Stop me if you've heard this one before: the Detroit Tigers were one of the worst defensive clubs in baseball last season. Their -48 UZR was the third-worst total in Major League Baseball, ahead of only the Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros. If UZR's run values are to be trusted, the Tigers' poor defense cost them nearly five (!) games last year. That would have turned a stressful final week of the regular season into a walk in the park, and may have altered how the Tigers' rotation lined up for the ALDS.
But 2014 is now in the past. Now, our focus is on 2015, where the Tigers' defense looks to be much better. How much better? That part is tough to say. They have a big hole to climb out of, and my rough attempt at projecting an improvement was laughed off by just about everyone with an SB Nation account. Jerks.
Earlier today, Jeff Sullivan created a sortable table of Fangraphs' 2015 defensive projections for all 30 MLB teams. I was dismayed to once again find the Tigers near the bottom of the pile. Their projected -9 UZR is the eighth-worst total in baseball. If UZR's run values are to be trusted, their defense is projected to cost them a win in 2015.
As you may have noticed, that -9 UZR is way better than the -48 mark they had in 2014. The Tigers are projected to be the sixth-most improved team defense in baseball, and fourth-most in the American League.
The 39 run difference Fangraphs projects is a fair bit lower than the +55 runs I estimated a few weeks ago, but there are a couple reasons. First, Jose Iglesias and Anthony Gose are projected by Fangraphs to be a combined 2.4 runs above average. I pegged them at a full win (10 runs) each, or better. Second, I based my numbers off of defensive runs saved (DRS), not UZR. Finally, projection systems are meant to be conservative. Sullivan on that topic:
The range of the projected defensive ratings, from the highest to the lowest, is 70 runs. A year ago, the actual range, as measured by UZR, was 134 runs, so maybe this seems unrealistic. But, you know how projections work. They regress numbers to the mean, and then in reality we just get a sample size of 1 season so numbers fluctuate and sometimes stray toward extremes.
It's still tough to project where exactly in this range the Tigers will fall, but when a conservative projection system is estimating a four win improvement, you can bet on a pretty substantial bump in production. This doesn't mean they will be elite -- remember, they were really bad in 2014 -- but even a league average unit would be a massive upgrade over last season's team.
Now if we could only be that optimistic about the bullpen...