Green Shoots on Defense


40 games into the year I put up a piece here about the Tigers horrendous defense – which already looked ready to challenge for worst in the last decade. After 40, the Tigers were 19 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved (and looked similarly bad by other metrics). Now we sit awaiting the end of the All-Star break and that awful Tiger D is 26 runs below average. That would suggest that the Tigers have been a net -7 over the last 46 games. Bad? Of course that’s bad, but it’s a lot better than the pace they were setting before. What’s more, it is becoming clearer who is – in fact – to blame.

“Advanced” metrics for defense are, like most small-sample statistics in baseball, prone to influence from random chance. Over 40 games some bad pitchers will look great, some great pitchers will look bad and the same goes for bats and gloves. After 40 games it appeared that Jhonny Peralta had taken a big step backward as a defender (something a lot of people were worried about going into the season) – after 86 Peralta is back up to a hair above average. After 40 games it appeared that Ryan Raburn was going to do a decent job in the field, even if he wasn’t doing anything at the plate. After 86, Raburn is back to being one of the defensive culprits at 4 runs below average despite getting only about 1/3 of the innings at second. After 40 Miguel Cabrera sat at -4 (projecting to -16 over the season) and Prince Fielder sat at -6 (projecting to -24). Now they sit at -2 and -4. That means that over the past 46 games they have actually been above average (and remember that even bad defenders ought to have stretches like that). A similar story goes for Brennan Boesch, who was at -6 after 40 and remains at -6. We expected roughly average D from Boesch, not good D, and though he was pretty awful in the season’s first quarter maybe he has regressed back to average in the second quarter.

Delmon Young is at -5 runs in fairly limited defensive playing time, so clearly he belongs at DH and not in the field. Raburn has been a plus defender when stuck in the outfield – where I have argued and will continue to argue that he should play (if at all). If Peralta is a little above average and Fielder and Cabrera wind up at -5 to -9 on the season (as opposed to -20 run butchers) the Tigers defense – it would seem – shouldn’t be an extreme liability.

Unfortunately, there are a few confounding factors. The first is that the Tigers defensive specialists have not helped to carry the team defense and the second is the pitching staff, or rather the pitch/catch combo.

Austin Jackson has been good defensively, but at only 3 runs above average he isn’t carrying the team to quite the extent that he did last season. Don Kelly has been net average in the outfield – we expected much better from a guy whose most important role is as a defensive replacement. Danny Worth is 2 runs below average at second. Ramon Santiago is a run below average in the infield. Those three guys are supposed to be offsetting their weak bats with good gloves and in the end offsetting other weak gloves as well. Despite his speed Quintin Berry has been 2 runs below average in the outfield, whereas Andy Dirks was 2 runs above. It doesn’t look like Dirks is coming back any time soon, so for the time being we’re stuck with Berry – but Berry isn’t supposed to be the kind of hitter that offsets weak D with great hitting (though he has been as a Tiger). They do have defensive “ability” so it is possible that when these guys play out the string we DO see a return to the good defense we expected from them – just like we all expected Pujols to break out of his slump in April (but not Brandon Inge). If that happens, Tiger D would look almost ‘OK’.

As a unit, Tigers pitchers are 4 runs below average defensively and Tigers catchers are another 3 runs below average defensively. Both get a share of the blame for the steals that the Tigers are allowing, but the pitching staff winds up with a net zero on that count while the catchers get a -3. So… most of the “bad D” by the catching staff is an inability to throw out runners – especially from Gerald Laird. Laird is another one of those guys as mentioned above who is here in large part because of his presumed defensive skills, but hasn’t helped the team in that way to this point. Most of the “bad D” by the pitchers is just shoddy positional play. If we take out Justin Verlander – who does everything well but All-Star games – the pitching staff is a -8, which would make it the worst defensive position on a bad defensive team.

Kurt Mensching of Bless You Boys recently put a piece up for the Detroit News arguing that the Tigers defense looks to be so bad that the team can’t compensate for it with bats alone and needs for it to improve in order to contend. I can’t disagree with that. But… it might be possible for the Tigers defense to improve still more (beyond the significant improvement in the second quarter relative to the first) internally by hoping for mean regression from guys who ought to field their positions well (Santiago, Laird, Kelly, Worth and probably Berry) and by keeping players in the positions they belong in. No more Raburn at second, please. No more Delmon wearing a glove, I beg you. And what’s more, it might pay to require Brennan Boesch to outhit Don Kelly to get starts in right over Don Kelly.

You might recall back in March when Jim Leyland mentioned that the Tigers had a potential offensive lineup and a potential defensive lineup and he simply thought that the Tigers would win more games with the O than the D. I wonder if he would still make the same argument.