The Detroit Tigers made the fewest errors and had the highest fielding percentage of any team in the American League during the 2016 season. That’s the good news! The bad news is that counting errors and fielding percentage are among the most useless, outdated statistics still being used in the game of baseball. The ugly news? The Tigers ranked among the worst teams in baseball in most advanced defensive statistics.
Defensive metrics are often viewed with skepticism because they can be unreliable, and wide variations can be found in a player’s numbers from one season to the next. However, much of the inconsistency can be attributed to random variation in small samples, particularly with part-time players or partial season statistics. We don’t have that problem here, where we have nine positions on the field over a full season's game totals.
Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) is a defensive metric used by The Fielding Bible, which analyzes every play compiled by Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) and measures defensive runs above or below average, with average being zero. Players’ total defensive value is measured, including range, double play runs, arm value for outfielders, stolen base runs for pitchers and catchers, and more. This metric puts the Tigers at 56 runs below average for the season, which ranked 14th in the American League. The outfield alone was 50 runs saved below average.
Breaking down the components of DRS, the Tigers lost 51 runs due to rPM, which is mainly range and ability to turn plays into outs. They were 18 runs below average in outfield arm efficiency and nine runs above average in preventing stolen bases and turning double plays.
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is a more sophisticated metric that incorporates park factors, location and speed of a batted ball, fielder positioning, and adjustments for the number of base runners and outs. The Tigers ranked 12th in the American League in UZR at 21.9 runs below average. The outfielders were 37.4 runs below average, and the infielders were 15.6 runs above average. UZR shows that the Tigers got credit for a league leading +16.9 in error runs saved, +1.9 double play runs above average, -14.3 for arm runs, and -26.3 for range runs below average.
If you prefer a more bottom line approach to defensive metrics, Revised Zone Rating (RZR) measures "the proportion of balls hit into a fielder’s zone that he successfully converted into an out." The outer perimeter of a position's zone is where the average fielder at that position gets to the ball 50% of the time. RZR’s compliment is out of zone plays (OOZ), wich is the number of plays outside the fielder’s zone that are converted to outs.
The Tigers ranked fifth in the AL in RZR, so they were fairly efficient in making plays within their fielding zones. However, they ranked dead last in making out of zone plays. All three of these defensive metrics strongly indicate that the 2016 Tigers were efficient when they can get to the ball, but their range overall was very poor as a team.
One more metric is defensive efficiency rating (DER), which measures the percentage of all balls put into play that are converted to outs. The Tigers ranked seventh in the league, just a bit above league average. RZR and DER do not adjust for the difficulty of the play or other factors.
Now let’s break down the Tigers’ defensive ranking according to position.
These numbers show that Tigers performed well defensively at catcher, second base, and shortstop. Miguel Cabrera's numbers look better using UZR, but are terrible in the more range-dependent metrics. Kinsler was the best second baseman in the league inside the zone, but unspectacular chasing down plays out of his zone. The outfield was putrid across the board. The metrics here support what we see above. The Tigers are slow in the field just as they're slow on the bases. Worse yet, having J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos, and Cameron Maybin potentially healthy for a full season in 2017 isn't going to improve much.
There is one bright spot which deserves our attention. Tigers catchers allowed the fewest number of wild pitches and the second fewest passed balls in the league, and had the fourth-best caught stealing percentage. James McCann nailed 45 percent of runners attempting to steal and led the league with nine double plays turned.