When the weaknesses of the 2014 Detroit Tigers are discussed, fingers usually point, quite logically, to the bullpen. At various times during this season, you could also put some blame on the shortstop and catcher positions. But it’s pretty widely assumed that the Tigers have a good outfield. Young star Austin Jackson in center field, former Gold Glover Torii Hunter in right, the speedster Rajai Davis and the power-hitting J.D. Martinez sharing duties in left. This group appears to be pretty solid defensively and offensively.
But is it really? Jackson’s offense has been up and down this season and throughout his career. He’s shown flashes of brilliance in the field and at the plate, but it’s becoming more and more clear as his career progresses that he’s not likely ever going to be among the game’s elite center fielders — and much more like to hover around mediocre to good.
Hunter, soon to turn 39, is showing his age. In his time with the Tigers, he has been declining markedly on defense. He can still hit but not with reliable authority — this year he’s slugging .519 with the bases empty and just .333 with runners on base. He doesn’t walk — he’s had all of seven free passes all year — and doesn’t ever belong in the No. 2 spot in the order.
Martinez and Davis are inconsistent in the field. Either one can make a great catch and botch a more routine play. Though both have had hot streaks this year, neither is an offensive powerhouse, which is why neither has been a consistent regular during his career. Manager Brad Ausmus has used each of them well this season — Davis is a potent threat on the bases, and Martinez has been a clutch bat off the bench. But look at their career stats: these left fielders are nothing special, either.
I was curious about how Detroit’s outfield stacked up against the rest of the teams in the AL Central, and so on the morning of June 23, with the season getting closer to the halfway point, I took a look at their stats.
Let’s start with Baseball Reference’s calculation of total WAR — wins above replacement — which includes measures of both offensive and defensive performance.
Jackson’s WAR is 0.2, Davis’s is 0.4, and Hunter’s is -1.1. That means the regular Tigers outfield is a tad worse than a trio of replacement-level players. Martinez, an afterthought on this year’s team whose role has grown beyond fourth outfielder, has actually produced the highest WAR of any Tigers outfielder, 0.8. That adds up to this: the Tigers’ outfield so far this year has collectively produced a WAR of 0.3—meaning, in plain English, they’re not providing the team with any wins.
(I’m excluding Don Kelly because he rarely gets a start and also plays infield, but if I did he wouldn’t help any — because his WAR is -0.3.)
How does the Detroit outfield compare with the rest of their rivals in the AL Central? Here’s how:
Kansas City, total 7.4: Gordon 4.0, Cain 1.9, Aoki -0.3, Dyson 1.8;
Cleveland, total 1.5: Brantley 3.0, Bourn -0.2, Murphy -0.2, Raburn -1.1;
Chicago, total 0.7: Eaton 1.6, DeAza -0.1, Viciedo -0.6, Sierra -0.2;
Minnesota, total 0.3: Arcia 0.1, Hicks 0.2, Kubel -1.2, Willingham 1.2.
To sum up, the Tigers are tied with the Twins as the worst outfield in their division.
To my mind, Detroit actually looks below average on outfield defense, though that is harder to isolate, measure, and compare in meaningful ways. Jackson is rangy but doesn’t always take the best paths to the ball, and he’s flanked by fielders of questionable range and reliability.
Let’s look at this another way, using OPS — on base plus slugging, the simplest valid measure of offensive productivity. Through games of June 22, J.D. Martinez had an OPS of .937, which is excellent but…sorry, Tiger fans, he’s just not going to sustain that. Before this season, his yearly OPS was .742, .685, and .650. The average OPS of the other three Tiger outfielders this season — Hunter .732, Davis .721, Jackson .683 — is .712. The AL league average OPS for all players is .714.
Those stats show the Detroit outfield is really quite average. This is not to say that’s a huge problem: having at least a league-average player at every position is essentially to success. But offensively, the Tigers are relying mainly on the huge bats of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Detroit is getting some help from Ian Kinsler, carrying a tired and banged-up catcher who is usually not a big offensive threat, and relying on two rookies on the left side of their infield.
Most championship teams have a really productive outfielder as part of their mix. The Tigers don’t have that. With their pair of Venezuelan sluggers, the Tigers are a couple of great hitters surrounded by an ocean of mediocrity. Is that a potent enough offense to make them world champions? We shall see.