Tigers’ defense is letting them down late in games

Jhonny Peralta's defensive ability isn't well measured by his errors or fielding percentage. His limited range hurts the Tigers, especially late in close games.

Jhonny Peralta’s defensive ability isn’t well measured by his errors or fielding percentage. His limited range hurts the Tigers, especially late in close games.

If, like Rod Allen and Mario Impemba, you want to believe the Tigers are a good defensive team, there’s nothing stopping you but the facts.

Similarly, there’s nothing stopping you from believing the Tigers have a decent closer just because sometimes the hits off Jose Valverde land in gloves instead of the seats.

For weeks, the Fox Sports Detroit TV announcers kept crowing that the Tigers had the fewest errors in the league, and that proved they must be a great defensive team, as if fielding percentage were a meaningful measure of defensive prowess. It hasn’t been, at least not for the past 30 years, since Bill James arrived on the scene.

It’s really quite simple: in order to be charged with an error, you have to reach a batted ball. And if you have poor range, you don’t get there. Without good range, you’re usually handling relatively easy chances, so voila, fewer errors.

Sabermetricians haven’t agreed yet on one definitive measurement for defense, but that doesn’t mean the tools they currently use aren’t a vast improvement over fielding percentage.

So let’s use both the old and new tools to examine the Tigers’ infield, which is the leading suspect here.

At the end of May, according to ESPN.com, Detroit had a decent infield if you measured it with the highly flawed, old-fashioned tool, fielding percentage. Prince Fielder (.996), Omar Infante (.986), Jhonny Peralta (.986), and Miguel Cabrera (.961), were 17th, 18th, 13th, and 14th respectively among all MLB regulars at their positions: in other words, all resting in the middle-of-the-pack.

But if you look at the other two defensive stats used by ESPN.com, the picture is gloomier. In defensive WAR (wins above replacement), Fielder is -0.8 (tied for 27th out of 30). Infante is 0.4, tied for 8th. Peralta is 0.5, or 13th. Cabrera is -0.5, which leaves him tied for dead last.

As far as range factor, the tally is: Fielder next-to-last, Infante 18th, Peralta 17th, and, as you might expect, Cabrera last.

What these numbers, taken together, tell you is that the Tigers are average up the middle, better at second than at short, and statuesque at the corners (not in the sense of beautiful, but with the meaning of largely immobile).

This doesn’t mean that Cabrera and Fielder don’t occasionally make nifty plays, because they do, or that their prodigious offense doesn’t trump their defense, because it certainly does. It just means that a lot of grounders get through the holes on the right and left sides of the infield and, especially for a ground-ball pitcher like Doug Fister, that’s going to cost something.

In the outfield, the picture is murkier. Andy Dirks is one of nine MLB left fielders who hasn’t yet made an error this season, he is 9th in range factor, and tied for second in defensive WAR at 0.4 (these are surprisingly good numbers). Austin Jackson’s numbers are surprisingly poor, and so are Torii Hunter’s (they each have a -0.3 WAR and below-average range so far this season). But these defensive metrics are rather unreliable for outfielders. Jackson and Hunter are surely better fielders than Dirks, based on past seasons. In any case, there’s not much concern about the outfield defense, once Jackson returns — it is at least average-to-good.

But what about that porous infield? Given the lack of range in the inner pasture, the Tigers could use a defensive “closer.” Ramon Santiago is neither young nor a legend with the leather. The Tigers could use a great defensive shortstop to help protect late-inning leads. (The need is even more pressing at third base, but I doubt Jim Leyland would ever consider taking Cabrera out of a game.)

Fortunately, shortstops with better-than-Jhonny range abound, including two within the Tiger farm system: Eugenio Sanchez and Dixon Machado. Sanchez needs another season in the minors to get ready for 2014, when odds are he’ll be the Tigers’ starting shortstop when Jhonny’s no longer on the spot. But the very rangy defensive whiz Machado can’t hit a lick, so why not promote him now to be a late-inning replacement who will never even come to bat unless there’s a disaster? Surely the team could spare a bullpen arm (most of those guys pitch twice a week at most), or even do without Santiago, to open up a roster spot.

