When the Tigers Defense Attacked

When constructing his current roster, Dave Dombrowski (and Mike Ilitch) chose to prioritize offensive production, and were willing to sacrifice defense in several positions in order to get more thump into the line-up. Miguel Cabrera, despite being hobbled with injuries that leave him unable to run, is playing third base. He moved to third to accommodate Prince Fielder, who told the Tigers he didn’t want to DH when he signed a $214 million contract to play first base for them. And the Tigers weren’t overly interested in creating a long term logjam at the DH position, since they were already paying Victor Martinez a lot of money to serve as their DH once he returned from injury. The plan was always to fit these three guys into the same line-up, and in 2013, that’s what the Tigers have done.

In some ways, it’s not that hard to say that the plan worked. The Tigers won the AL Central again, and they’re now three wins away from reaching their second consecutive World Series. They finished second in the majors in runs scored, so the decision to give up defense in search of more offense was successful, at least in terms of maximizing run scoring.

But trade-offs work both ways, and while the Tigers reap the benefits of playing three designated hitters on offense, they also suffer the consequences of punting defense at the infield corners. For instance, I present the 9th inning of last night’s game.

After watching their bullpen blow a four run lead, Rick Porcello was trying to keep the game tied and push it into extra innings. Rick Porcello is a ground ball pitcher, and he started the inning facing Jonny Gomes. He got Gomes to hit a ground ball, but then, it all went really wrong.

Gomes

At full speed, it can appear that Gomes hit a ground ball in the hole between third base and shortstop, and then Jose Iglesias made a wild throw trying to do too much. But that’s not really the story of this play. Here’s a screen shot of where Gomes’ ground ball actually was when it left the grass and hit the dirt.

GomesGB1

That ball crossed the cut of the grass almost exactly at the point where a third baseman is positioned on a normal play. This wasn’t hit in the hole at all; this was a routine ground ball to third base. For reference, here is a screenshot of Cabrera fielding Jacoby Ellsbury‘s ground out to third base in the bottom of the 1st inning.

Cabrera1

That ball was a one bounce chopper instead of a low grounder, but it was even further towards the second base bag, and it was entirely routine. Cabrera fielded it without any problem, took a few steps while gathering himself, and still threw out one of the fastest guys in baseball. A ball hit to that location, against a normally aligned infield defense, is a routine out.

But the infield wasn’t aligned normally in the ninth inning last night. The Tigers were playing “no doubles” defense, in which the corner infielders move closer to the line to give them a better chance to snag a shot that would otherwise go past them and get into the corner for extra bases. Fox didn’t show any camera angles of the no doubles defense alignment, so I can’t show you exactly where Cabrera was lined up on that play, but I did find a chart of infield positioning in a post written by Major League infielder Doug Bernier, illustrating the different defensive alignments.

infieldDepth

Obviously, an illustrative chart like this is not the final say on where players are to be positioned, but it gives you a pretty decent idea of where a no-doubles defender lines up relative to the norm, and helps explain why Cabrera wasn’t even close to a ball that was hit to what is normally straight away third base positioning. And this play also explains why some people jokingly refer to this defensive alignment as the “more singles” defense instead of using the “no doubles” defense moniker.

There are times when a “no doubles” defense is likely the right alignment, as preventing an extra base hit that could score a run from first base might be of vital importance. However, to start off the bottom of the 9th inning of a tie game, it would seem to me that simply preventing the winning run from reaching base would be of primary importance. Certainly, you don’t want the winning run to hit a double, but you don’t want him to hit a single either. Having the winning run on base is a bigger problem than predetermining which base he is standing upon.

But, we don’t have the data to prove that the “no doubles” defense is entirely the wrong call. It is possible that enough runs are saved by taking away potential extra base hits to make up for the extra singles that roll through the enlarged gap between the 3B and SS. My guess is it probably doesn’t actually save many runs, but without initial positioning data, our conclusion has to be somewhat muted. About the most forceful thing we can say is that, last night, the combination of a “no doubles” defense and a third baseman who can’t move gave Jonny Gomes an infield hit.

