole season. Prince Fielder is also not a particularly good defensive first baseman: -6 (-24) by DRS and -5.7 by UZR/150. Delmon Young has been pretty bad (-17.4 UZR/150) in left, but he hasn’t been seeing enough time there to do too much damage. That was expected – it isn’t going to come as a surprise to anybody. Nor will it come as a surprise that Austin Jackson has been every bit as far above average as Cabrera has been below. He was and remains one of the best defensive outfielders in the game today.

Now for the things that might be surprising – at least to those of you who haven’t been following these stats.

The worst defender on the team? Brennan Boesch. He’s not only the worst regular on the team [at -36.9 by UZR/150 and -6 (-24) by DRS] he has been one of the worst in the league. Boesch just is not getting to balls… to the extent that by straight UZR he is responsible for three times as much “bad D” as any other Tiger. The fact that his DRS number is a little better than his UZR/150 tells you that a portion of that comes down to a lot of line drives hit in his direction that nobody was likely to get to.

The best defensive second baseman? Ryan Raburn. Raburn was another guy expected to come close to -20 over the full season at second base, but the glove half of the Raburn experiment has gone relatively well. Shame about the bat. By DRS he’s only -1 (-4) and by UZR/150 he’s a +3. That’s actually above average if you can believe it. So… Raburn is not to blame. Unfortunately, the rest of the second base gang definitely is. All these numbers are in small samples, since Raburn has gotten the lions share of the innings but Danny Worth has a -41.3 UZR/150, Ramon Santiago a -17.5 and Brandon Inge (as a Tiger) a -26.6. All those numbers are bad and they’re actually all worse than Miguel Cabrera at third. Add the three together and you get 4.2 of the 15.7 runs below average by UZR. Could be noise – it’s hard to say – but Ramon Santiago and Brandon Inge are aging players at an unforgiving defensive position and Danny Worth hasn’t actually seen a lot of big league action in which to prove that he can convert defensive ability into defensive output.

Jhonny Peralta might not actually be a good defensive shortstop. Numbers-wise, Peralta was the second best defensive regular on the 2011 Tigers team (after Jackson). This year he has dipped back below average (-3 (-12) DRS and -8.7 UZR/150) right down to where he was expected to be prior to 2011. He does have good hands and a good arm, but he does not have good range. I wonder if Inge and Kelly at third last year helped cover for that deficiency…