Detroit Tigers Outfield Defense Needs Work

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After looking wistfully at the kind of roster that Boston had at the end of the 2013 ALCS, Dave Dombrowski set out to reshape the Tigers that offseason with three stated goals: add speed, improve the bullpen and improve team defense.

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As the Tigers ill-fated 2014 campaign met its end, only the first goal can be considered to have been met. The Tigers did indeed finish the season with over 100 steals, 7th best in the majors. No doubt things would have looked even better on the basepaths had Jose Iglesias stayed healthy as he represented a speedier shortstop than any that the Tigers did employ this season.

Of course the bullpen was a mess, a season-long fiasco. Dombrowski made a lot of moves, most of which looked at the time like “the right move”, almost none of them worked out to the Tigers advantage. The bullpen is due for a top-to-bottom refit this offseason, but time will tell if that is something the Tigers can afford. And, anyway, that is a subject for another day.

What seems to have gotten relatively little attention is the fact that the Tigers defense – a serious weakness that held the team back in 2012 and 2013 – got no better in 2014. As I argued prior to the season, based on the limited moves that Dombrowski had made in this respect it was highly debatable whether we should have even expected any moves in this direction. But… if the Tigers are going to be able to put together a team that wins as many games (and as many playoff series) as it looks like it should on paper, making sure that they can get outs on balls in play is critical.

The Tigers have, for several years, been among the worst teams in baseball at this – and these high “BABIP” numbers attributed to Tigers’ pitchers have been an important reason that our “advanced metrics” have continued to tell us that Tigers pitching is, in fact, among the best if not the best in baseball despite ERAs that tell us something else entirely. In 2014, overall BABIP for the MLB was .295 – for Tigers pitchers it was .312. Lest you think this is an artifact of the Tigers big home park (which DOES have a tendency to inflate BABIP a bit), overall MLB “away” BABIP was .299 while Tigers pitchers BABIP outside of Comerica Park was .315 – even higher than at home (and showing almost exactly the same gap as Tigers home BABIP vs overall home BABIP). This is a major reason why the Tigers Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) number of 3.60 looks substantially better than their ERA of 4.01. By FIP, the Tigers had a better pitching staff than the O’s, by ERA the O’s would win that comparison by a landslide.
It’s entirely possible that some of the blame lies with Tigers pitchers rather than hitters. Perhaps they’re letting opposing hitters make too much good contact. We can say that – from how balls in play are recorded – that their line drive rate (line drives are very likely to fall for hits) and ground ball to fly ball ratio (ground balls are more likely than fly balls – in play – to be hits) were very close to average for an AL team. It’s also worth pointing out that this has persisted over several years through changes in pitching coach and some turnover in the rotation and bullpen.

I assign the blame to team defense. I especially assign the blame to the outfield defense, which has never been built appropriately for a park the size of Comerica. And I reiterate that Dave Dombrowski, while making noises about improving team D, didn’t actually do much of anything to achieve that result.
The Tigers primary defensive problems in 2013 were that they had three terrible defenders without any really standout defenders to compensate. One of the three, Torii Hunter, was kept in the same role where he performed no better (logically, since he isn’t getting any younger). The other change involved replacing a bad first baseman (Fielder) with a bad third baseman (Cabrera) in hopes that he wouldn’t do as much damage there. That’s a sound idea in theory, but… Cabrera (who in his defense was playing hurt) wasn’t much better than Fielder. The only way that switcheroo gives much benefit to overall team D is if the guy that replaces Cabrera at 3rd plays better D than Cabrera did and that was not the case nor was it expected to be – given that Castellanos hadn’t even played third base in a year and a half.

Aside from the Tigers defensive black holes, any expected improvement would have had to come from Jose Iglesias and Ian Kinsler improving on the slightly-above-average defense up the middle that Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante provided in 2013. That might have worked out, had Iglesias been healthy (and been as good as advertised), but was almost assuredly never going to be enough to make the Tigers D a net positive. Add to that cocktail a continued defensive decline from Austin Jackson and the injury to Andy Dirks (who J.D. Martinez more than compensated for at the plate, but not in the field) and you see why the Tigers ranked – once again – near the bottom in defense.