But the play doesn’t end there, and Gomes didn’t stay on first base. We have yet to touch on Iglesias’ throw that went into the stands and moved Gomes into scoring position. The throw was not anywhere near first base, and bounced before it got to its destination, so there’s no way to describe it as anything other than a poor attempt. Good intentions, perhaps, but bad execution.

Still, though, I’m not sure we can really blame Jose Iglesias for Gomes’ advancement, because this is how Prince Fielder decided to try and catch the throw on the bounce.

GomesGB2

That ball has bounced well in front of Fielder and is on its way back up towards his waist. Now, here’s the ball as it reaches Fielder.

FielderMiss2

Notice how, on the hop, you could see the back of Fielder’s jersey and the side of his arm? Now you can see his arm and a portion of the front of his jersey. And here’s Fielder a split second after the ball gets past him.

FielderMiss3

And now he’s facing us, because Prince Fielder’s attempt to scoop Iglesias’ throw included spinning out of the way of the ball. Had Fielder just used his ample size to shift fully in front of the throw, the ball would have hit him right around the waist and fallen to the ground in front of him. Instead, Fielder decided to try and catch the ball while rotating his body away from the path of the ball in order to not get hit by it. Maybe that’s just good old fashioned self preservation when there’s an object heading towards the general area of your groin, but on the baseball field, that’s some kind of terrible. It’s the 9th inning of a playoff game. Your junk will heal, and you’re probably wearing a cup. Take one for the team, Prince.

About 30 seconds later, Fielder did this.

Salty Fielder

At full speed, it looked like maybe the Boston crowd interfered with his ability to catch the ball and batted it away from his glove. So let’s look at where ball met glove.

FielderDrop

I’m sure having those fans in very close proximity made things a little more complicated than usual, and that’s probably a tougher play than it looks on TV, but that ball just clanked off of his glove because he closed it too soon. Had he kept his glove open an extra split second, the ball would have landed safely inside of it, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia would have been the first out of the inning.

Instead, the at-bat continued. And so Alex Avila asked Porcello to throw a fastball inside to Avila, as seen here.

AvilaMiss

Except Porcello threw a fastball way outside.

AvilaMiss2

This is, by any reasonable definition, a wild pitch. Porcello missed his target by several feet. The ball wasn’t anywhere close to Avila’s glove, and he had to reach across his body to try and catch it. But, again, there’s a distinct lack of footwork by a Tigers defender. Avila might not have been able to block that ball had he shifted his body weight and attempted to deflect it with his leg. It might very well have just bounced off his shin guard and ricocheted so far away that Gomes would have been able to advance anyway. This isn’t Fielder whiffing on the throw or the catch. But, this pitch wasn’t completely unblockable. It was a fastball to the wrong batters box, but had Avila tried to use his body to stop it instead of his glove, perhaps Gomes stays on second base.

Because he advanced to third, the infield had to come in. So this happened.

If Jose Iglesias is at normal depth, that may very well be a groundout. Instead, it’s a walk off win for the Red Sox.

The winning run reached base on a routine ground ball to third. The winning run advanced to second when Prince Fielder decided to spin away from a baseball being thrown to him. Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s at-bat continued because Fielder closed his glove before a foul pop up could actually go into it. The winning run advanced to third because Alex Avila couldn’t block a fastball that didn’t hit the dirt until it was past him. And then the winning run scored because that wild pitch forced Jose Iglesias to play in.

Defense doesn’t always cost you. The Tigers won a lot of games while punting defense at first and third base all season. Miguel Cabrera homered, and Prince Fielder doubled, and Victor Martinez doubled twice. Maybe even last night, trading defense for offense was a net positive. But it’s hard to not watch the bottom of the ninth inning and wonder whether this should be the last time the Tigers try and win the World Series with Cabrera at third and Fielder at first. There is a real cost to pay for having both of those players on the field, and the Tigers paid it in the 9th inning last night.



Print This Post



Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
joe
Guest
joe
2 years 10 months ago

More DH’s.