The Tigers need to augment their championship-caliber starting pitching and everyday lineup with complimentary players who can nail down victories, both in the bullpen and on the infield. If it were up to me, in fact, with a lead in the late innings I’d put a Machado at short and move Peralta to third, where he belongs. The massive upgrade in range on the left side of the infield would surely pay off in a few wins.

In the meantime, Mario and Rod can keep citing those fielding percentages. Nobody else who understands baseball does, but hey, they’re paid to talk, and talk is cheap.

8 replies on “Tigers’ defense is letting them down late in games

  • Paul

    Although I don’t disagree but what is also not factoring as much in fielding are the Tiger’s pitching staff leading the AL in strikeouts.

  • Matty Davis

    You’re completely flawed in the sense that their error count is low due to their lack of range. If a defensive player must move a great distance to make a play, it then becomes the discretion of the scorer on whether or not a failed play would even be an error. Very few times will a player be given an error after botching the ball in which he had to use great range to even have a chance at making a play. As for the statuesque corners, ask any club in the league if they would “suffer” with Cabrera and Fielder. Stop the negative hype. Be a proud Tigers fan who’s enjoyed the recent pennants.

  • Shaun

    I agree that Santiago needs to go. Kelly does still have some usefulness and it’s for precisely the reasons you cite. Sadly they won’t ever promote Machado before foolishly shuttling Worth back up north for the umpteenth time, if any move at all is done. It should be plain though to anyone with eyes that Santiago has long outlived his usefulness and any sort of reputation he once may have had as an above-average defender is completely gone now. He’s certainly no upgrade over Peralta defensively, which makes his inclusion on the team puzzling. I honestly think that Santiago starts at shortstop once a week so that fans can get all nostalgic for that fantastic 2003 6-4 Infanteago infield defense. I know I certainly get nostalgic for 2003; all those empty seats at the ballpark and all those losses. Sure takes me back…

  • Rick

    Nice article Mike. Way to call out that moron announcing team of Impemba and Allen the worst! And I think we all know Danny Worthless will be back soon if for no other reason so Jim Genius can have another ass kissing life time minor leaguer petting his ego telling him what a great 500 mananger he is. Hey people look at the Cardinal’s record with NO WHERE near the talent the Tiger’s have and NO WHERE near the pitching staff! So where should the blame lay? Of course with the moron manager! If the Tiger’s would have had even a decent manager they would have already had at least one title for Mr. Illitch! Oh well the beat goes on. ANOTHER frustrating year of Tiger baseball but at least we have the two idiots in the TV cube telling us how great Jimbo and the D is!

  • Randy

    So you want to get rid of Santiago for a minor leaguer that can’t hit and pull the best player in baseball in the late innings for a player that you say has limited defensive capabilities. It sounds like you are drinking the same managerial kool-aide that Leyland drinks. Next you will want to trade Verlander for a player to be named later. It’s obvious this team was not built for defense. That was certainly apparent when they brought in Fielder and moved Cabrera to third base. Regardless what statistics you use, this is not the best defensive team in baseball. But I do believe it is the best overall team in baseball. Mr. Dombrowski just needs to find someone that can manage all this talent.

  • Gary Steinke

    The only people who really care about sabermetics are the NERDS interested in baseball who couldn’t throw a ball if someone grabbed their arm and threw it for them. Last I looked the Tigers were in 1st place by 5 1/2 games. The only stat that really matters. Not bad for a team whose defense (according to you)sucks.

  • tCote

    And that Michael is exactly why you are a writer instead of a manager. By the way who is it that you know that understands baseball? Surely not you.

  • Rick

    Hey people old Jim genius and taco bell BLOW another one for JV! NICE real NICE. Is there a fire Leyland sight that anyone knows about? I want to join!

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