Sep 23, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers center fielder

Rajai Davis

(20) makes a catch of a ball hit by Chicago White Sox second baseman

Carlos Sanchez

(not pictured) in the eighth inning at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

I am of the opinion that fixing the Tigers defensive deficiencies should be a genuine goal this offseason, one pursued tenaciously rather than half-heartedly. The infield roster is, for all intents and purposes, set. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to hope for some improvement defensively there: we can hope for health from Miguel Cabrera and Jose Iglesias and that with a year under his belt Castellanos performs a bit better at the hot corner. The outfield is where big decisions must be made and the outfield is where the opportunity to craft a fine defensive team, one finally suited for Comerica Park, lies.

If the Tigers resist any urge to make dramatic moves, we’ll see an outfield of Andy Dirks, JD Martinez and Rajai Davis. That would be a somewhat below average defensive outfield. They might also decide to bring back Torii Hunter for another year (and probably use Dirks in a reserve role), that would mean a terrible defensive outfield just like the one they featured during the 2014 season. Leaving aside scrap heap type players that the Tigers might retain or might sign (like Ezequiel Carrera, for one) the minor leaguers closest to contributing for the Tigers outfield would probably be Tyler Collins and Steven Moya. It will be up to their bats to drive major league playing time, one way or another, but neither looks like a major contributor on the defensive side. Collins has mostly played in left, but done so poorly. In right field his D has been (statistically) average or slightly above. As a minor leaguer Moya was a defensive liability in right field through 2013, but was reckoned to have had a decent season in the field in Erie in 2014. Time will tell if that was due to the notorious variability of defensive metrics, or genuine and sustainable development as a player.

Aug 19, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Toronto Blue Jays center fielder

Colby Rasmus

(28) cannot catch ball hit by Milwaukee Brewers catcher

Jonathan Lucroy

(not pictured) that fell for a double in the first inning at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

It is difficult to say just what the free agent market could offer Detroit in terms of outfield defense. Free agents tend to be older and defense – especially for center fielders – tends to drop off more rapidly with age than production at the plate. One player to look at closely – should they have any interest in allocating money to the outfield – might be the Blue Jays’ Colby Rasmus, who could make an ideal platoon partner for Rajai Davis. Good defensive players are rare in free agency and should probably be pursued with more enthusiasm than Dave Dombrowski typically has, with Shane Victorino as a case in point – who could have been signed over or in addition to Torii Hunter.

Many more capable defenders could be available through trade, but the Tigers farm system is both depleted and increasingly needed as a talent pipeline (due to financial constraints). Tigers fans would love to deal away Andy Dirks, Don Kelly and Andrew Romine but these aren’t players that will fetch any kind of a return. They could dangle JD Martinez in pursuit of a player that could match Martinez’ expected overall contributions, but with more glove and less bat. If Iglesias were a sure bet, Eugenio Suarez could also be made available (though Toledo would probably be a better choice for him).

Oct 11, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Kansas City Royals center fielder

Lorenzo Cain

(6) makes a diving catch on a ball hit by Baltimore Orioles shortstop

J.J. Hardy

(not pictured) in the sixth inning in game two of the 2014 ALCS game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Given that good defensive outfielders tend to be toolsy young guys, the best way to ensure a good outfield defense is to make sure that your organizational pipeline keeps a steady stream of solid positional prospects coming. Unfortunately, that is something that the Tigers have not done of late and it is an issue that they can’t quickly correct. To make an about face when it comes to something like this might require a team to make a blockbuster stars-for-prospects deal. Such a deal brought the Tigers Austin Jackson, who was a tremendous defender as a Tiger (though not so much this season) and brought the Royals Lorenzo Cain who was among the top defensive center fielders in 2014.

Sadly, team D isn’t even a declared objective for the Tigers this offseason (according to Dombrowski’s most recent media reports). Maybe that’s recognition that there don’t appear to be meaningful ways to make improvements there, or maybe it’s a statement that DD just doesn’t think the Tigers have a problem. The fact is, there has been absolutely no comparison between the Tigers D and what you see from teams like the Royals and A’s or even from the O’s and Angels. In this respect the Tigers have been in the neighborhood of a full 10 wins worse than the better defensive teams in the league over the past few years. Granted, the Tigers have been so good in other areas that they have still made consecutive playoff appearances but it is definitely hampering them. Certain cutting edge GMs (or GMs who just like to think of themselves as cutting edge) have seen D as the current equivalent of walks in the Moneyball days – an area where production isn’t necessarily accurately priced. If it continues to be ignored, the Tigers will continue to pay top dollar for players – particularly pitchers – and find that their contributions are a little less than anticipated.

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