Jack Z
Guest
Jack Z
2 years 10 months ago

Totally.

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 10 months ago

Tigers really have no choice but to try to win with Miggy at 3b and Fielder at 1b, so long as Fielder refuses to DH. Which, since he was totally upfront about that before signing, forcing him to will be very problematical.

chuckb
Guest
chuckb
2 years 10 months ago

Cabrera can barely move right now. He should be the DH, with Peralta at 3rd, and a real LF in LF.

Mark Geoffriau
Guest
Mark Geoffriau
2 years 10 months ago

Hate to lose Martinez’s bat, though, especially since the Tigers’ lineup isn’t overwhelming in its current state.

Crumpled Stiltskin
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Yes, but in the late innings and up by so many runs, shouldn’t they have either pulled Cabrera or pulled Fielder and put either Cabrera or Martinez at 1b?

I’m sure Infante and Peralta can both play third better than Cabrera, and when Peralta was subbed out, couldn’t he just as easily been shipped to third?

josh
Guest
josh
2 years 10 months ago

Why can’t Cabrera DH?

Tak
Member
Tak
2 years 10 months ago

Because Martinez already is, and you can’t take out Avila’s bat at this point*.

* Playing in a NL ballpark changes this.

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 10 months ago

I doubt that VMart can catch much better than you or me at this point. If he does catch in an NL park, I suspect he does more harm there than Miggy does at third.

Stringer Bell
Guest
Stringer Bell
2 years 10 months ago

Porcello has the absolute worst luck with the Tigers horrible defense, and it bit him in the ass in the A’s series too. Put Porcello on a team with a good defense, and he becomes Derek Lowe on the Dodgers.

chuckb
Guest
chuckb
2 years 10 months ago

That chart by Doug Bernier is a great little diagram. I’d love it if someone did some work — it may not even be possible given the information that is public — about how well playing the infielders at double play depth works. Does it create enough double plays to justify playing a little shallower and more toward 2nd base? It’s possible that it gives up enough base hits to RF and LF that it’s not worth it to play the infielders at double play depth. Or maybe I’m wrong. I’d just like to see someone be able to study this.

Great post, Dave.

Dayton Moore / Ned Yost in the 2nd Inning
Guest
Dayton Moore / Ned Yost in the 2nd Inning
2 years 10 months ago

With that defense, and a tie game in the 9th, why is Porcello even pitching?

Tak
Member
Tak
2 years 10 months ago

Because the other options left were Phil Coke and Jose Alvarez.

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 10 months ago

Could Benoit not have gone another inning? Actually asking, as I’m unfamiliar with how Leyland has used him exactly.

Alexander Nevermind
Guest
Alexander Nevermind
2 years 10 months ago

He only faced two batters, and he was quite clearly brought in for the four-out save. Of course he could’ve started the ninth, because that is exactly what would’ve happened had he not allowed the grand slam.

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 10 months ago

I’ll call this Leyland’s one indisputable error, then. If Benoit’s got the fuel to go another inning for the save, he’s got it for getting through a tie inning, too.

Alexander Nevermind
Guest
Alexander Nevermind
2 years 10 months ago

Leaving Benoit in was also an option

reillocity
Guest
reillocity
2 years 10 months ago

Jim Leyland seems like a very good motivator and manager of personalities, but he’d have to rate towards the bottom end of the spectrum in terms of game strategy and tactics.

Rob
Guest
Rob
2 years 10 months ago

And yet still I think Leyland would have put Kimbrel in the 8th inning of game 4 of the NLDS.

Andrew
Guest
Andrew
2 years 10 months ago

Fox didn’t show any camera angles of the no doubles defense alignment.

No, but the viewer can infer the emotional states of about 1/3 of the paid attendance.

gen. mccarthur
Guest
gen. mccarthur
2 years 10 months ago

I read this as whispered softly into my ear, and it made me feel strange about my own emotional states now.

Patrick
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

I’m not sure that an average third baseman makes that play in a no doubles alignment. Limping Miggy is a liability in the infield at third base, but he was way better than Fielder at first base. When healthy, Miggy’s defense at third base isn’t that bad. Either way, Fielder definitely has to stop that from getting past him. He’s terrible in that regard, and every infielder’s numbers pay a price for having him at first base.

