A Somewhat Surprising Thing About the Somewhat Unsurprising Tigers

There exists the perception that the Detroit Tigers are just this total disappointment. The Tigers, you’ll recall, came into the year looking like the favorites in the AL Central, and now it’s the middle of September and they’re three back of first. They’re about as far out of the wild card as the Padres are, which means for the Tigers it’s probably division title or bust. They won’t play the leading White Sox again down the stretch. Many thought the Tigers would be able to coast to the playoffs, and now the Tigers are fighting for their very playoff lives.

Truthfully, I’d say it’s less about the Tigers being surprising, and more about the White Sox being surprising. Major media types liked the Tigers because of their stars, but check out those linked projections above. Statistically, the Tigers didn’t look like an elite team, and they’re on pace to win 85 games. People just didn’t expect for the White Sox to give them such a push.

And you could argue that the standings don’t reflect actual team performances to date. The White Sox are three games ahead of the Tigers in the Central, but the White Sox have posted an OPS 19 points higher than the OPS they’ve allowed, while the Tigers have posted an OPS 32 points higher than the OPS they’ve allowed. That’s the fifth-best gap in the AL, behind the Rays and ahead of the A’s. The rest is basically sequencing and over a large enough sample you’d expect this stuff to even out. The Tigers are in a desperate situation, with dwindling playoff odds, but as a team they have played fairly well.

And they have played fairly predictably. Entering the year people had their general ideas of what the Tigers would be, and here’s where the Tigers rank in the American League in various team-level categories:

wRC+: 4th
Baserunning: 11th
Rotation FIP: 1st
Bullpen FIP: 7th
UZR: 12th

The Tigers were supposed to be able to hit, and the Tigers have hit, with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera leading the way. Alex Avila has dropped off, but Austin Jackson has taken a step forward, and so the Tigers’ offense has more or less been what it was supposed to be. Baserunning hasn’t been a strength, but no one thought it would be, and it hasn’t been a crippling weakness, because it’s baserunning. You can only make so much of a difference when you’re running the bases.

The Tigers were supposed to be able to pitch, and the Tigers have pitched, getting great work out of the rotation. Look at that again, if you need to — the Tigers’ rotation has the lowest FIP in the American League. Justin Verlander, naturally, has been outstanding, and Max Scherzer just struck out the mailman. The rest of the crew has been fine and the Tigers haven’t really needed to lean on any depth. The bullpen has been neither a strength nor a weakness, which makes it acceptable as bullpens go.

So a big problem’s been defense, which literally every person on Earth saw coming. The Tigers have allowed the AL’s highest BABIP, and though they’re 12th in UZR, they’re 15 runs behind 11th. Fielder has started 144 times at first base, and Cabrera has started 138 times at third base. Issue identified, right? Didn’t everyone know at the time of the Fielder signing that defense would be sacrificed?

Well sure, but there’s a funny thing about the Tigers’ team defense: the infield hasn’t really been the problem with it. Everybody assumed, and perhaps rightly so, that an infield with Fielder and Cabrera at the corners would be a nightmare, but here’s the 2012 UZR split:

Tigers infield: -2.2
Tigers outfield: -27.0

Early in the season, I wrote about the Tigers’ miserable defensive performance against groundballs, which I mostly pinned on the infield. They’ve gotten so, so much better ever since, boosted no doubt by the acquisition of Omar Infante. Nobody would tell you that Fielder or Cabrera ought to be Gold Glove candidates, but as a unit, the Tigers’ infield has been just fine, at least if you believe in UZR. And it seems to me there’s little UZR can get way wrong when evaluating an infield.

The outfield has been a defensive catastrophe, more than five runs worse than any other AL outfield. The difference between the last-place Tigers and the first-place Angels, by UZR, works out to nearly 60 runs, or nearly six wins. The Tigers have allowed the highest BABIP on line drives in baseball, and though I know you’re tempted to blame this all on Delmon Young, Young hasn’t played a lot of outfield in a while. He’s actually seventh on the team in outfield innings, at 226. UZR thinks he’s responsible for just a small fraction of the overall negative.

The guy UZR really hates is Brennan Boesch, and while I don’t want to get too deep into talking about single-season UZR, I’ll note that Boesch has batted 500 times and owns a -1.1 WAR. In retrospect, less Boesch and more someone else might have the Tigers in first, in a tie or by themselves. That’s speculation. Let’s forget about Boesch and focus on the overall picture: the Tigers’ defense has indeed been a weakness, but the numbers suggest the weakness hasn’t been in the infield, but beyond it.

First and foremost, that’s interesting, because that isn’t how things were supposed to work out. We can’t say anything conclusively, because UZR isn’t proof of anything but what UZR thinks. This might be sort of encouraging for the Tigers going forward, as playing Fielder and Cabrera in the field every day hasn’t held them back too bad. The Tigers aren’t thinking about the future, though, as they’d really prefer to have a better present. To that end, I might advise playing a little less Boesch, but I’m just a guy with a computer and access to stats. Boesch could conceivably go on to save the whole season, because the less time there is left, the less the numbers really matter.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Well-Beered Englishman
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Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 11 months ago

“So a big problem’s been defense, which literally every person on Earth saw coming.”

