Led by Iglesias, will Detroit’s defense be improved in 2014?

According to defensive statistical analysis, Torii Hunter had a poor season in right field in 2013.

According to defensive statistical analysis, Torii Hunter had a poor season in right field in 2013.

How much is the Detroit Tigers’ improved defense going to help this year — enough to make up for the team’s diminished offensive clout? That’s the question atop most fans’ minds as they look at the revamped 2014 squad. And there are plenty of doubters.

Before the acquisition of Jose Iglesias last year, the Tigers were a potent but plodding club that resembled a slow-pitch softball powerhouse more than an MLB team. With Iglesias and the Prince Fielder trade, the Tigers’ infield is transformed at every position. There’s no doubt it’s better defensively. But by how much?

Quantifying fielding is the least developed branch of sabermetrics. But it’s clear from the moves he’s made that Dave Dombrowski is more savvy about defense than, say, telecaster Rod Allen, who was fond last season of pronouncing that the Tigers had the league’s top defense because they made the fewest errors.

It’s’ rather amazing that a broadcaster and ex-player who presents himself as an expert hasn’t yet heard the news from 30 years ago: that a better gauge of defense is the number of batted balls reached and turned into outs — and that counting up errors is measuring something far less important and even misleading. After all, you will make fewer errors if you reach fewer batted balls.

Jhonny Peralta is Exhibit A. The biggest change in the Tigers’ defense was replacing the range-challenged former third baseman with Iglesias, whose range is off the charts. Think particularly of two plays he made last year: his charging bare-handed scoop and throw while his body was nearly horizontal above the ground, and his jaw-dropping sprinting basket catch of a short fly to left-center in the playoffs.

Sadly, though, if you start examining the imperfect various fielding metrics to try to see just how many runs Iglesias might save this season — and to get a measure of the entire Tigers defense — it’s more befuddling than enlightening. For instance, Fangraphs, a prominent sabermetric website, evaluates last year’s Tigers’ fielding like this: 24th in MLB at third base (makes sense), 7th at shortstop (huh?), 13th at second base, 22nd at first base, and 30th—dead last— at catcher (holy cow!). They ranked 22nd in right field, 23rd in center (really?), 8th in left (who knew?) yet the outfield as a whole ranks 6th (how is that even possible?).

The 2014 Baseball Prospectus provides better analyses though the advanced metric of prose, though its own fielding ratings are also hard to understand. BP explains why Torii Hunter had a bad season in right field using any measure, traditional or advanced — “poor routes, uninspired throws and uncharacteristic gaffes.” It was easy for most fans to see that the once-great defender saw a dramatic erosion of his fielding skills — either that, or he had an “off year” in the field, if that’s possible. Punctuate that with his face-plant in the bullpen at Fenway Park in Game Two of the ALCS, and Detroit rooters find themselves wanting to forget some of the 2013 season in the outer pasture.

The same publication also observes that many sabermetric fielding measures were brutal to Jackson but offers no explanation why. Surely Jackson has great range and makes some spectacular plays, so how come he’s poorly rated? As for left field, Rajai Davis is probably a little better than Andy Dirks, and the platoon overall rates as adequate.

Last year, Tiger pitchers had to deal most of the year with a gaping hole between Peralta and the increasingly immobile Cabrera. Is it a coincidence that after Iglesias arrived, Verlander righted himself? Maybe, but don’t underestimate the psychological boost a pitcher gets when he knows there’s an air-tight defense behind him.

It’s not certain how Nick Castellanos will perform at third base. He’s getting a chance to start there because of his bat, not his glove, but anyone is an improvement over last post-season’s sadly hobbled Miggy. After off-season repairs to his “core,” Cabrera should perform at least as well, and probably a bit better, than Prince at first base. Ian Kinsler is skilled defensively but sometimes prone to botching routine grounders. Omar Infante was underrated in all respects, including fielding. I think the defense at second should be about the same.

Both the Tigers’ second baseman and third baseman benefit from playing alongside Iglesias. In fact, his defense helps the whole team. It improves the pitching and even has a marginally positive effect on left and center field (he gets to more flairs) and first base (more frequently accurate throws).

You can’t overestimate the positive effects of a great shortstop on a team’s performance, but no one has yet figured out an accurate way of measuring it. Iglesias’s skill set is amazing, and he’s still young and improving, so the sky’s the limit. It’s too early in his career to call him a Wizard, and Cooperstown’s kingdom of Oz has room for only one. But clearly the Tigers are a whole lot better defensive team with him. The question remains exactly how much better. The answer will depend, in large part, on Castellanos and Kinsler — and whether Hunter can return to form or at least halt his decline. We’ll soon see. That’s what spring training is for.

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