The Detroit Tigers came into 2016 with an infield mostly set in stone. Instead of well-polished marble, it was more sandstone, with many question marks around the horn. Miguel Cabrera was coming of back-to-back injury-plagued seasons which robbed him of the gaudy MVP numbers he put up several years ago. Ian Kinsler was turning 34 and many were starting to wonder just how much longer he could remain an upper-tier starter.
Those questions were small potatoes compared to the other side of the infield. Jose Iglesias basically had one full season under him after losing all of 2014 to stress fractures in both shins. Naturally, questions remained if he could stay healthy over the grind of a 162-game season. Nick Castellanos was starting to draw the ire of fans who were growing restless of waiting for the highly touted prospect to live up to the hype as a well rounded hitter. His porous defense didn't help either.
By the end of the year fans should be very pleased with what turned out to be one of the better infields in the AL.
Miguel Cabrera started out slow in April before exploding in May. He cooled again from late May through the All-Star break, but he rediscovered his past MVP form from July 20 onward, hitting .358/.434/.663 with 20 home runs. Though he struggled at times defensively, Cabrera's bat compared well to other MLB first basemen. He totaled 38 home runs, 108 RBI, and 188 hits on the season, including the 2500th hit of his illustrious career, the youngest player to do so since some guy named Henry Aaron. Cabrera effectively silenced all the doubters and re-established himself as one of, if not the premier hitter in the game.
Defensively, Cabrera ranked near the bottom among first basemen in most defensive categories. Ultimate zone rating (UZR) was the lone exception. Here ranked Cabrera fourth-best among MLB first basemen, though this is likely because he rates highly in double plays and fewest errors committed. When range is taken into account, Cabrera rates worst in the league. This fits the Tigers' defense as a whole; they make plays on the balls they get to, but just plain don’t get to many.
Ian Kinsler changed his hitting approach when he was traded to Detroit, but it had been a battle of patience waiting for the results going into 2016. This year, he reaped the rewards of his hard offseason work. With fear revolving around a decline in exit velocity in 2015, he set the tone for his season early, logging the Tigers' first home run in 2016 on Opening Day. He never looked back, and smacked 28 home runs, his highest total since 2011 and the third-highest of his 11-year career. He also finished fourth in the American League in runs scored. What’s more impressive is that he accomplished these feats while seeing a career high in strikeouts.
On the defensive side of the ball, Kinsler put up Gold Glove numbers, ranking first among AL second basemen in defensive runs saved (DRS) and third in UZR. All together, Kinsler put up 6.1 WAR this season, which was quite the value for his $14 million salary.
And come on, how can you not love a guy who got his finger busted open on a comeback liner and nonchalantly rubbed some dirt on it to finish out the game?
Ian Kinsler's bloody hand may be my new favorite part of the Tigers season. pic.twitter.com/QH2MzoqrL6— Jordan Strack (@JordanStrack) September 4, 2016
Fresh off his first full(ish) season after suffering double stress fractures in his shins, Jose Iglesias was expected to provide gold glove defense while hitting around 300 and being a sneaky on-base machine at the bottom of the order.
While he was able to log a full season in the field and provide even better defense than last year, he took a step back at the plate (though that may be due to some bad luck). Iglesias continued to show his great contact ability, leading the AL among qualified batters in both strikeout rate (9.7%) and swinging strike percentage (3.9%). Despite his ability to put the ball in play, his high BABIP came crashing down to earth in 2016. His BABIP fell from .330 in 2015 to .276 in 2016, resulting in a mediocre .251 batting average and .306 on-base percentage. This drop-off may have been partially due to some bad luck, as he maintained a similar batted ball profile as last season. In fact, his hard-hit rate actually increased slightly from last season. The biggest change in his batted ball profile was an increase in fly balls, which is not a good thing for a low-power slap hitter like Iglesias.
The defensive side of the ball was a different story, though. Nearly every defensive metric rated Iglesias better than last year. His UZR and DRS both increased, as did his out rate on balls in his range. He may have been a leading candidate for a Gold Glove if it weren’t for Andrelton Simmons and Francisco Lindor. Still, when paired with Kinsler up the middle, the Tigers have one of the best defensive double play combos in the league.
