Atrocious. Bad. Clumsy. Frustrating. When grading the Detroit Tigers’ defense for the 2014 season, many adjectives come to mind, none of them very flattering. We could go all cliche and say "there’s no D in Detroit", but that would be too corny, though not inaccurate.
Suffice it to say that the Tigers’ performance defensively left a lot to be desired. They were 42.2 runs below average according to Fangraphs defensive totals, 48.1 runs below average according to UZR, and 65 runs below average according to Bill James’s defensive runs saved (DRS). They were 13th in the American League in defensive efficiency rating.
The plan going into the season was to replace the offense lost by the departure of Jhonny Peralta and Prince Fielder with better defense and more efficient base-running. In short, that didn’t happen. Once the team lost Jose Iglesias and Andy Dirks for the season, that plan was dead.
The Tigers were worse at some positions than others, but the numbers show that the Tigers were very poor defensively all around the field. Following is the position-by-position defensive ranking chart for AL teams in 2014.
|Position||DRS||DRS rank||UZR||UZR rank|
* UZR does not rate pitchers or catchers. Fangraphs provides a defensive ranking for catchers.
**Infield includes 1B, 2B, 3B, and SS combined. This is not on Fangraphs.
Take your pick of the defensive metrics. There are only two positions where the Tigers were above average defensively. Ian Kinsler rated as the league’s best second baseman and Alex Avila held his own behind the plate. Otherwise, 'D' is for dumpster fire. The Tigers were particularly bad in right field where Torii Hunter was the second worst outfielder in the league, and at third base where rookie Nick Castellanos was dead last defensively.
What impact did their defense have on the team? Over a 162 game schedule, 65 runs averages out to 0.40 runs per game. That also shows up in the team’s earned run average, where there is a difference of 0.41 between their team ERA of 4.01 and their fielding independent pitching (FIP) average of 3.60.
Now contrast that with their primary division rivals, the Kansas City Royals, who had a DRS of plus 40 runs, for a net difference of 105 runs for the season. The Royals have a team ERA that is better than their FIP by 0.18 runs per nine innings.
The difference between the two teams really stands out when you look at their outfield defense. Kansas City has a plus 49 DRS, while Detroit has a negative 33. The net difference is 82 runs, or a half-run per game, just due to outfield defense. UZR shows an even greater difference of 94.8 runs for the season. This is significant. The Royals’ infield defense is nothing special.
Of particular interest is the fact that both UZR and DRS rank the Tigers, White Sox, Twins, and Indians as the four worst defensive teams in the American League, while the Royals rank second overall, behind the Baltimore Orioles.
On the bright side, Kinsler was the best defensive second baseman in the AL. Alex Avila led the league with 36 runners caught stealing, and ranked second to Brian McCann throwing out 33.6 percent of base runners, and second to Salvador Perez in defensive WAR among catchers. Bryan Holaday wasn't bad either, nailing 14 runners in 47 attempts, just under 30 percent.
In the case of Castellanos at third base, his range was more detrimental than his arm. The Tigers' rookie made just five throwing errors all season, but another 10 fielding errors. His revised zone rating (RZR) -- the percentage of balls hit into the player’s zone that were turned into outs -- was by far the worst in the league at just .587 while the league median is .700. Miguel Cabrera hobbled to a .656 RZR in 2013.
Castellanos cost the team between 18 and 30 runs defensively, depending on which statistic you trust. He should be able to cut down on the fielding misplays with more time at the position, but increasing his range going forward is problematic. His defense will have to improve significantly if he is going to stick at the hot corner.
The team did not see a drop off in center field defensively after the trade of Austin Jackson in the David Price trade. Jackson had a rough first-half of the season defensively, while Rajai Davis was close to league average after taking over for the last two months of the season. Ezequiel Carrera rated slightly below average, although we all know that there were a few key mistakes on his scorecard.
The good news is that the Tigers expect to get Iglesias and Dirks back for the 2015 season. Those are two premium fielders at their respective positions. They should be able to upgrade at least one outfield position by replacing Hunter in right field.
What grade do we give the Tigers' defense for 2014? There's the D in Detroit.