On the pop foul, I’m still not sure that Fielder wasn’t interfered with before the ball hit his glove. In fact, I’m not sure that he tried to close the glove too soon. In the frozen image above, the ball had already hit the glove, which could have been out of position because he was hit on the forearm by the fan with the red and blue sleeves. Either way, that play happened in the ninth inning and would have been the first out. The game had slipped away by then.

Porcello against left handed hitters is not a good thing for the Tigers.

Just to throw this out there- Peralta has been fine at shortstop. Iglesias is in another world for his range, but Jhonny is very efficient. He always is among the leaders in RZR, but at the bottom of the pack in OOZ. Maybe he’s not the one that should have been replaced defensively.

TF12
Member
TF12
2 years 10 months ago

Just to add, I don’t see Avila as reaching across his body for that pitch or being able to use a blocking technique. It’s thrown to his glove side. If anything, I might say his feet are a little wide and it doesn’t allow him much extension in either direction.

Stringer Bell
Guest
Stringer Bell
2 years 10 months ago

It’s still pretty damn bad, Patrick, even when Miggy is healthy. It’s not Ryan Zimmermann levels, but he’s still one of the 10 worst defenders in baseball at third.

Colin
Guest
Colin
2 years 10 months ago

And they way he hits, even being one of the ten worst at 3b is acceptable and probably better than him playing 1b from a value point of view.

He wasn’t truly terrible this year until he played the last month and a half injured at 3b.

Ruki Motomiya
Guest
Ruki Motomiya
2 years 10 months ago

From a value point of view, Miggy has been more valuable at 3B than 1B, because he doesn’t play good enough 1B ball or bad enoug 3B ball to offset the positional adjustment

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 10 months ago

Given that the ball is in the stands, the fan can flat out wrestle with Fielder for the ball, and it’s not interference.

Patrick
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

The ball wasn’t in the stands. The fans reached over the wall. I can’t tell from all the replays what impact the fans had, but it seems pretty clear that they reached forward, over the wall and made contact before the ball came down, then it went off the edge of the glove. I don’t think it impacted the outcome of the game at that point.

Sam
Guest
Sam
2 years 10 months ago

I think you’re right that the fan reached over the wall, barely into the field of play. I also think you’re also right that Fielder didn’t try to close his glove – he just didn’t have the glove in the right place. But I don’t see anything in that GIF that indicates there was contact with the fan before the ball arrived. It looks like the first contact with the fan is a split second after the ball hits Fielder’s glove (maybe I could be convinced that it was at the same time, but it looks like just after to me). Either way, it doesn’t look like the fan physically altered Fielder’s glove positioning by contacting him. It looks like Fielder just misjudged it, very likely due to the fans reaching out towards him/the ball.

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 10 months ago

Looks to me like the ball’s coming down just about right over the railing. I thinks that’s where the ‘stands’ start, and the ball is then fair game for the fan, too. Real close, regardless. And a la a poor catcher, Fielder ‘mis-frames’ the ball by jumping for it, rather than finding the wall and standing by it. Fielder’s (small) jump led me to figure it was indeed in the stands, thus why he was jumping for it.

MobiusKlein
Guest
MobiusKlein
2 years 10 months ago

Well, if the fan reached in, consider it partial karma for the HR in Detroit where a fan deflected the ball in play, possibly preventing a catch by Reddick.

PackBob
Guest
PackBob
2 years 10 months ago

It looks to me that the reason Fielder’s glove is closed is because the ball hits the side of his glove, forcing it closed. A better defensive player simply has the glove in a better position to catch the ball.

wily mo
Guest
wily mo
2 years 10 months ago

yeah, joining the chorus, i don’t see anything to indicate that prince started closing his glove early. it was in the wrong place, for whatever reason, and the ball hit the edge of the glove and bounced the wrong way

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 10 months ago

No mention of the concept of defensive substitutions? Peralta needed to be in there, the bat difference isn’t that great with Cabrera’s injury. What I can’t figure out is why the tigers aren’t carrying a defensive specialist to replace fielder in the late innings.

