Tigers Can Upgrade Defense By Benching Their DH

The Detroit Tigers currently sit in first place in the American League Central, and they do so in no small part thanks to an embarrassment of starting pitching riches. For all the valid concern over Justin Verlander‘s declining velocity, he remains an ace who is striking out a career-high 11.18 per nine innings. Behind him, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer are each in the midst of career years, giving the Tigers three of the top four starting pitchers in terms of strikeouts per nine. As great as all three have been, not one of them limits walks or home runs like Doug Fister does; he would be a top-tier starter on many teams but is merely a No. 4 in Detroit.

As you might expect, advanced pitching statistics simply love this quartet. Sanchez (first), Verlander (third) and Scherzer (sixth) all rank among the elite starting pitchers in baseball this season when measured by Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Fister comes in at a more-than-respectable 16th, right behind Yu Darvish, meaning that one out of every four starting pitchers in the top 16 of FIP calls Detroit home. As a result, the collective 2.54 FIP of Tigers starters is the best in MLB (through Thursday).

Yet when you look at ERA, Detroit’s starters have a 3.62 mark, and that gap between ERA and FIP of more than an entire run is pretty massive as far as these things go. By contrast, just two other teams in baseball so far have rotations with as much as a half-run distance between their ERA and FIP.

But simply pointing out the Tigers are topping the baseball world in ERA-FIP in 2013 understates this concern by a great deal. Somewhat unbelievably, the 2013 Tigers are on pace to become the first team since the 1942 Washington Senators — and only the second in the past century — to have a rotation gap of more than a run between what the raw performance indicates they should have (FIP) and what the actual performance has been (ERA).

Typically, when you have a large gap between ERA and FIP, bad defense and/or luck are the culprits. The Tigers have one of the worst defenses in baseball, but they can solve all of their problems with one simple move: benching Victor Martinez.

Porous defense

Pitcher ERA FIP
Sanchez 2.79 1.86
Verlander 3.68 2.26
Scherzer 3.42 2.39
Fister 3.65 2.88
Porcello 5.29 3.92

It might seem counterintuitive to improve your defense by benching the DH, a guy who never touches a glove, but allow me to explain.

Detroit’s starters have allowed a .327 BABIP, the third highest in baseball. Although general manager Dave Dombrowski has done his best to mitigate the issue by loading his rotation with high-strikeout performers, the Tigers’ defense has largely done a poor job of turning balls in play into outs, ranking 28th in defensive efficiency. The Tigers also rate poorly in terms of defensive runs saved (25th) and UZR/150(23rd); although defensive stats aren’t above reproach in small samples, those rankings certainly pass the sniff test.

The primary culprits there are third baseman Miguel Cabrera, first baseman Prince Fielderand center fielder Austin Jackson, each of whom ranks in the bottom seven at his respective position (minimum 100 innings) according to DRS. While Jackson had previously ranked as a decent outfielder and a third of a season of defensive statistics shouldn’t be overemphasized, Cabrera and Fielder have long been regarded as below-average defenders.

The often leaky defense didn’t stop the Tigers last season when they went on a run to the World Series with much of the same lineup, and it hasn’t prevented them from getting off to a good start in 2013. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement to assist a pitching staff that is getting little defensive support, and when we’re seeing an ERA-FIP gap that hasn’t been seen in more than seven decades, there’s definitely a reason to upgrade.

Martinez, 34, has a .225/.275/.307 line, making him the least productive designated hitter in baseball. If we remove the “DH” requirement, it somehow looks worse, since Martinez’s .255 wOBA puts him in the bottom 14 of all hitters, and when your DH is looking up at guys like Zack Cozart and Ben Revere, that’s not a great position to be in.

Martinez was expected to be a nice re-addition to the Tigers’ lineup after missing 2012 due to a knee injury, but instead he is on the verge of career worsts in both walk rate and strikeout rate. The hole he’s causing at designated hitter, giving negative value at the plate and none in the field, sets up the dominoes in such a way that one move could improve the Tigers at a few spots.

That move, of course, is to find a defensive improvement at third base, and that’s no slight intended to Cabrera. He deserves a good deal of credit for taking a position switch that seemed laughable at the time and actually making it work, all the while continuing his offensive dominance. “Being better than most thought” isn’t quite the same as being a plus at the position, however, and with Martinez contributing little, the Tigers could be better served by moving one of their two designated hitters in the infield corners (or both, in a 1B/DH time-share) off the field while keeping them each in the daily lineup.

The good news here is that the bar is relatively low for this, because anyone the Tigers might get wouldn’t have to be replacing the reigning AL MVP — though it might be portrayed by some that way. He would merely need to be better than Cabrera on defense and Martinez on offense, and to be even league average in those areas would greatly improve Detroit on both sides of the ball.

Possible solutions

So whom might the Tigers look at? Former third baseman of the future Nick Castellanos is playing outfield in Triple-A these days and still needs work at the plate, so any improvement here would likely come from outside the organization. GM Dave Dombrowski could go in one of two directions.

Detroit could look for a defensively gifted glove-first man at third, figuring that merely the offensive equivalent to Martinez would still be an improvement if it came with a big fielding upgrade over Cabrera. While the names in this group aren’t exactly going to sell tickets, the upshot is the cost of acquisition ought to be minimal. Dombrowski could look to Houston for Matt Dominguez, or to Los Angeles for Luis Cruz or Juan Uribe, or to Cincinnati for little-used Jack Hannahan. None is a plus at the plate — though Uribe has surprisingly turned himself into a walk machine this year — but they just need to approximate what Martinez has provided to be worthwhile, and each ranks as good-to-excellent with the glove.

Another option would be to target a glove-first shortstop, such as Brendan Ryan, and shift shortstop Jhonny Peralta to third, a position he has played in the past. Peralta is not known for his range at short, and you could potentially improve two spots with such a move.

Or, as seems to be more the team’s style, the Tigers could go big. They have made it to the World Series and lost it twice in the past seven years; it has now been nearly three decades since the 1984 team took home the title. As Cabrera and Verlander enter their 30s, Dombrowski could decide the time is right to make a big splash by trading a prospect package with names like Castellanos, outfielder Avisail Garcia and/or pitcher Drew Smyly for a more established third base name like Chase Headley or Kyle Seager.

As long as the Tigers’ rotation keeps up its excellent performance — as does the bullpen, which has combined for a 9.91 K/9, third-best in baseball — Detroit can get by despite a subpar defense. But it’s difficult to think that continuing to post an ERA-FIP gap larger than we’ve seen since before Jackie Robinson‘s time is acceptable, and as the trading season heats up, Dombrowski would do well to take advantage of an empty designated hitter spot to better support his otherwise outstanding pitching.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.
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3 years 3 months ago

You pose a very intriguing suggestion here. A simple, but equally effective solution would be that VMart returns to his career norms. The issue for the Tigers’ upper management is if they can realistically expect VMart to rebound or not. In either case, it would be prudent to use a defensive replacement for Cabrera when Porcello and Fister pitch.

3 years 3 months ago

Another reason to be highly skeptical of defensive metrics: any system that rates Austin Jackson as a negative defensive contributor is flawed and incorrect.