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The Tigers' defense has gotten even worse in 2016

Advanced defensive metrics think the Tigers have taken a step backward compared to 2015.

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Though the Detroit Tigers won four consecutive division titles from 2011 to 2014, the national perception was that the team contained many flaws. The bullpen garnered much attention along with subpar base running, and the Tigers' defense was also a sizable liability. Though the roster has experienced many changes over the past five seasons, this weakness still remains.

Defense has never been the primary focus for the Tigers when acquiring new players, but it certainly has been at least a factor in recent moves. Additions like Jose Iglesias, Yoenis Cespedes, and Ian Kinsler represented key defensive upgrades, and moving Miguel Cabrera back to first base followed this same vein. But despite these changes across the diamond, the Tigers have still been average at best defensively.

Of course, defining defensive success has been a topic heavily up for debate. The two metrics I choose to use are Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Neither statistic is perfect, and occasionally their results conflict with one another, but both do a good job at quantifying defensive value more effectively than more traditional fielding measures.

Season UZR Rank DRS Rank
2011 -4.8 14th 10 11th
2012 -22.9 25th -30 23rd
2013 -12.9 20th -66 27th
2014 -48.1 28th -61 28th
2015 12.5 10th 17 6th
2016 -19 28th -34 27th

When considering these two metrics over the last six seasons, the Tigers do not look too strong. From 2011 to 2015, Detroit ranked 24th in UZR and 26th in DRS, and the Tigers are continuing this trend in 2016 (28th in UZR and 27th in DRS). While 2015 was impressive by both statistics, that progress seems to have completely disappeared.

Clearly something changed for the worst, as the Tigers have essentially regressed to their bottom of the league numbers. The following chart is a little number-heavy but does a good job in showing the change in percentile ranking (note: higher is better) for each of the eight positions from 2015 to 2016 for both UZR and DRS.

Position UZR %ile Change DRS %ile Change
C N/A N/A 87.7 +37.0
1B 76.7 +44.4 36.7 -34.3
2B 55.6 -32.7 81.5 -15.6
SS 86.2 +19.5 75.9 +30.4
3B 0.0 -6.5 3.7 -9.2
LF 20.0 -75.0 60.0 -30.0
CF 22.9 +19.6 31.4 +18.5
RF 26.7 -56.7 0.0 -60.0

Catcher: Valuing defense for catchers is a tricky task, and UZR does not even offer a value for the position. While James McCann currently sits third in the majors in DRS, questions about his pitch framing still remain. However, his 56 percent caught stealing percentage is no fluke, and he ranks second among catchers in the category.

First base: Cabrera is the only starter for the Tigers who has his UZR and DRS rankings trending in opposite directions. By UZR he has jumped into the top ten at the position after an essentially neutral figure in 2015, while his DRS has fallen below zero. In reality, Cabrera is probably somewhere just north of average, as his defense is often undervalued.

Second base: By both UZR and DRS, Kinsler was one of the best fielders in 2015. It is not surprising that he has started this season a little off his pace from last season, but his current 0 UZR seems to be a little harsh. Either way, Kinsler is still a top ten second baseman and one of the few defensive stars on the team.

Shortstop: Iglesias is always included in the conversation of where advanced defensive metrics fail. His highlight reel can play for hours, but he has typically fallen in the middle at his position statistically despite his raw athletic abilities. However, 2016 seems to be a new era for the defensive wizard, as he ranks fourth in UZR and seventh in DRS, making him the one of the highest graded Tigers relative to his position this season.

Third base: In 2015 Nick Castellanos was among the five worst third basemen defensively, and this number has become even worse in 2016. While it seemed like he might have made some slight improvements, he still has a ways to go to become even an average infielder.

Left field: Perhaps the biggest cause for the Tigers’ slide in defensive metrics comes from the loss of Cespedes. Between his time in Detroit and New York last season, Cespedes ranked first in UZR and second in DRS among all left fielders. Justin Upton as been an adequate defender in 2016, but he will never come even close to the numbers put up by Cespedes during his brief tenure as a Tiger.

Center field: Swapping Anthony Gose for Cameron Maybin was not only beneficial at the plate but also in the outfield. While Maybin has been below average in both defensive metrics, he is on track to do much better than Gose’s near league-worst numbers in center field last season.

Right field: The most disappointing of all of the defensive numbers have to be those of J.D. Martinez. A revelation in 2015, Martinez ended way above average statistically, including the fifth best UZR among right fielders. He has absolutely plummeted in 2016 and owns the worst DRS figure at the position.

It becomes easy to see why the Tigers’ UZR and DRS have fallen. While improvements by McCann and Iglesias are certainly helpful and Maybin represents an upgrade in center, drop-offs from Kinsler and J.D. Martinez are much more impactful, and the departure of Cespedes is too hard to overcome. Advanced defensive metrics have their flaws, but it is hard to argue with their assessment of the Tigers in 2016.