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 10 months ago

You basically don’t sub out your best hitters unless you have a lead to protect. If you still need to plate runs to win, you want your best hitters in to help with the plating.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 10 months ago

It didn’t work out very well to think that way.

Jim
Guest
Jim
2 years 10 months ago

Talk to Don Mattingly about substituting for your best hitters.

Karma199
Guest
Karma199
2 years 10 months ago

A defensive specialist for first base? That would be utterly hilarious if it were really needed.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 10 months ago

What’s utterly hilarious is Fielder’s ineptitude. But it would be nice if Don Kelly wasn’t 20% below average on offense, he would be an option.

Patrick
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Kelly is below replacement level. No way he should have been starting in game two. Or any important game.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 10 months ago

Nobody is talking about starting – we are talking about defensive replacements

reillocity
Guest
reillocity
2 years 10 months ago

Somewhere, Dave Stapleton sobs.

Mr. Jones
Member
2 years 10 months ago

Doug Mientkiewicz, anyone?

JH
Guest
JH
2 years 10 months ago

I had the precise same thought, Mr. Jones.

xantisuji
Guest
xantisuji
2 years 10 months ago

The really costly defensive mistake was made by Hunter. Watch the replays. He overran two balls hit to RF, and had to reach backwards to try to catch them. One of them he did catch and the other he just missed by inches. Had he tracked the ball to the right spot, he probably catches Ortiz’s slam and doesn’t go over the fence.

Sam
Guest
Sam
2 years 10 months ago

Don’t you think that’s asking a bit much? Sure, he overran it by a step, but you’re saying that not making a full-sprint-leaping-crashing-into-the-fence-and-falling-over-it catch (he very likely still goes over the fence if he runs to the right spot – not enough time to stop his momentum), which probably would have been one of the greatest catches in postseason history, was a defensive mistake? It’s OK to be disappointed, but Torii Hunter might be the only right fielder in the league that even makes this a close play. Just sayin’.

Hank
Guest
Hank
2 years 10 months ago

It would have been a very good play but he did track the ball poorly.

Hunter has a great reputation but he is a pretty average RF; he had a really good 2012 by UZR but that was primarily driven by the ArmR component. in ~3.5 years in RF he actually has a -1.9 RngR (meaning slighlty below average RF range)

I think a good RF’r takes a better route, and with better range has a good shot at catching that.

Matthew Kory
Member
2 years 10 months ago

Looking at the GIF it doesn’t appear that Fielder closed his glove too soon, but that he simply didn’t move it over far enough to make the catch. He opens the glove at the beginning of the GIF then he moves it over, but too late and the ball glances off the side of his glove.

Dan M
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Yeah, that’s how it looks to me. The ball hits the edge of the palm padding and bends the mitt backwards. He needed to move his glove about 6 inches to his left.

Nathan
Guest
Nathan
2 years 10 months ago

Glad to see those caps, Dave. I have heard some water cooler talk today of people piling on Iglesias for not making a better throw to Fielder. I just… I can’t. I can’t even talk to these people. The level of ignorance there is crazy. These screenshots show it. The fact Iglesias even got to that ball is a minor miracle and shows how insanely wide his range is, and how great his hands are. The throw was jumping and while even a clean scoop from Fielder probably would’ve been late for the out, it was on-line enough that Fielder absolutely should’ve blocked it.

TF12
Member
TF12
2 years 10 months ago

I agree with a lot of what you say here but part of being a good fielder is having an internal clock and knowing when not to throw. I don’t think Iglesias makes a good decision there and Fielder’s block attempt compounds it.

wily mo
Guest
wily mo
2 years 10 months ago

a fielder should also have an internal knowledge that the fielder he is throwing to is prince fielder

channelclemente
Guest
channelclemente
2 years 10 months ago

This also may be the slowest team in the playoffs.