Nick Castellanos came in to 2016 with the lowest expectations of anyone in the infield. With two subpar years in the big leagues on his resume, fans were starting to wonder about how long the Tigers would stick with the former top prospect. Castellanos silenced the critics nearly right out of the gate with a strong April. He managed a scalding .939 OPS that month and followed it up with an .896 OPS in May. Castellanos cooled off a bit in June and July, but still fared well with a .770 and .776 OPS in those months, respectively.
Disaster struck a few days into August when Castellanos took a Logan Verrett fastball off his right hand. He went on the disabled list with a hand fracture that sidelined him for eight weeks. Castellanos was able to return in the very last week of the season, but he wasn’t much help by that point.
For the season, the Tigers ranked surprisingly low in terms of production at third base. However, if you isolate Castellanos’ numbers and compare them to the rest of the teams in the AL, he would have ranked fourth among third basemen in nearly all offensive categories. This speaks to just how much of a black hole players like Mike Aviles and Casey McGehee were when Castellanos was out of the lineup.
All in all, Castellanos ended up with a final line that indicate he was finally living up to the potential scouts raved at years ago. But there are some yellow flags. His BABIP was .345 over his shortened season, well above the league average. He also managed an above-average BABIP in his two previous seasons (around .320), so perhaps he is able to sustain this level of production. Also, there wasn’t much of a change in his plate discipline numbers over his norms of the past two years. There will still be some doubt surrounding his bat going into next year, but much less than he entered the season with.
Castellanos will also have to maintain his increased offensive production because he still graded out as a bottom-tier defensive third baseman. I don't know if we can expect much improvement from him in this area. He probably is who he is with the glove at this point.
Positional offense rankings
|POS||OBP (AL Rank)||OPS (AL Rank)||ISO (AL Rank)||wRC+ (AL Rank)||WAR (AL Rank)|
|1B||.394 (1st)||.958 (1st)||.248 (1st)||153 (1st)||4.9 (1st)|
|2B||.347 (4th)||.825 (4th)||.193 (4th)||122 (4th)||6.0 (3rd)|
|SS||.311 (6th)||.645 (13th)||.083 (14th)||75 (13th)||2.4 (9th)|
|3B||.314 (12th)||.721 (12th)||.145 (10th)||92 (12th)||2.0 (12th)|
|NC||.311 (4th)||.827 (4th)||.212 (4th)||119 (4th)||1.9 (12th)|
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to get excited about on the bench. Andrew Romine served as the main infield backup. He performed admirably in that role, but that’s about the limit of his ability. He could only muster a .626 OP, which is fine for a defensive replacement, but to expect anything more is pushing it. The other person who received more opportunities than he should have due to injuries was Mike Aviles. He quickly became the fan’s official whipping boy for the year, managing an appalling .528 OPS into August before he was (mercifully) traded to Atlanta for Erik Aybar.
Aybar had a more respectable .691 OPS down the stretch for the Tigers as he filled in during injuries to Iglesias and Castellanos. The last player worth mentioning is Casey McGehee, whom the Tigers signed to a minor league deal in the winter for depth at Triple-A. Despite putting up very good numbers all year in the minors, McGehee never got it going in Detroit. He would spend nearly a month up with the Tigers before being sent down prior to September roster expansions for prospect JaCoby Jones.
Positional defense rankings
|POS||UZR (Rank)||DRS (Rank)||RZR (Rank)||OOZ (Rank)|
|1B||-10 (5th)||2.6 (15th)||0.733 (13th)||12 (14th)|
|2B||9.8 (3rd)||14 (1st)||0.831 (1st)||56 (15th)|
|SS||12.2 (3rd)||3 (6th)||0.818 (2nd)||91 (11th)|
|3B||-9.6 (14th)||-14 (14th)||0.654 (14th)||47 (12th)|
In summary, the Tigers received a great year out of the infield group. Cabrera and Kinsler both silenced most of the preseason concerns about their production with age. Castellanos finally gave us a look at the above average hit tool he posessed, and Iglesias put another year between him and his stress fractures. While they were not the best in baseball, the Tigers' infield still ranks as one of the best in the AL. It should be a source of strength for the Tigers as they go into 2017.