How the 2021 Detroit Tigers defied the odds

Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch congratulates catcher Eric Haase.
Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch congratulates catcher Eric Haase. /
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The Detroit Tigers Defensive Numbers are Bad

Detroit Tigers
An error by Detroit Tigers shortstop Willi Castro lets Oakland Athletics second baseman Jed Lowrie reach second base. Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

We have to clarify here. We don’t mean the team’s defensive numbers were bad (more on that soon), but that the defensive component at FanGraphs somehow incorrectly penalized the Detroit Tigers defense.

So let’s begin with the ugly numbers. The Detroit Tigers ranked dead last in 2021 by FanGraphs’ defensive metrics, and it wasn’t particularly close. The Tigers earned a -62.1 rating, while the Angels finished 29th at -40.3. Detroit posted the fifth lowest rating for any team in the last five years.

But something about that feels a bit funny. There were times this season when the Tigers seemed like an atrocious defensive squad, particularly early on when Willi Castro was manning shortstop and Wilson Ramos was the everyday catcher, but overall they didn’t look like a historically bad defense.

Eyes can be very deceiving, of course, but advanced defensive metrics feel pretty inadequate, too. And it’s hard to know which one to use. FanGraphs bases their defensive ratings on Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), while Baseball Reference relies on Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), and Baseball Savant uses Outs Above Average (OAA).

None of these systems view the 2021 Detroit Tigers as a good defense, but while UZR thinks they were the worst defensive club this year, DRS views them as merely the 4th worst, while OAA has them ranked 20th.

So, if this is just a classic case of UZR error, what would Detroit’s fWAR totals look like if the Tigers were a bad or even average defensive team in 2021? Fortunately, we can make that comparison.

By wRC+ we have four very similar teams here, but they finished with wildly different WAR totals based on their defensive rankings. If the Tigers were merely a bad defensive team, like the Mariners, they would’ve produced about 3 more WAR.

If Detroit was secretly an average defensive team, like Cleveland, that would add 7 WAR to their totals. And if UZR somehow screwed up and the Tigers were actually a plus defensive team, like the Phillies, then we’d have our explanation for how the club outperformed their WAR by 10 wins.

A mistake that large seems unlikely, of course. But then again, FanGraphs ranked Philadelphia the 9th best defensive club this year while DRS saw them as the absolute worst defensive team in baseball.

So yeah, maybe these defensive stats still need some work.