Any word on Yury Malenchenko, Sunita Williams, Akihito Hoshide, Gennady Padalka, Sergei Revin, and Joe Acaba? I would be unsurprised if the Tigers’ defensive problems could be spotted from space.

John
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John
3 years 11 months ago

Agreed. While the Great Wall of China can’t be spotted from space the same can’t be said for Prince.

Mark
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Mark
3 years 11 months ago

There’s more too it then just the defence. They may be 4th in wRC+, but they’re 6th in the AL in runs, just one ahead of the Jays. So their offence actually hasn’t hit as well as you’d suggest, because they’re essentially a league average run scoring club.

The reason why the wRC+ is so high is because of 3 guys – Fielder, Cabrera and Jackson. Avila is the only other guy who is above league average, and everybody else is below average. Because of how good Cabrera/Fielder are it makes the wRC+ high, but because the offence is essentially only 3-4 hitters deep they’re not able to score many runs.

So while you’re right that the defence has cost them several wins, it’s clear that their inability to score runs is holding them back. They’re not as good a hitting club as the wRC+ would suggest.

JDanger
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JDanger
3 years 11 months ago

wait- what?

Mark
Guest
Mark
3 years 11 months ago

I’m not sure what’s so difficult here. The Tigers are a league averaging scoring team and Jeff argued that they’re a good hitting team. While they have a high wRC+, I’m pointing out they’re not a high run scoring team. In fact, they’re just one run above the 7th place Jays in the AL. So I said their hitting is one reason they’re not in first place.

bada bing
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bada bing
3 years 11 months ago

Did you read the part about baserunning?

Ian R.
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Ian R.
3 years 11 months ago

As bada bing points out above, the Tigers’ utter lack of baserunning ability could explain some of the discrepancy between their wRC+ and their overall runs scored. It’s also worth noting that wRC+ is park-adjusted, whereas raw run totals are not.

Having said that, it does make some intuitive sense that a really top-heavy lineup might score fewer runs than a more balanced lineup with the same overall wRC+. I wouldn’t mind seeing some research into that idea.

Paul Clarke
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Paul Clarke
3 years 11 months ago

They’re also fourth in wOBA, which takes out the park adjustment. That puts them ahead of both the White and Red Sox, both of whom are signficantly outscoring the Tigers without being much better at base-running (except for SBs, which are already included in wOBA).

The Tigers don’t benefit as much as the average team with men on base, with just a .004 jump in wOBA compared to the average of .013. That would fit with Mark’s theory, though there could also be a large helping of luck in there.

Lee Panas
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

I actually had the same thought a couple of weeks ago. So, I’ve been working on a little study. I calculated the weighted standard deviation of woba for every team since 1955. Then I looked to see if there was a correlation between standard deviation and runs minus wRC. The hypothesis is that unbalanced teams (those with very high standard deviations) would tend to have a large negative values for Runs-wRC. So far, I’m not finding any correlation even at the extremes.

The simpler answer might be a combination of factors – poor base running, leading the league in GIDP, not hitting homers with men on base

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 11 months ago

I’d contest the premise of the first paragraph in that even the link shows that they were no more of a favorite than the Yankees or Rangers.

Basically, there was about a 50-50 chance that one of the other clubs in the division would put out a good season and so nose out a pretty-good-but-no-better Tiger squad. And it looks like that coin is going to turn up tails rather than heads.

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 11 months ago

And what do other defensive systems suggest about the Tigers’ infield defense? I’ve heard bad things elsewhere (peruse a number of them, and I forget which one)

Cheechmo
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Cheechmo
3 years 11 months ago

Defensive runs saved? Their DRS is -14 for the infield. Outfield is -18, pitchers -2, and catchers -1. Add it all up and the team DRS is -35, tied for 26th with the Indians.

Cheechmo
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Cheechmo
3 years 11 months ago

BONUS: The Tigers OF UZR/150 is dead last at -9.9

Phrozen
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Phrozen
3 years 11 months ago

Dead last, you say?

When did they hire an ex-showgirl as their outfield instructor?

Mike B.
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Mike B.
3 years 11 months ago

A big problem is Jose Valverde, who hasn’t pitched a 1-2-3 inning since Ken Livingstone was the mayor of London.

Well-Beered Englishman
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Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 11 months ago

I hate to play ‘metaphor-pooper,’ but that would imply Jose Valverde has not thrown a one-two-three inning since 4 May 2008, when in fact he threw one on 6 May 2008.

…perhaps I do enjoy playing ‘metaphor-pooper.’

MikeS
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MikeS
3 years 11 months ago

Addison Reed literally has one single 1-2-3 inning since July 17th.

Alex
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Alex
3 years 11 months ago

The Rockies have one 1-2-3 inning since 2008

MikeS
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MikeS
3 years 11 months ago

I think this is yet another indictment of UZR as opposed to an argument that they have not been as bad defensively as people think. It is important to challenge perceptions but when expert witnesses repeatedly disagree with the statistical data then the model should be questioned, not just the witnesses.