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 10 months ago

‘May’?? I think if you added 6 Billy Hamiltons onto Miggy, Fielder and VMart it still might be the slowest team in the playoffs.

Ballpark Frank
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thought that Hunter could (should )have made the play on Ortiz’s ball.I never saw a great angle on how far above his glove the ball was, but he definitely overran that ball.

Trey
Guest
Trey
2 years 10 months ago

Yeah, and I’m glad I am not the only one who thought Gomes should have climbed the monster and snag Miggy’s HR.

Sheesh.

jasunlee
Member
jasunlee
2 years 10 months ago

Fantastic breakdown, Dave. Thanks.

olerudshelmet
Member
olerudshelmet
2 years 10 months ago

When Leyland subbed Iglesias in for Peralta in the 8th, why didn’t he just have Peralta move over to third? At that point they were protecting a 4 run lead that looked pretty safe.

I’d imagine that they’ll face a similar defensive substitution situation later on in the series/playoffs, and I’d like to see if Leyland plays it differently next time.

punchcut
Member
punchcut
2 years 10 months ago

great article well done

jim S.
Guest
jim S.
2 years 10 months ago

It makes sense that Peralta would be better at third than Cabrera, but according to Baseball Reference he hasn’t played third since 2010.

Nick
Guest
Nick
2 years 10 months ago

Hunter also had a good chance at Ortiz’s grand slam. He took a pretty poor route to that ball. A good route and he catches that ball without much problem.

Blasphemous
Guest
Blasphemous
2 years 10 months ago

Uh, that ball was absolutely scalded. Not many RFs in the league that would have been able to beeline back to the fence and reach up to catch it..

Nick
Guest
Nick
2 years 10 months ago

I could be too harsh on Hunter, but he took a pretty bad route and STILL overran the play and despite that, he still almost made the catch. Impossible to know, but I think the top RFs in the league make that play.

Ichiro fam
Guest
Ichiro fam
2 years 10 months ago

If that was Ichiro, he would have signed his name on the ball in Japanese before he actually caught it.

DNA+
Guest
DNA+
2 years 10 months ago

If it was Ichiro, he would have been waiting for the ball to bounce off the wall. …Ichiro is terrified of walls. Probably more so than any other outfielder in the league.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
2 years 10 months ago

To be fair, there is a wall called the Green Monster, which he thought was Godzilla. I would be terrified too.

Jake
Member
Jake
2 years 10 months ago

You could have also mentioned the tigers starting Jhonny Peralta at SS since acquiring him in 2010. Leyland started him last night too (who knows why iglesias isnt playing and don kelly is) Seeing an infield of Peralta, Fielder and Cabrera the last two seasons was brutal to watch as a tigers fan.

semperty
Guest
semperty
2 years 10 months ago

So I presume there will be one of these tomorrow about Jon Jay?

Cidron
Member
Cidron
2 years 10 months ago

It doesn’t merely bit you in the ass, but it bites when it counts the most.
Kinda like the ‘defensive replacement’ getting a ball to him almost immediately.

Also, regarding the DH, and who plays it. Since when do the players decide the line-up and who plays where. Yes, I understand the fielding positions, but this isn’t one of those. There isn’t a ‘he came up as a (insert fielding position here)’ to be made regarding DH. If the manager says you DH, you better grab a bat and DH. If not, the managers credibility is shot. If you do, you aren’t a spoiled baby. Yes, I am looking at you Miggy. You are a wonderful talent with that bat, but equally UNwonderful with the glove. Take the DH spot, for the betterment of your team. Consider how good your pitchers would have been with something other than a statue at 3b playing defense.

semperty
Guest
semperty
2 years 10 months ago

So Victor Martinez shouldn’t play? Cabrera either takes Fielder’s job or Martinez’ job. For who? None other than the less-than-spectacular Ramon Santiago. If this is on anyone in management, it’s on Dombrowski for putting that trio of same positioned fielders into the same line-up.

Alex C.
Guest
Alex C.
2 years 10 months ago

The way Tim McCarver tells it, both Cabrera and Fielder play above average defense.

wpDiscuz