Just yesterday, if DH/1B Prince “Fielder” makes a difficult scoop that most 1B make, the Tigers probably win. Does that count in UZR?

There have been so many articles written and comments made here and at the Hardball Times this year that I really have to question if UZR is truly representing how bad they are.

Overall, what do they expect, putting two DH’s at the corners of the infield evey day? If they make the playoffs, I would expect more bunting than in the 2006 world series. What do they do next year when they get a third expensive DH back in Martinez? Personally, as a White Sox fan, I would love to see them giving Cabrera, Fielder, Martinez, Perralta and Young gloves.

RationalSportsFan
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3 years 11 months ago

As a Tigers fan who has watched almost every game, the infield defense struggles have been overstated. Miggy is bad but not horrendous, Prince is below-average but not bad. Infante has amazing range. And Peralta lacks range but makes almost every play within 2 steps of his spot.

And the eye test on the outfield also agrees with this article. Boesch is outrageously bad. When Delmon was out there, he was even worse than Boesch. Berry has speed, but takes some of the worst routes imaginable. Dirks is almost average. Ajax is the only legit fielder out there.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest
Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 11 months ago

After watching the game last night, two things stood out to me:
– Dirks is not bad in left
– Prince Fielder should never, ever be required to cover second base again

Big Daddy V
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Big Daddy V
3 years 11 months ago

The funny thing is, the Tigers have had the ability to vastly improve their lineup for months now, without even making a transaction. Here’s how:

– Stop playing Brennan Boesch every day
– Start playing Andy Dirks every day

They’re both left-handed corner outfielders, and one is better than the other AT EVERYTHING! Why, Leyland? Why????

j6takish
Guest
j6takish
3 years 11 months ago

Jim Leyland loves matchups….but Jim Leyland does not like putting any research into said matchups. Dirks routinely sits against lefties because he is much much worse against them. However he still has a 240 avg with an average OBP due to his decent walk rate against lefties. It would be one thing if Dirks was unusable against lefties and was sitting him in favor of a right handed hitter with a similar hitting profile, but he sits him in favor of Ryan raburn and Boesch who even though they hit lefties better than they do righties…..Andy Dirks still hits lefties better than those guys do despite being left handed. It’s like the guy has never looked at a splits chart before

j6takish
Guest
j6takish
3 years 11 months ago

Andy Dirks against righties .370 wOBA. Andy Dirks against lefties is basically league average with a .328 wOBA. Andy Dirks routinely loses playing time to Brennan Boesch and his .278 wOBA against lefties. I don’t understand it either but you’re talking about a 2-3 WAR swing between two players on a team that just so happens to be only 3 games behind…

Vince in MN
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Vince in MN
3 years 11 months ago

Leyland plays Boesch because he hopes he is due to run into one.

Bobber
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Bobber
3 years 11 months ago

Regarding (infield) defense, though it’s obviously a single incident, occurred in the Monday game against Chicago with the notorious failed double play that turned the game around. Even with Infante’s failure to anticipate Rios’ speed and intent, Fielder could have bailed him out with a pick of the throw that went through his legs on a single bounce.

As events played out, it was the difference between a win and a loss.

Nick
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Nick
3 years 11 months ago

Interesting article that made a lot of sense, although much was beyond me. I have no idea what UZR means, for example, but I don’t need to know to reach the same conclusion about Boesch. And in defense of the English language — I urge you to look up the meaning of the word “literally,” which is certainly not what you meant when you wrote: “So a big problem’s been defense, which literally every person on Earth saw coming.”

adohaj
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adohaj
3 years 11 months ago

In defense of the english language I urge you to look up the meaning of the word “hyperbole” which is certainly what the author was doing.

Dan
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Dan
3 years 11 months ago

If you play Brennan Boesch every day in teh outfield and Delmon Young every day at DH, you deserve to lose.

Lee Panas
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

As much as I love statistics, I don’t believe UZR is doing a good job of measuring the Tigers infield defense. I watch most of their games and my eyes tell me they have one of the worst defensive infields I have ever seen. Other observers have said the same thing. The corner outfielders have been awful too except when Dirks plays.

Other than that, I agree with the article. Overall, I think the Tigers have been somewhat disappointing, but not nearly as big of a disappointment as the White Sox have been a surprise. People were too optimistic about the Tigers going into the season because of the Fielder signing. When you go into the season with terrible defense, no 2B and big question marks at DH/ corner outfield, you can’t expect to win 95-100 games as many were predicting.

Bill Peper
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Bill Peper
3 years 11 months ago

Omar Infante has has been brutal in the field for the Tigers. He has made 10 errors in 51 games as a Tiger — and at least 4 of them were critical, game-changing errors in losses (three in the last week) — and he has failed to turn several double plays that did not result in errors.

Infante when interviewed after Monday’s loss to the White Sox said, “In that situation, it’s hard to throw. No excuse. I know I have to make a good throw. I don’t know what happens. Last year (his previous stint with the Marlins), I played good defense. I don’t know what happened in Detroit.”

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20120917/SPORTS0104/209170449#ixzz274ee5P5T

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